‘Vedanta can’t have free run’: SC on plea to reopen Sterlite plant | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

‘Vedanta can’t have free run’: SC on plea to reopen Sterlite plant

Feb 23, 2024 05:16 PM IST

SC bench opined that it is crucial to take into account whether the alleged norm violations by Vedanta

Vedanta cannot have a free run and go on polluting the environment, the Supreme Court observed on Thursday, mulling a fair balance between allowing the conglomerate to reopen its Sterlite Copper smelting plant in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi and the environmental concerns associated with doing so.

Sterlite Copper plant in TN has remained shut since 2018. (REUTERS)
Sterlite Copper plant in TN has remained shut since 2018. (REUTERS)

Before making a final judgement about the reopening, a bench led by Chief Justice of India Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud, opined that it is crucial to take into account whether the alleged norm violations by Vedanta in operating its plant can be balanced and rectified through appropriate remedial measures.

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The bench, also comprising justices JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, said that it would have to evaluate Vedanta’s compliance with the 2013 ruling of the top court that had put several terms for the company to operate and identify areas in which it fell short.

“We will have to see post-2013 what the position of the industry has been and what are the steps taken by them to comply with the conditions laid down in that judgment. The experts can look into this and tell us whether the operation of the industry can be compliant with the environmental standards along with the remedial steps required to be taken...or is the closure the only option,” the bench told senior counsel CS Vaidyanathan, who was appearing for the Tamil Nadu government.

The court was referring to its suggestion made on February 14 when it urged the Tamil Nadu government and the state pollution control board to suggest a “way forward” for restarting the plant while contemplating a committee, comprising experts on pollution control and environment, which it said could submit the report on copper smelter operations, conditions for operations and reparations payable for environmental harm. While Vedanta has accepted the suggestion, the state government and its pollution board have maintained that Vedanta was a repeat offender and polluter, which could not be allowed to restart its copper smelter plant.

Responding to the court’s query on Thursday, Vaidyanathan insisted that the closure of the plant is the only option in the larger public interest due to continuing violations of the norms and environmental pollution caused by Vedanta.

The court replied: “We agree that they cannot have a free run and go on polluting the environment. That’s why we have to see what has happened post-2013. If the panel says that this industry can’t run, we will go by that. If they say X, Y or Z conditions can be put and they can be directed to put some money upfront, say in an escrow, as a bonafide measure, we can ask them. This time, if they don’t comply; you take out the money and throw them out.”

But Vaidyanathan remained firm on the state’s stand, contending that the Madras high court has already identified a raft of areas of shortfalls and breaches by Vedanta in its 2020 judgment while upholding the state’s shut down notice.

To this, the bench asked: “Is it not necessary for us to have some dispassionate experts go into it?”

Vaidyanathan, however, replied in the negative. “It will amount to outsourcing the regulatory role to an outside panel...the institutional credibility will be at stake.... It’s not a case of ‘too big to fail’. The country has done well even while this factory has remained shut since 2018,” he said.

The bench will continue hearing the appeal by Sterlite Copper against the 2020 judgment of the Madras high court on February 29.

The plant by Sterlite Copper, the Indian subsidiary of Vedanta Resources -- a global mining and metals conglomerate -- has remained shut since 2018 over alleged violation of environmental norms and protests of the local population against its operation.

Tens of thousands of protesters had taken to the streets of Thoothukudi in May 2018 against a proposed expansion of Sterlite’s 400,000-tonne annual capacity smelter. After the protests turned violent and police opened fire, 13 protesters died. A week later, the state pollution control board and the state government ordered that the plant be shut for alleged pollution. The plant, at that time, was producing over 400,000 tonnes of metal ores annually and accounted for 40% of India’s copper output.

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