‘Utter Shock’: Sterlite on HC Order to Keep Copper Plant Shut

The copper smelter plant has been shut since April 2018.

Updated
India
4 min read
The Vedanta-owned Sterlite Copper unit in Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu. Image used for representational purposes only. 
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The Madras High Court on Tuesday, 18 August, pronounced its much-awaited verdict stating that the Sterlite Copper smelter plant in Thoothukudi will remain shut.

The company said in a statement that the judgement came as “an utter shock to the employees of Sterlite Copper and the thousands of small businesses, entrepreneurs and community members dependent on our continued operations.”

All petitions filed by Vedanta Limited challenging the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to shut down the plant were dismissed. It has been two years since the company had to shut down its operations owing to violations cited by the government.

‘Utter Shock:’ Sterlite Copper

Sterlite Copper has said it will take recourse to all legal remedies to challenge this verdict.

“We firmly believe in the safe and environmentally sound nature of our operations and are discouraged by the wilful reliance on anecdotal evidence and half-truths by certain parties to spread falsehoods against our operations.”
Pankaj Kumar, CEO, Sterlite Copper

Pankaj Kumar, the CEO of Sterlite Copper said in a statement that the company is disheartened as this move forces India to depend on neighbouring countries for copper imports. Sterlite clarified that no concerns of pollution have been raised by the appropriate authorities.

The country has imported 44,000 tonnes of copper against 3.3 lakh tonnes exported in 2017-18.

Closure Order Continues to Stand

The division bench of Justices T S Sivagnanam and V Bhavani Subbaroyan pronounced the judgment at 10:30 am stating the closure order will continue to stand. This comes seven months after the orders were reserved in the case. Police personnel have been deputed all over Thoothukudi on Tuesday as a precautionary measure.

Justice Sivagangam observed that the order would have been delivered on 12 March but couldn’t be because of the coronavirus pandemic. He explained that they had dictated the orders to three different PAs over the phone. The judgment copy, that runs for 815 pages, will be given at 2 pm. The judges refused to order status quo until Vedanta goes on to file an appeal in the Supreme Court.

‘Victory for the People’

Several activists and politicians took to the streets to burst crackers and celebrate the verdict.

DMK leader Kanimozhi, who is the MP of Thoothukudi tweeted that the ruling makes it clear that development at the cost of the environment and people is dangerous.

Kamal Haasan hailed the verdict as the victory for the voice of the people. “The court ruling that the Sterlite ban will continue serves as justice for the sacrifice made by many people. I have watched the pain of these people and I feel this is proof that the voice of the people will always win.”

DMDK leader Vaiko said, “This is a victory for the people, for justice, for the number of lives that were sacrificed. For the past 26 years, we have been fighting continuously for the people against the Sterlite.”

How Did the Controversy Begin?

For years, people living in the villages near the plan have been complaining of increase in number of cancer cases in the area and contamination of air and groundwater. They had been calling for a shut down of the plant. So after 100 days of protests, on 22 May 2018, several people, including children and the elderly walked towards the Collectorate to submit their petition. But it turned out to be a tragic day, when police opened fire on the crowd, killing 13 people and injuring several others.

Why Has the Factory Been Shut Down?

Following public outrage, the state government decided to shut it down on 27 May 2018 alleging violation of environment laws and citing protests by locals against the expansion of the plant. In 2016, the Supreme Court had imposed a fine of Rs 100 crore on Sterlite for pollution and misrepresentation between 1996 and 2012.

The Legal Battles So Far

The National Green Tribunal gave a favourable order to Sterlite in December 2018. However, the Tamil Nadu government challenged the NGT decision in Supreme Court in January 2019, stating NGT didn’t have the jurisdiction to allow the reopening of the plant. It allowed Vedanta to approach the Madras High Court, after which the company filed multiple petitions. The petition was taken up for hearing in July 2019 and the verdict was reserved by the bench comprising Justices Sivagnanam and Subbaroyan on 8 January 2020.

The Vedanta Argument

Vedanta alleged that the order by the state was just a knee-jerk reaction following public outcry and categorically denied violating environmental regulations and claimed hazardous waste identified by the Pollution Control Board had already been delisted.

Extent of Loss for the Company

The plant had a staff strength of 800 permanent and 3,500 contract workers. The closure of the plant led to 40 percent fall in copper production in the country.

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