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Reopening of Vedanta’s Sterlite Plant in TN’s Thoothukudi refused by Madras HC

The 815-pages long judgment was prepared amidst the pandemic, said the judges, and refused to order status quo until Vedanta went on to appeal to the Supreme Court.

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On Tuesday, The Madras High Court dismissed all the petitions filed by Vedanta Limited and declined to permit the reopening of the Sterlite copper smelting plant in Thoothukudi.

The 2-member bench of Justice TS Sivagnanam and V Bhavani Subbaroyan informed about the delay in orders due to the ongoing pandemic. The judgment of about 815 pages was prepared amidst the pandemic, said the judges in the VC. The Judges also declined to order the status quo until Vedanta’s appeal to the Supreme Court. The senior counsels and advocates who argued throughout the case were lauded by the Bench.

The plant’s application for the renewal of Consent to Operate was rejected by the Tamil Nadu State Pollution Control Board in 2018 on the grounds of violation of environmental laws. A subsequent order of closure was issued on May 28, 2018, by the state government against the plant, days after a protest against Sterlite turned violent with police opening fire on protesters, killing 13 people.

Vedanta has moved legal pleas seeking permission to reopen the plant. A plea against the State’s action ended in victory for Vedanta before the National Green Tribunal in December 2018. However, in February 2019, the Supreme Court dismissed the NGT order on the grounds that the tribunal did not have jurisdiction over the case. And later, allowed Vedanta to take its plea to the Madras High Court.

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On June 27, 2019, the case was brought before a Bench of Justices Sivagnanam and Subbaroyan. Elaborate hearings were carried out with the State proclaiming flouting of environmental norms by the company. The state however denied Vedanta’s contention that the closure order was based on the death of 13 protesters in the police firing, stating it was a contribution but not the sole reason behind it.

Vedanta’s Sterlite copper unit in Thoothukudi: File Photo | PTI

The state condescended that it had full authority to close a factory when it poses a serious threat to the environment and ecology, claiming that the pollution caused by the Sterlite plant was much higher than pollution caused by other companies in the SIPCOT area in Thoothukudi. Vedanta argued that the findings of TNPCB’s were based on older reports, and there was no higher level of pollutants or contamination by the plant as alleged by the board and the pollutant enlisted by the TNPCB is non-hazardous.

Expressing his reactions on the judgment to New Indian Express, Sterlite Copper CEO Pankaj Kumar called it a  “shocking and sad day for India” and said,  ‘they will take a call on the next course of action after going through the judgment and added that ‘the verdict will be challenged before Supreme Court.’ The company also claimed that the closure of the plant is incurring a loss of Rs 5 crore every day.

Meanwhile, DMK MP Kanimozhi welcomed the verdict and stated that development should not come at the cost of the environment. Fisheries Minister D Jayakumar also welcomed the verdict and endorsed the view of the TN Government that the Sterlite plant should not be allowed to be reopened. The Bench also heard pleas of the residents of Thoothukudi and politicians, including MDMK chief Vaiko, against the plant. “It is a victory for people in their fight against Sterlite plant. It is justice given for the 13 people who sacrificed their lives for the cause. The MDMK has been fighting for the closure of the plant for around 26 years. This verdict is indeed the happiest news for us.” claimed MDMK general secretary Vaiko.

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