Observing that “the economic benefits of encouraging industries cannot be ignored” but “the toll extracted on available resources, water and soil regimes by such industries cannot also be lost sight of” and given that there is “another stakeholder… one that is invisible in the array of parties, the environment… (the) hapless party”, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court Wednesday stayed the expansion of the Sterlite Copper smelter plant of the Vedanta group in Tuticorin.
The interim order by the bench of Justices M Sundar and Anita Sumanth came amid ongoing protests against the expansion plans of the plant and demands for its closure over pollution concerns. A day earlier, at least nine persons were killed — the toll climbed to 12 Wednesday — after police opened fire on protesters following violent clashes.
The bench passed the order on a petition filed by Fathima Babu, a retired professor and resident of Tuticorin. The judges said “the application for renewal of EC (environmental clearance) submitted by Vedanta shall be processed expeditiously after conduct of mandatory public hearing. In any event, the application shall be decided by the appropriate authorities within a period of four months from today i.e. on or before 23.09.2018.”
“In the meanwhile, Vedanta shall cease construction and all other activities on-site proposed Unit-II of the Copper Smelting Plant at Tuticorin with immediate effect. The resumption/continuance thereof, if it be so, shall be subject to the decision taken upon above,” the bench said.
In issuing these directions, “we believe that we have taken into account and balanced the interests of all parties before us, the public as well as Vedanta. While, on the one hand, the economic benefits of encouraging industries cannot be ignored, the toll extracted on available resources, water and soil regimes by such industries, cannot also be lost sight of. There is thus yet another stakeholder before us, one that is invisible in the array of parties, the environment in itself. In balancing the interests of all parties to this Public Interest Litigation, we believe that the interests of this hapless party be treated on par, if not paramount,” the bench said.
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It noted that according to the petitioner, the environmental clearance was “obtained by Vedanta, without the conduct of a public hearing and the requirement for such hearing had been waived on the incorrect representation of Vedanta that Unit II was to be located in Phase II of SIPCOT Industrial Park that had itself been granted approval”.
The petitioner submitted in court that “Vedanta is engaged in the activity of managing and operating a Copper Smelter Plant and has been operating Unit I in Tuticorin since 1995. Its operations have met with severe public resistance from inception. In 2008, Vedanta proposed expansion of its Copper Smelter Plant by putting up Unit II thereof, and obtained Environmental Clearance in this regard on 1.1.2009”.
The plant has been shut since March 27 this year — the company had consent to operate the plant until March 31 this year.
On February 2, Kuldip Kaura, chief executive officer (CEO), Vedanta Resources, said during an analyst conference call: “The copper smelter… we have the requisite permits, and project has already been awarded and the construction work has commenced. This is a two-year project duration; this should have the project commissioned towards the end of financial year 2020.”
Three months later, on May 3, Kaura said: “Copper India business recorded a production of 4,03,000 tonnes this year (2017-18). Our operations at Tuticorin are currently shut down as our application for renewal of the consent to operate has not been approved…. we have engaged with the authorities with the responses to some of the questions which they raised and we believe the resolution for this should happen soon.”