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Three years after shutdown, Tamil Nadu to reopen Sterlite plant for oxygen

The agreement comes nearly three years after the state government shut down the plant, which is owned by Vedanta Ltd, following the deaths in police firing of 13 people who were part of heated protests over environmental concerns related to its operations.

Written by Arun Janardhanan | Chennai |
April 27, 2021 4:13:31 am
The copper smelter plant at Thoothukudi was shut down in 2018 by Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board over environmental violations. (File Photo)

MOVING TO ease the oxygen shortage that has hit efforts to tackle the Covid crisis, an all-party meeting convened by Chief Minister E K Palaniswami in Tamil Nadu Monday reached a consensus to reopen the controversial Sterlite copper smelting plant in Thoothukudi on a “temporary basis” for four months.

The agreement comes nearly three years after the state government shut down the plant, which is owned by Vedanta Ltd, following the deaths in police firing of 13 people who were part of heated protests over environmental concerns related to its operations.

The all-party meeting was held in Chennai after a public hearing called by the Thoothukudi district administration Friday failed to convince local residents about the “emergency requirement” to reopen the plant to produce medical oxygen.

According to Vedanta, the plant has a production capacity of 1,000 metric tonnes of oxygen. Last week, the company had moved a petition in Supreme Court assuring that it could produce oxygen in the plant if it was allowed to reopen. The Central Government and the Supreme Court had favoured the idea, but the Tamil Nadu government opposed it.

The apex court then suggested that the state should pursue the issue considering the emergency requirement in Tamil Nadu and other states.

On Sunday, Chief Minister Palaniswami wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging him to immediately cancel the diversion of 80 MTs of oxygen to Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. He said Tamil Nadu would soon require up to 450 MT oxygen shortly, which is more than its current production capacity, and pointed out that the national allotment plan had earmarked only 220 MT for the state.

Monday’s all-party meeting was attended by representatives of all major parties, including the main Opposition DMK. The parties also decided to form a committee headed by the District Collector and SP, and including representatives of the government as well as local residents, to reopen the plant.

A senior official of the AIADMK government confirmed that the plant will be allowed to manufacture oxygen for “four months”. “There is an agreement that operations attached to the oxygen plant will be done in a manner that will keep public representatives informed. There is also a provision to extend the four-month period for further operations if the oxygen requirements continue,” the official told The Indian Express.

DMK MP Kanimozhi, who represented the Opposition, said that only operations of the oxygen-generation facility at the plant will be allowed “considering the pandemic situation”. It has been agreed that “no other plant operations or production at the copper plant will be allowed during this temporary period”, she said.

According to Kanimozhi, the state government should ensure that the temporary permission being granted wouldn’t be misused in a later stage to reopen the entire plant. “Only their technicians will be allowed to access the plant during this period, and meeting the medical oxygen requirement of Tamil Nadu will be the first priority,” she said.

Vedanta said in a statement: “We are committed to making the entire production capacity of 1000 tonnes available for the purpose of producing medical grade oxygen, and are already working with experts on how best to resolve the logistics of dispatching thus to critical areas in TN on priority, and subsequently across the nation.”

The plant had been facing protests ever since its entry into the state in 1994 over its industrial operations that, local residents and protesters say, have severely affected the population’s health.

The protests, which were mostly peaceful, escalated in February 2018 following reports of Sterlite’s expansion plans. The plant was ordered to shut down by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and the state government over environmental violations — the case is still pending in the Supreme Court. On May 22, 2018, 13 people were killed and several others were injured when the police opened fire on protesters during a demonstration.

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