The copper smelter in Thoothukudi was shut down for violating environmental norms, days after 13 civilians were shot dead during protests against the plant.

A long angle shot of Sterlite factory in Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu
news Sterlite Case Tuesday, August 18, 2020 - 10:44

In a big victory for Tamil Nadu government and people who protested against the Sterlite factory, the Madras High Court on Tuesday upheld the state government’s decision to shut down Sterlite Copper, a unit of Vedanta Limited in Thoothukudi. The court dismissed the company’s plea to resume operations, over two years after it was shut down by the state government for violating environmental norms. The plant, which has been pulled up for air and water pollution by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), was ordered shut on May 24, 2018, two days after 13 civilians were shot dead by the police during protests against the plant. 

A Bench of Justices TS Sivagnanam and V Bhavani Subbaroyan ordered that the plant cannot be allowed to reopen, and dismissed all petitions by Vedanta. The closure order will continue to stand. The company had been shut for violating environmental norms. Justice Sivagangam observed that the order would have been out in March itself but for the pandemic. Whatever the current status quo is, will obviously prevail, the judge added.

The court’s decision has significant ramifications for the state. In 2018, residents from villages around Sterlite, along with social and environmental activists, had staged sustained protests against the c opper plant which has been slammed over pollution allegations since the 1990s when it was set up in the coastal district. The Supreme Court had fined the plant Rs 100 crores for environmental damages in 2013.

Read: What was done with the Rs 100 crore fine Vedanta paid for Sterlite violations? Not much, finds RTI query

On May 22, the 100th day of the agitations, as residents and activists marched in defiance of prohibitory orders to protest the proposed expansion of the plant, the police opened fire. Twelve people, including a 17-year-old school student, were shot dead by the district police, with bullets to the head, chest or the back.

Read: She wanted to be a lawyer, her dreams lie in a box: Thoothukudi teen victim’s kin

On May 23, a 22-year-old man was shot dead by the police during protests condemning police action the previous day. Protesters attacked the district collector’s office and torched a police van. Two probes on the shootings are still underway — one by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and another by a Tamil Nadu government-appointed commission led by retired Madras High Court judge Aruna Jagadeesan. 

On May 24, faced with massive backlash from the public, the state government ordered the closure of the copper smelter. The TNPCB, which has received flak from environmental activists as well as citizens’ groups for alleged inaction against Sterlite, cut off power supply to the plant. The government found that the plant was carrying out activities to resume production operations even as it had not complied with conditions imposed in its previous ‘renewal of consent’ order.

Citing Section 33A of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act and Section 31A of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, the Tamil Nadu shut the plant down and barred operations on April 9, 2018. 

Read: Sterlite shut down: TNPCB orders closure of Thoothukudi plant amidst simmering tension

In June 2018, the company approached the National Green Tribunal, challenging the closure orders as well as the state government’s rejection of its Consent to Operate application. It argued that the state government’s response was disproportionate. 

In August 2018, the NGT formed an independent committee, comprising former Meghalaya High Court Chief Justice Tarun Agarwal, and scientists Satish C Garkoti and HD Varalaxmi, to probe the issue. The committee held public consultations in October attended by activists as well as political leaders, including MDMK chief Vaiko who argued that the plant had been flouting environmental laws since its inception. 

In December 2018, however, the committee found the closure of the plant ‘unjustifiable’ and ‘non-sustainable’ and dismissed the state government’s closure orders. The Tamil Nadu government appealed the NGT’s decision in the Supreme Court shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court ordered status quo to be maintained on the closure of the plant following a petition from activist Fathima Babu of the Anti-Sterlite People's Movement.

Read: Setback for TN govt, NGT report terms closure of Sterlite plant ‘not sustainable’

In February 2019, the apex court set aside the NGT’s order to reopen the plant, ruling that the environmental court lacked the jurisdiction to do so. Supreme Court Justices RF Nariman and Vineet Saran directed the plant to approach the Madras High Court for interim relief, which Sterlite did in June 2019. 

At the High Court, UK-based conglomerate Vedanta had argued since August 2019 that the state government’s move to shut down Sterlite was aimed at ‘appeasing’ a section of the public. 

The court had reserved judgment on Vedanta’s plea in January this year.

Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.