Vedanta moved the Supreme Court last week for permission to operate the oxygen producing unit at the Sterlite copper plant, which was shut down in May 2018.(Representational Image)
Vedanta moved the Supreme Court last week for permission to operate the oxygen producing unit at the Sterlite copper plant, which was shut down in May 2018.(Representational Image)

Supreme Court permits Vedanta to operate Tamil Nadu plant for oxygen

A 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.
By Utkarsh Anand, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON APR 28, 2021 01:17 AM IST

The Supreme Court on Tuesday asked the Centre and the Tamil Nadu government to refrain from “political bickering” while it permitted Vedanta to operate its shuttered copper plant in Thoothukudi only for the production of medical oxygen at a time when there is a shortage of critical supplies amid the second Covid-19 wave in the country.

A 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.

Oxygen is a crucial medical intervention against Covid-19, which causes respiratory distress in some cases. The surge in infections has sharply accelerated its demand in several parts of the country.

The bench, which also included justices L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat, said that Vedanta could operate the oxygen plant under the supervision of a committee, which will also decide the number of personnel allowed to run the unit. It will include Thoothukudi’s district collector, sub-collector, superintendent of police, district environmental engineer, two government officials with technical knowledge of the subject, and two experts to be nominated by those aggrieved by pollution from Vedanta’s copper smelter. The two experts will be picked from three suggested by the Union environment ministry.

The court said the committee will be at liberty to involve local residents and members of the local community. It also asked the state to expedite the supply of power and water to Vedanta so that oxygen production could commence as soon as possible.

Vedanta’s lawyer, Harish Salve, said 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 its order will operate till July 31.

Vedanta moved the Supreme Court last week for permission to operate the oxygen producing unit at the Sterlite copper plant, which was shut down in May 2018 by the state government days after 13 protesters were killed in police firing during a protest against pollution caused by the facility in the southern Tamil Nadu district.

Tamil Nadu on Monday granted temporary permission to a shuttered plant to reopen for the production of medical oxygen production for four months.

The Madras high court in August 2020 rejected Vedanta’s petition to reopen the plant. The Supreme Court also rejected Vedanta’s plea to reopen the plant for a trial run in December and January.

Responding to Vedanta’s fresh plea, senior advocate CS Vaidyanathan and additional advocate general Balaji Srinivasan, who appeared for Tamil Nadu, said that after an all-party meeting a day ago, the state government was agreeable to let Vedanta temporarily reopen the plant for access to its oxygen production unit.

The state also suggested that representatives from the local community, social activists, and NGOs should be included in the committee constituted to oversee the oxygen production to ensure law and order. But Salve opposed it. “We are not opposed to the state government’s oversight in coordination with the Centre, but we cannot let locals enter the plant. There have already been many problems in the past,” said Salve.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who appeared for the Centre, supported Salve and submitted that a state could not say it is dependent on some social activists to maintain law and order.

Vaidyanathan said he was surprised that the central government was supporting Vedanta, which was found in breach of the central laws on air and water pollution.

The court said: “We do not want political bickering in the court. These are times of crisis. We are here as a national court to protect lives in these times of grave crisis. We are here to ensure lives are protected... Let us keep everything else out. Let us develop these matters in the spirit of dialogue.”

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. There is a national demand. When the nation is facing such a crisis, we will have to balance everything.” The bench decided to replace local social activists with two environmental experts, preferably from Tamil Nadu, in the panel.

The court accepted Mehta’s statement that Vedanta will supply the oxygen 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.”

Small groups of people including families who were affected due to the plant’s pollution protested in different parts of Thoothukudi district following the court’s verdict. “When they conducted the public hearing (last Friday) we had expressed that the smelter should be demolished, and the state government can take over the oxygen plant and run it,” said V Gunaseelan, an anti-Sterlite activist. “For the past 25 years since the plant came to Thoothukudi, we have been suffering and we know of the company’s attempts to somehow gain a backdoor entry. It’s like telling a murder accused- you be good for four months and produce oxygen. How can we believe them? Even if they were to start work, what infrastructure do they have to produce medical oxygen? Hasn’t the state told the Madras high court just yesterday that the plant is designed to produce industrial oxygen? We will continue to protest, and our numbers will increase.”

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