The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court stayed the National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) Order to permit Sterlite to reopen its copper smelting plant at Thoothukudi on Friday, December 21. This Order of the Court arose out of a petition filed by Fatima, an environmental activist and Thoothukudi resident, who had submitted an interlocutory application at the NGT to be impleaded as a party. However, the NGT passed its Order without deciding on whether Fatima could be made a party to the proceedings. The Court also noted that it is unclear whether the state government of Tamil Nadu would file an appeal against the NGT’s Order.
On December 15, the NGT had directed the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) to renew the permissions the plant required to operate. The NGT had told Vedanta that the resumption of electricity in the plant would be subject to the company spending Rs. 100 crore on projects like water supply, hospitals, health services and skill development in the area.
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Fatima had approached the NGT to be made a party in the proceedings. However, neither did the NGT go into the merits of her interlocutory application, nor did she receive copies of the December 15 Order to challenge it before the Supreme Court.
Sequence of Events
In the mid-1990s, Sterlite received the necessary permits to open its copper smelting plant in Thoothukudi. However, the residents in the area began experiencing health complications. This led to the plant temporarily closing from time to time whenever the complaints emerged. In 2013, the Supreme Court recognised that the plant was a polluter, but let the plant off with a fine instead.
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In May this year, news emerged that Vedanta was planning to expand the plant. This led to locals organising a peaceful against the plant on May 22. However, on that day, the police appeared in full force. The police personnel resorted to using sharpshooters and caused the death of thirteen people. In response to a public outcry against the violence, the Tamil Nadu government shut down the plant on May 28.
Vedanta appealed against the state government’s order for closure in the NGT. In July, the NGT issued a notice to the state government and the TNPCB. On August 9, the NGT allowed Vedanta to access the administrative section of the plant. On August 20, the NGT constituted an independent committee to probe and determine within six months whether Vedanta’s copper plant should be allowed to reopen. The committee’s report which was submitted two months later was favourable towards Vedanta.