'Why can't TN manufacture oxygen at Vedanta plant?' asks SC
The Supreme Court Friday asked the Tamil Nadu government to clarify its stand on whether it is willing to take over the Vedanta-owned Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi to manufacture oxygen. The plant has remained closed since May 2018 over pollution concerns. Anti-Sterlite activists told the state government that they were opposed to the Vedanta getting access to the plant, even to manufacture oxygen.
An SC bench headed by Chief Justice of India Sharad Arvind Bobde heard Vedanta Limited's plea regarding making the Sterlite plant operational for manufacturing medical oxygen. After the state government opposed Vedanta's plea, the SC said that the state should take over the plant for the purpose of manufacturing oxygen. The court asked the state government to file an affidavit by Monday, LiveLaw reported.
Bobde said, "When people are dying, Tamil Nadu cannot say you cannot open because of law and order issue. It's not about Vedanta or any other company. State Government cannot make such an argument." On TN Advocate General's submission before the Madras High Court that the state had surplus oxygen, he added, "It is not just about Tamil Nadu. The whole country needs it."
The TN government—represented by senior advocate CS Vaidyanathan—had opposed the plea, highlighting that the public has resentment against Vedanta. "There is a total lack of confidence among local people. There was a shooting incident that killed 13 people. There will be law and order issues if Vedanta opens the plant. District administration will find it difficult to handle," Vaidyanathan submitted.
The TN government suggested that the Centre could take over the plant. However, the CJI criticized the state for shifting the burden. Appearing for an organization of affected families, senior advocate Colin Gonsalves said that people have a lot of anger against the plant. Vedanta—represented by senior advocate Harish Salve—told the court that the company will help save lives by supplying free oxygen.
Before the SC hearing, anti-Sterlite activists opposed the proposition to allow Vedanta access to the plant during a meeting chaired by Thoothukudi District Collector K Senthil Raj on Friday morning. The activists accused Vedanta of attempting a "back-door entry" using a "national crisis" as an excuse, Deccan Herald reported. Activist-Professor Fathima Babu also underlined that the company is a repeat offender.
The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) had sealed the Sterlite Copper plant on May 23, 2018, following months of protests. On May 21-22, 2018, 13 people were killed in police firing during a protest. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) allowed the plant to reopen in December 2018. The NGT order was challenged by the TN government in the Supreme Court in January 2019.
The Supreme Court set aside the tribunal's order in February 2019 but allowed Vedanta to move the Madras High Court. In August 2020, the Madras HC had also dismissed Vedanta's plea. The company had then moved the SC against the HC order.