Madras HC upholds closure of Sterlite Copper in TN Company says "temporary setback"

(Eds: Adds judgement details)
Chennai, Aug 18 (PTI) The Madras High Court on Tuesday
rejected a plea from mining giant Vedanta for allowing
reopening of its Sterlite copper unit at Tuticorin in Tamil
Nadu, which has been closed since May 2018 over pollution
Accepting the state pollution control board's stand that
the firm's operations were behind pollution, the court said
safeguarding the environment received primacy and economic
considerations could have no role to play in such matters.
The company described the verdict as "temporary setback"
and said it would look into all legal options available to it,
while political leaders and others welcomed the judgement.
A division bench of Justices T S Sivagnanam and V Bhavani
Subbaroyan upheld the orders of the Tamil Nadu Pollution
Control Board (TNPCB), directing closure of the unit in May
It had on January 9 this year reserved orders on the
The court, in its 815-page judgement, dismissed a batch
of writ petitions from Vedanta and others challenging closure
of the unit, which was at the centre of massive violent
protests over pollution concerns.
"We are inclined to accept the stand taken by the TNPCB
to hold that the increase in the levels of TDS, chloride,
sulphate and total hardness are all attributable to the
petitioner's operation and therefore the order of closure
cannot be stated to be on account of speculation," the verdict
Also, the past conduct of the petitioner is consistent
with the conclusion that they have not complied with mandatory
rules and regulations and only attempted compliance under the
threat of judicial orders of closure or intervention.
Hence the firm "cannot be allowed to run a highly
polluting red category industry, when the petitioner is
oblivious to ecological sensitivities, especially after having
polluted the area substantially over the past 22 years of its
operation," the court said.
The shocking reality is that for the substantial period
of the time from 1995 till 2018, the petitioner was operating
without valid consent to operate.
They were operating either on account of orders passed by
courts/tribunal or by stating that application for renewal of
consent was pending.
Rejecting Sterlite's argument that if their plant was
shut, the requirement of copper in India cannot be met, and
that it would be a great blow on the economy, the court said
when the economy was pitted against the environment, only the
latter aspect received primacy.
"Therefore, economic considerations can have no role to
play while deciding the sustainability of a highly polluting
industry and the only consideration would be with regard to
safeguarding the environment for posterity and remedying the
damage caused."
On Sterlite Copper's stand that local people wanted the
plant to continue, the court said such submissions deserved
outright rejection as it pointed to the compilation filed by
TNPCB contianing details of complaints against the petitioner
not only from the public, but also political parties and MLAs.
"As per the report of the Government of India - National
Clean Air Programme dated January 10, 2019, giving a list of
most polluted cities in the Country, in Tamil Nadu,
Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) is the only District which finds place
in the list of most polluted city in Tamil Nadu."
These statistics revealed by the Government of India
clearly showed that the averment made by the petitioner that
Tuticorin is safer than Chennai is to be rejected as being
The court said it was of the clear view that the
petitioner has not been able to establish that the impugned
decisions were malafide or on account of extraneous or
political considerations.
Also, the impugned orders cannot be said to be devoid of
reasons, as the Government Order, while endorsing the closure
order of the Pollution Control Board, directs permanent
closure and sealing of the unit and has referred to the
mandate cast on the State by the Constitution and bearing in
mind the larger public interest.
The court traced the prolonged litigations involving the
company since its inception and quoted several Supreme Court
judgements throughout the verdict.
Vedanta had approached the High Court in February 2019,
seeking to reopen the Sterlite plant which was closed
following a May 23, 2018 order issued by the TNPCB in the
backdrop of violent protests against the unit which left 13
people dead in police firing on May 21 and 22.
It had filed the petition in the high court as suggested
by the Supreme Court, which had on February 18, 2019 set aside
the National Green Tribunal order that allowed opening of the
Sterlite Plant.
Several people hailed the high court judgment in
Tuticorin in southern Tamil Nadu by distributing sweets and
bursting fire crackers.
Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam welcomed the
ruling, saying it reflected the thoughts of crores of people.
DMK President M K Stalin said he bowed before the court
for its judgement.
He urged the government to pass a Cabinet resolution
welcoming the judgment and file a caveat petition in the
Supreme Court in case Vedanta files an appeal.
MDMK chief Vaiko said the judgement has done justice and
hailed it as "a huge win" for people's agitations.
"Without compromising even a little, I myself have argued
against the plant before the tribunal, the High Court and the
Supreme Court," he said and recalled his party's "26-year-long
struggle against the plant.
State Secretaries of CPI(M) and CPI, K Balakrishnan and R
Mutharasan, PMK founder leader S Ramadoss also urged the
government to fight the matter in the apex court if the firm
went on an appeal and ensure the plant's permanent closure.
Sterlite CEO Pankaj Kumar told reporters in Tuticorin,
"We will look at all legal options available to us."
Associate Vice President D Dhanavel said the judgement
was "disappointing" and a "temporary setback."
To a question, Kumar said: "There may be a possibility of
lay-off," adding the plant has been shut for over two years.
Dhanavel said "our company has continuously taken efforts
to protect jobs of all to the possible extent,despite closure.
But now with this setback, that (safeguarding jobs) will
be a challenge...we will discuss this and take further steps
considering the welfare of employees."
In its arguments during the hearing, Vedanta had claimed
that the closure order was nothing but 'naked discrimination'
against the company and a knee-jerk reaction of the state to
'appease' a section of public with vested interest after 13
protesters were killed in the police firing.
Rejecting the charges, the state government had submitted
that it has full authority and powers to shut down a factory
when it causes a serious threat to the environment and
The Sterlite unit had flouted many rules, which amounted
to violation of statutory provisions, warranting closure of
the factory, it had told the court. PTI VGN VS APR

(This story has not been edited by THE WEEK and is auto-generated from PTI)