Maintaining that he is unfamiliar with exact details of the ongoing protests against the Sterlite Copper unit in Tuticorin, having just returned from a trip abroad, Union Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan on Friday said that “all this” – developments leading up to the massive protests – took place during the previous government’s tenure.
Asked about the issue during a press conference to announce India’s plans to celebrate World Environment Day, which will be jointly organised with the UN Environment Programme, Vardhan said, “I just returned in the morning and I read something about it (Sterlite protests) in the newspapers. We will certainly look into what is happening.”
He also said, “All this happened during the tenure of the last (Congress-led UPA) government. I do not want to make an issue out of it.”
Protests against Vedanta’s Sterlite Copper unit, and its proposed expansion, turned violent on Tuesday. It led to 13 deaths when the police opened fire on different occasions on Tuesday and Wednesday. The protesters were marking the 100th day of their agitation on Tuesday.
There were five top officials from the Ministry of Environment and Forests, as well as representatives from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), at Friday’s press conference.
Top officials in the Environment Ministry said it is unlikely that Vedanta will be able to complete its planned expansion. The ministry has also sought reports from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, an official said.
Earlier this year, Sterlite Copper had written to MoEF seeking permission to expand its copper smelter plant and sought an extension on its environment clearance.
On Friday, head of UN Environment Erik Solhein tweeted: “Very saddened and deeply concerned by loss of life in Tamil Nadu. Anti pollution protestors must not pay with their lives. Violence and pollution must stop.”
Vardhan said that even though he was not in India three days ago, he had noticed that the ‘Green Good Deeds’ movement, to protect environment and promote good living in the country, which he initiated was trending for over five hours on Twitter — “not just among Indians but people from outside too.”
Vardhan said “protecting the environment is our responsibility”, and for this “everyone should participate with the government”.
On Thursday, Union Home Minister Rajanth Singh had sought a report on the situation in Tamil Nadu. The Indian Express had earlier reported that a sub-committee recommended two months ago by an MoEF expert panel to assess environment clearance granted to Sterlite Copper plant in 2009 is yet to be constituted.