The verdict of the Madras High Court on Tuesday upholding the closure of Sterlite Copper brings relief to the residents of Thoothukudi district and activists who have been fighting against the plant for over two decades. The High Court, in its 815-page verdict, has held the plant accountable for flouting environmental laws repeatedly. At the same time, the Bench of Justices TS Sivagnanam and V Bhavani Subbaroyan flayed the state government and its pollution regulator, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), for lack of oversight.
In the weeks and months following the horrific police shootings of 13 civilians during the May 2018 anti-Sterlite protests, the company had questioned a report from 2008 which surveyed the health of residents in villages around the plant. The health report was key among the evidence cited by activists for Vedantaâs disregard for environmental norms in the coastal district.
Titled âHealth Status and Epidemiological Study Around 5 km Radius of Sterlite Industries (India) Limited, Thoothukudiâ, a study was carried out by the Tirunelveli Medical College examining a population of 80,725 people around Sterlite and comparing it to areas without major industries in the district.
The report showed increasing numbers of brain tumours among men and menstrual disorders among women in addition to respiratory diseases, ENT (ear, nose, throat) disorders, myalgia, etc. It found that the iron content groundwater in Kumareddiyapuram and Therkuveerapandiapuram were 17 and 20 times higher than permissible levels prescribed by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) for drinking water and two out of seven groundwater samples had higher levels of fluoride than permissible levels.
On Tuesday, the Madras High Court junked Sterliteâs argument that the report, as a whole, does not show any health issues due to the operation of its unit. Sterlite had not raised concerns prior to this on the health report, the court found.
The court said, âIn our considered view, the study conducted by the Department of Community Medicine, Tirunelveli Medical College cannot be discredited or outrightly discarded. No material has been placed before us to show that [Sterlite] has disputed the report at an earlier point of time and when this has been pointed out before this Court, it is [Sterliteâs] case that the report as a whole does not indicate any health concern due to the operation of the petitioner's unit".
The company had been giving Community Health Monitoring Reports to the TNPCB once in six months since 2011. The last such report was submitted by the plant in February 2018, with no major health effects identified or attributed to the copper major.
The court however said that no material was placed before to show how the health monitoring reports submitted once in six months by the company were processed.
âWhether the TNPCB has a team of medical experts or it referred to the District Medical Hospital etc. Thus, we would be well justified in considering that the periodical reports said to have been submitted by the petitioner once in six months are merely âfiledâ.â stated the court.
Pulling up the state government, the court said, âThe duty to provide a clean and health living atmosphere is the duty of the State, doctrine of public trust cast a duty on the State. Nevertheless, if operation of the industry causes certain health concerns, it is a matter, which should have been taken with utmost seriousness by the appropriate authorities.â
âWhen two sets of data are pitted against each other, that is, data collected by a Government Medical College and data submitted by the petitioner (Sterlite), the authorities should have made an endeavour to assess the health condition of the people of the locality. [Sterlite] being, a red category industry, highly polluting industry, had no fundamental right to carry on its business, but for the consent/permission granted by the MoEF and the TNPCB. Therefore, the burden is on the petitioner to prove that their operations are benign.â the court said.
Sterlite had argued that the plant has been operating from 1997 with over 4,000 employees, including women technicians and engineers, and that they would have been impacted by the same health issues cited in the governmentâs health report.
The court held that no data is available to substantiate Sterliteâs claims.
âTherefore, we conclude that the health concern of the people in and around the petitioner's factory has not been properly monitored.â the court noted.
âIt may be true that one in six months, the company submits their periodical health reports, but submission of such reports to the authorities is not sufficient, but what is required is cross verification, which appears to have not been done. Thus, a deeper probe into this issue is required and as to what extent, the operation of the petitioner's unit has impacted on the health of the general public in the area in question.â the Bench said.