Two years after the Tamil Nadu Government sealed Vedanta’s Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi, days after 13 persons, protesting against the “polluting industry” were killed in police firing, the Madras High Court on Tuesday rejected the company’s plea to reopen the premises.
“While on this issue, we need to emphasise that the citizen has a fundamental right to have clean and healthy environment and the doctrine of waiver can have no application in this regard,” a bench of Justices T.S. Sivagnanam and V. Bhavani Subbaroyan held.
The bench dismissed all 10 writ petitions filed by Vedanta challenging multiple orders passed by the State Government and Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) refusing consent to operate, stop production, disconnect electricity and de-seal the premises.
In an 815-page judgment, the court noted that opposition to the plant has been there ever since it was allowed to establish a copper smelter unit in 1996, i.e. much before it had started commercial production.
“Therefore, we cannot accept the stand taken by the petitioner (Vedanta) that the impugned orders are knee-jerk reactions, especially the order of closure. The public cannot be shut out, Amendment Act 47 of 1981 has emphasised the role of the public and recognised public participation,” the judges said.
“We have also noted that for a substantial period of time, the petitioner had been operating without a valid consent and on the strength of the stay orders granted by the Court/Tribunal,” it added.
The court declined a request from the company’s counsel to order status quo for three or at least two week to appeal in the Supreme Court.
The Sterlite Copper plant was engaged in the manufacture of copper cathode, copper rods, sulphuric acid, phosphoric acid and other by-products in the process of smelting copper concentrate. The copper rod plant and the captive power plant are situated within the copper smelter complex of the main unit.
Elaborately recalling the history of the protest and multiple ligations at various forums including the Supreme Court, the judges said, “Therefore, we hold that the orders rejecting the application for grant of consent, directing closure, permanent sealing of the petitioner industry cannot be treated as knee-jerk reaction pursuant to the unfortunate shooting incident, but it is a culmination of various issues solely attributable to the petitioner.”
The State has taken a stand that the country can import copper from outside and is not reliant on the petitioner and therefore, the plant can be shut.
“From the above submissions on either side, what emerges is that the State and the TNPCB have taken a categorical stand that all is not well with the petitioner Unit…The inadequacies which were observed by the Committee had made them to render finding that since the wastes were not properly managed, they have resulted in adverse impact on the environment including the health of the people,” the judges recalled.
“In our view, the proper reading of the  judgment of the Hon’ble Supreme Court is to hold that the regulator has power to take action including ordering closure,” the judges said adding that the petitioner “was not exonerated” by the Apex Court.
Sterlite Copper CEO Pankaj Kumar, in a statement expressed shock over the verdict. “The verdict comes as an utter shock to the employees of Sterlite Copper and the thousands of small businesses, entrepreneurs and community members dependent on our continued operations,” he said.
“It is also disheartening to note that at a time when our nation is forced to depend on hostile neighbours for copper imports, certain forces are conspiring to stifle our nation’s ability to be an independent copper manufacturer,'' he said.