The Supreme Court today allowed Vedanta to reopen its plant in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu for the purpose of producing oxygen amid the shortage faced by hospitals across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Bench of Justices DY Chandrachud, L Nageswara Rao and Ravindra Bhat clarified that Vedanta shall not be allowed to enter and operate the copper smelting plant under the garb of this order.
The Court directed the State government to form a committee of the following persons to oversee the functioning of the plant:
- a) District Collector, Tuticorin
- b) SP, Tuticorin
- c) District Environmental Engineer
- d) Sub-Collector Tuticorin
- e) Two government officials with knowledge of affairs
The committee formed can consult with the local community members to assuage any genuine concern, the Court ordered.
Vedanta has been directed to submit a list of technical and non-technical staff who are absolutely essential to run the plant to the committee.
The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) was directed to form a three-member panel of environmental experts from Tamil Nadu. The victims of the Vedanta crisis can choose two out of them to be in the committee. If the victims fail to nominate such members within 48 hours, the State should nominate the members, the Court said.
The Court’s order will operate till July 31, 2021, at which point it will assess the ground situation of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today, Senior Advocate CS Vaidyanathan informed the Court that the Tamil Nadu government held a meeting with all political parties and agreed to re-open the plant in national interest.
“Vedanta will be allowed only to reopen the oxygen plant. It cannot start is copper smelting operations. The operation will be under monitoring of a government committee,” he stated.
Justice Chandrachud then said,
“Management and running of the plant has to be by Vaidyanathan. It has to be an oversight committee…it’s a national crisis and State can’t look at it in silos. Once oxygen is manufactured, don’t stop supply to other states.”
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta then submitted,
“My request is simple. I am not concerned with dispute between State and Vedanta. There is a facility available and the facility is unutilised. Whatever oxygen is manufactured should be for health purposes and be given to Centre and allocated to every state too.”
Gonsalves then told the Court that he is not opposed to reopening of the plant for production of oxygen. However, he mentioned that the history of litigation shows that Vedanta is a chronic defaulter.
In response, Justice Chandrachud said,
“We are not hearing the appeal against the Madras High Court order. We are only dealing with restarting the oxygen plant. Just tell us the safeguards.”
The Court then stated that it would ask the MoEFCC to nominate a member to the committee formed by the Tamil Nadu government.
Stating that it was alive to the concerns of the local community as regards the re-opening of the plant, the Court said,
“We are in a national crisis today where people are dying due to the lack of oxygen.”
When Vaidyanathan took exception to SG Mehta supporting Vedanta on behalf of the Central government, Justice Chandrachud said,
“There cannot be political bickering in this Court. We are in a national crisis, we have to support nation as a court. it’s a national calamity.”
During the hearing, counsel appearing for the Tamil Nadu government expressed the need for members of the local community to be included in the committee that will oversee the functioning of the oxygen producing plant.
Offering a solution to this, the Court said that it would ask National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) to nominate three experts from Tamil Nadu. Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves, appearing for the local community that conducted protests at the Sterlite plant, can choose two members, the Court said.
Concluding the hearing, the Court said,
“Nation stands together in this moment. At present, Tamil Nadu’s oxygen demands are met. In case of any future need, they can approach us for changes.”
The Tamil Nadu government informed the Supreme Court on Monday that it has decided to allow Vedanta to temporarily reopen its oxygen plant at Thoothukudi for four months in view of the shortage of oxygen in the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was made clear that the running and operation of the plant will be strictly monitored by a committee constituted by the State.
In its affidavit, the State government said that the Monitoring Committee will comprise the following persons:
- The Collector, Tuticorin, as Chairman,
- Superintendent of Police, Tuticorin,
- Sub Collector, Tuticorin,
- The District Environmental Engineer, TNPCB,
- Two government officers with technical knowledge of oxygen plants,
- Three local community/environmental/NGO representatives/anti-plant activists.
On the last date of hearing, the Court took exception to the State of Tamil Nadu’s stance that Vedanta’s Sterlite plant cannot be reopened due to potential law and order problems it could create.
A Bench headed by former Chief Justice of India SA Bobde said that if Vedanta cannot be allowed to run the plant, then the Tamil Nadu government should take over the same to enable oxygen production during the COVID-19 crisis.
On April 22, Senior Advocate Harish Salve had mentioned the matter on behalf of Vedanta, seeking urgent listing of the case. He stated that if the plant is opened, Vedanta could supply oxygen which could benefit COVID-19 patients.
The Central government had supported the move while the Tamil Nadu government opposed it.
Vedanta’s Sterlite copper plant in Thoothukudi was shut down by the Tamil Nadu State Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) last year, citing violations of environmental laws. The closure order was passed immediately after the plant had turned into a protest site, with citizens opposing the expansion of the plant. The order was supported by the State government, which endorsed the same within a week.
The protest took a violent turn on its hundredth day when police opened fire on the protesters, leading to several civilian casualties.
After the Madras High Court refused to allow the re-opening of the plant, Vedanta approached the Supreme Court seeking interim relief. However, in December 2020, the apex court refused to allow the immediate reopening of the copper plant at Thoothukudi.