The Union government has informed the Supreme Court that permission can be given to Vedanta to reopen its Sterlite copper plant in Tamil Naduâ€™s Thoothukudi, in order to supply medical oxygen during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the government, told the apex court that given the rising need for oxygen in the country, the Sterlite copper unit can be allowed to function to meet this demand. "Let Vedanta make it operational only to manufacture oxygen for health purposes," the SG said, reports Live Law.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court on Thursday heard a suo motu case on COVID-19 management in the country and appointed senior lawyer Harish Salve as amicus curiae to assist the court.
Salve is also representing Vedanta in their plea to re-start operations to supply oxygen. Salve told the court that Vedanta should be allowed to re-open. Salve has in the past as well represented Vedanta in court.
The Tamil Nadu government meanwhile told the court that they had heard of this application only now and needed a dayâ€™s time to respond. The next hearing in this regard is slated for Friday.
Salveâ€™s involvement is being regarded as a conflict of interest by a section of legal experts.
On Wednesday, the Vedanta group offered to supply oxygen from its closed Sterlite Copper plant in Tamil Nadu, in the wake of reports of oxygen shortage in the country. The company wrote letters to Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami and the Tamil Nadu Chief Secretary. According to Vedanta, the copper smelting unit contains two oxygen plants, which can produce 1,050 tonnes of oxygen daily.
Sterlite Copper CEO Pankaj Kumar said in his letter to the Union and state government that they would like to use these facilities to prevent shortage of oxygen in the country. The company also approached the Supreme Court with the offer of support.
â€śWe would be grateful to be allowed this opportunity to support the nationâ€™s needs. Our staff stand prepared to get these two plants operational in the shortest possible time and begin dispatching oxygen to critical areas as per your direction,â€ť the letter said.
The Sterlite copper plant was shut down by the state government in May 2018 after a sustained protest from activists and residents from villages around the plant, which had culminated in the police opening fire on protesters. The incident left 13 people dead with bullets to their head, chest and back, and had evoked protests and condemnations from across Tamil Nadu and India.
Following this, the Vedanta group had approached multiple courts against the Tamil Nadu governmentâ€™s order but to no avail. Residents and environmental activists had long demanded the shutdown of the copper smelter, which had an annual production of more than 400,000 tonnes. They had alleged that the plant was causing severe air and water pollution and was violating rules set by the Pollution Control Board.