The Madras High Court on Tuesday came close to appointing an independent committee to find out whether the State government was properly maintaining the Sterlite Copper smelting plant in Thoothukudi.
However, it finally decided to defer its decision on the issue to June 11 following stiff opposition from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB). Justices M. Sathyanarayanan and M. Nirmal Kumar initially expressed their inability to take up a writ petition filed by Vedanta Limited, challenging the closure of the copper plant due to environmental concerns, for final hearing because it had to hear appeals filed against death sentences imposed on six in the 2016 Udumalpet Shankar’s murder case.
However, when senior counsel C. Aryama Sundaram, representing Vedanta, insisted on an interim order permitting the company to maintain the plant, the judges said such an order could not be passed without appointing an independent committee to find out whether the State government-appointed committees were maintaining it properly.
Expressing his consent for appointment of an independent committee by the court, Mr. Sundaram said officials from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) could be appointed, since the State government as well as the TNPCB had taken an adversarial stand against Sterlite Copper.
He claimed that a High Power Committee appointed by the State government under the chairmanship of Member Secretary of TNPCB had become defunct and only a local-level committee led by the Thoothukudi Collector was now maintaining the plant with the assistance of revenue officials who had no clue about technical aspects involved in maintenance.
The counsel also produced photographs of a fire accident that had taken place near the plant recently and impressed upon the need to hand over the maintenance to the company.
However, senior counsel C.S. Vaidyanathan, appearing on behalf of TNPCB, said the accident had occurred on a piece of land that was still under the custody of Sterlite.
Further, he said the committee was very much functional and it comprised two experts from the Indian Institute of Technology- Madras (IIT-M) and a retired professor of chemical engineering from Anna University apart from the Director of Industrial Safety and Health.
He vehemently opposed the appointment of an independent committee in the absence of any specific petition filed by Vedanta. Stating that the plant was inspected last on March 4, Mr. Vaidyanathan said the TNPCB had no objection to the presence of officials from Sterlite Copper whenever such inspections take place in the future.
After recording the submissions made on both sides, the judges adjourned further hearing on the writ petition to June 11 and said the next roster Bench at the principal seat in Chennai would take a call on the issue since Justice Sathyanarayanan was scheduled to sit on the Madurai Bench of the High Court for three months from June 3.
Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam general secretary Vaiko was present in the court on Tuesday to argue an impleading petition filed by him for opposing the plea to reopen the plant.
Though many other individuals and organisations too had filed similar impleading petitions, the judges said, a decision on all of them would be taken by the next roster Bench.