Chennai: An all-party meeting convened by the Tamil Nadu government on Monday resolved to allow Vedanta's Sterlite Industries in Tuticorin to produce oxygen for a four-month period amid surging COVID cases, paving the way for the partial reopening of the copper smelter closed in 2018 over pollution concerns.
Responding, Vedanta said it was committed to making the entire production capacity of 1,000 tonnes available for the purpose of producing medical grade oxygen and that it was working to dispatch it to critical areas in the state on priority.
The copper unit was sealed by the state government in May 2018, days after 13 agitators were killed in police firing during a violent anti-Sterlite protest in the southern district.
On Monday, the Chief Minister K Palaniswami-chaired a meeting, attended by main opposition party DMK among others, which resolved to allow Sterlite produce oxygen from its plant in Tuticorin, days after Vedanta moved the Supreme Court in this connection.
"As per the Supreme Court directive, power supply may be allowed for Vedanta's Sterlite Industries in Tuticorin for four months to repair and operate oxygen producing and related equipment only," the meeting resolved.
The period may be extended later but "at no cost" shall other activities like copper manufacturing and running the co-generation plant shall be allowed and the "power supply shall be cut after this period (four months) by TANGEDCO," it added.
Tamil Nadu should get priority in the oxygen being produced here and it shall be taken to other states only after meeting its requirements.
A committee comprising the District Collector, Superintendent of Police, TNPCB environmental engineer from Tuticorin, government officials experts in oxygen production, local residents, NGO members and activists opposed to the plant will monitor the production of oxygen and also decide on running the unit, it said.
Only technicians "directly involved" in oxygen-making will be allowed entry into the plant with due permission slips while the government will ensure appropriate safety measures.
On Friday, the apex court had said people were dying due to lack of oxygen and questioned the Tamil Nadu government as to why it cannot take over the Sterlite copper unit for producing oxygen to treat COVID-19 patients.
"We are not interested that Vedanta or A, B or C runs it. We are interested that oxygen should be produced," a bench headed by then Chief Justice S A Bobde had said.
Meanwhile, the state government on Monday recalled Vedanta had submitted in the court that it can produce up to 1,050 tonnes a day of oxygen in liquid and gas forms from two of its units in Sterlite in two to four weeks to be used in nearby hospitals and those in the other parts of the state.
Monday's meeting of recognised political parties was held under 'compelling' circumstances, it said, adding the government had factored in the growing demand for oxygen for many COVID patients.
In his remarks at the meeting, Palaniswami recalled his government's various COVID-prevention efforts, including ramping up the medical infrastructure soon after the outbreak of the virus in late 2019, besides stepping up testing and tracing activities.
"Due to the precautionary steps taken by the government during the Covid-19 first wave, the spread declined gradually. Death rate was also curtailed. The second wave is under control due to measures like increasing stocks of liquid oxygen and beds in government hospitals," he said.
There was a need to further ramp up medical infrastructure, especially oxygen production, he said and recalled his communication to Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier that the gas produced here should not be diverted to other states.
"We are in a testing, challenging time due to shortage of oxygen. It is the duty of all to protect the lives of the people and we have convened this meeting as part of that," Palaniswami said.
DMK MP Kanimozhi, representing her party along with its Rajya Sabha member RS Bharathi, said the opposition bloc batted for temporary approval for Vedanta to produce oxygen.
"DMK and allies insisted that there should be a monitoring committee," for the purpose, she later told reporters. Congress and the Left parties also participated.
BJP state unit chief L Murugan, who attended the meeting, said the focus should be on saving 'valuable' human lives, adding, other states could get oxygen from the plant only after Tamil Nadu's requirements were met.
Meanwhile DMK President M K Stalin tweeted that the permission granted to Vedanta was 'temporary' and assured the plant will not be opened at any cost if the DMK comes to power after the May 2 counting of votes.
Assembly elections were held in Tamil Nadu on April 6.
Meanwhile, Vedanta said "we are committed to making the entire production capacity of 1000 tonnes available for the purpose of producing medical grade oxygen."
"...and are already working with experts on how best to resolve the logistics of dispatching this to critical areas in Tamil Nadu on priority, and subsequently across the nation," it said in a statement.