The Supreme Court on Monday set aside the National Green Tribunal (NGT) order allowing the reopening of Vedanta Ltd’s Sterlite Industries (India) Ltd Copper plant in Thoothukkudi district in Tamil Nadu, saying the Tribunal lacked the necessary jurisdiction.
The plant owners, however, had reason to cheer with the court commenting that its product was “an important import substitute” and giving it the liberty to approach the High Court for relief.
A bench of Justices R F Nariman and Vineet Saran said it was setting aside the tribunal’s orders in this regard, the last of which was on December 15, 2018, only on grounds of maintainability without venturing into the merits of the case. The SC upheld the contention of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) that its orders under the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 [“Air Act”] and Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, denying permission to the plant to continue operations could not have been challenged directly before the NGT. They should have been first contested before the appellate authority constituted under the Act and only then challenged before the NGT
Agreeing, the court said “obviously, since no order or decision had been made by the appellate authority under either the Water Act or the Air Act, any direct appeal against an original order to the NGT would be incompetent…. On the facts of the present case, it is clear that an appeal was pending before the appellate authority when the NGT set aside the original order dated 09.04.2018. This being the case, the NGT’s order being clearly outside its statutory powers conferred by the Water Act, the Air Act, and the NGT Act, would be an order passed without jurisdiction”.
“Given the fact that we are setting aside the NGT judgments involved in these appeals on the ground of maintainability, we state that it will be open for the respondents to file a writ petition in the High Court against all the aforesaid orders. If such writ petition is filed, it will be open for the respondent to apply for interim reliefs considering that their plant has been shut down since 09.04.2018. Also, since their plant has been so shut down for a long period, and they are exporting a product which is an important import substitute, the respondent may apply to the Chief Justice of the High Court for expeditious hearing of the writ petition, which will be disposed of on merits…”, it said. The copper smelting plant owned by Vedanta had run into controversy following complaints of pollution. This led to protests and at least 13 people were killed and several injured on May 22 last year when police opened fire on protesters. Subsequently on May 28, the state government asked the state pollution control board to seal and “permanently” close the plant.
This was challenged before the NGT which on December 15, set aside the Government Order for closure saying it was “non sustainable” and “unjustified”.