Among the protesters on Thursday was M Jayakumar, who lost his younger brother M Selvakumar on the 100th day of the May 2018 demonstration when police opened fire on the agitators.(Activist Prabhu Thoothukudi)
Among the protesters on Thursday was M Jayakumar, who lost his younger brother M Selvakumar on the 100th day of the May 2018 demonstration when police opened fire on the agitators.(Activist Prabhu Thoothukudi)

Kin of Sterlite victims protest SC, govt nods to reopen plant

Families of the 13 protestors, who were killed in the police firing during the anti-Sterlite demonstrations in 2018, on Thursday staged a protestoutside Thoothukudi district collector’s office against the Supreme Court and Tamil Nadu government’s decision to reopen the Vedanta-owned Sterlite copper smelting plant for production of medical oxygen production
By Divya Chandrababu, Chennai
UPDATED ON APR 30, 2021 11:34 AM IST

Families of the 13 protestors, who were killed in the police firing during the anti-Sterlite demonstrations in 2018, on Thursday staged a protestoutside Thoothukudi district collector’s office against the Supreme Court and Tamil Nadu government’s decision to reopen the Vedanta-owned Sterlite copper smelting plant for production of medical oxygen production.

While black flags sprung up across houses, locals wore black badges to mark their protest as the top court and government allowed the plant, which was shut and sealed in 2018, to resume operations, at a time when there is a shortage of critical supplies amid the second Covid-19 wave in the country.

Among the protesters on Thursday was M Jayakumar, who lost his younger brother M Selvakumar on the 100th day of the May 2018 demonstration when police opened fire on the agitators.

“The 13 lives lost should be the last in this case. We do not want any more confrontations and deaths,” Jayakumar, who escaped the police firing that day, said.

“We are the people who fought for our right to breathe clean air. The company, which made us choke, is using the pandemic(as an excuse) to open their oxygen plant. It seems suspicious to us. Our fear is that they will take this to their advantage to reopen the copper plant.”

Vedantahas been accused of various irregularities in following environmental norms, leading to several public health issues due to production of toxins such as arsenic and sulphur oxides.The people in the district have been protesting ever since the company was constructed in 1994 and production was started in 1997. Two oxygen plants were commissioned in 1998 and 2004.

On Tuesday, a Supreme court bench led by justice Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud said that the oxygen production unit will function on a stand-alone basis, and that Vedanta will not be allowed to access the copper and power plants in the precinct.

Following the top court order, the company said it was working with experts on the logistics to dispatch oxygen to critical Covid areas and would reactivate the oxygen plant with the support of the community and employees.

When contacted, Vedanta said they were awaiting necessary approvals based on the court order. “We await the formation of the oversight committee as directed by the Supreme Court and its recommendations and look forward to restoration of power to the plant in order to commence the necessary steps towards critical oxygen production,”the company said in a statement.

As the protests grew on Thursday, district collector Senthil Raj tried to explain to the locals why it was important to manufacture more oxygen as the country amid the Covid surge. Raj said the production could also prove to be useful to the people of Thoothukudi in case of a shortage in the district.

“Even if we are in need of oxygen due to Covid-19, isn’t it the government’s responsibility to ensure there is ample oxygen supply?” Jayakumar said. “There are so many other industries which can manufacture oxygen. Why depend on an operator which is shut?”

As a precautionary measure, security was tightened in the district after protests erupted in areas such as Pandaarampatti and Puthu Theruon Wednesday. Police registered a case against 49 people under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1987, for staging a protest.

“The state government is firm in its decision in keeping the copper plant closed,” district collector Raj said. “There is no need for suspicion or fear. The permission granted is only for the oxygen plant to meet unprecedented demand for medical grade oxygen and has nothing to do with the main case. If the demand comes down after three months, the oxygen plant will be stopped and the premises will be sealed again.”

Vedanta’s plea to reopen its factory and resume operations is pending in the Supreme Court. While its plea to reopen the plan was rejected by the Madras high court in August 2020, the top court had also rejected its plea to reopen the plan for a trial run in December and January.

Last week, Vedanta Limited moved the top court for an urgent hearing, saying that it could produce 1,000 tonnes of oxygen if the plant was allowed to reopen and help by supplying free oxygen across the country.

While the Tamil Nadu government opposed it on the grounds that it may become a law and order issue, the top court reminded the state of the growing demand for oxygen in several parts of the country. Following this, the collector conducted a public hearing in which a majority opposed the re-opening of the plant.

On April 26, the government convened an all-party meeting which unanimously passed a resolution to allow the plant to temporarily re-open for the sole purpose of oxygen production. The resolution also said that the electricity would be provided by the government.

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president M K Stalin assured to shut the plant after the oxygen demands are met if his government came to power on May 2 (election results day).

Some activists, who were against the re-opening, had agreed for the state to take over the plant but the Tamil Nadu government order did not make any such mention.

Vedanta, however, submitted an affidavit in the apex court, saying that the oxygen plant must be operated by its own team under possible supervision of a central government’s expert body.

On the same day, the state told the Madras High Court that the plant has a production capacity of 1,050 MTs but only 35 tonnes can be used for medical purposes. Representing the state, advocate general Vijay Narayan said what is required is liquid oxygen with at least 99.4% purity for medical use while industrial oxygen is only 92% -93% pure. The state submitted that Sterlite also has to install compression and bottling plants to convert gaseous oxygen to liquid oxygen, a process that will take a minimum of six months.

The top court also ordered the appointment of a committee to supervise the functioning and decide on the number of personnel allowed to run the unit. The committee would include Thoothukudi district collector, superintendent of police among other government officials, a district environmental engineer and two experts to be nominated by those aggrieved by pollution from Vedanta’s copper smelter.

Vedanta informed the court that the production could start in 10 days once other logistical requirements were fulfilled and the capacity could go up to 200 metric tonne (MT) per day.

The court said it understands the concerns of the local community, “...but we are looking at the national crisis where people are dying for the want of oxygen...we will have to balance everything.”

Though Tamil Nadu wanted to be prioritised for oxygen use, the court directed Vedanta to supply the gas to the Centre’s pool for an equitable distribution across the country. “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 in the order,” it said, adding that the order is applicable till July 31.

At present, Tamil Nadu uses around 350 MTs of oxygen for Covid-19 treatment.

“It is likely to touch 400 MTs if active cases shoot up,” said P Umanath, director, Tamil Nadu Medical Services Corporation (TNMSC) which procures drugs, medical equipment and augments oxygen supply for the state.

The state has an oxygen production capacity of 400 MT and a storage capacity of 1,167 MT. Senior officials said the empowered group’s allotment of 220 MT for Tamil Nadu is incorrect and that chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging the Centre to immediately cancel oxygen diversion from the state to Andhra Pradesh and Telangana which comparatively had fewer active cases.

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