Story By Iniyavan Banumathi
The National Green Tribunal set aside the Tamil Nadu government order for closure of Vedanta’s Sterlite copper plant at Tuticorin on Saturday. It directed the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board to provide the required permission for opening the smelter within three weeks. It also directed the Vedanta to spend Rs 100 crore on the welfare of the inhabitants in the area. The bench was headed by AK Goel who was made the Chairman of NGT by the BJP government right after his retirement as a Supreme Court judge. Justice Goel was one of the judges of the two-member bench that ‘diluted’ provisions on arrests in the Act meant to prevent atrocities against SCs-STs.
Sterlite plant has been long-opposed by the local residents, since it’s inception in the Biosphere reserve Gulf of Mannar. On 5th May, 1997, due to a gas leak 165 women workers of Ramesh Flowers Company near Sterlite fainted. And it was followed by many such incidents of gas leaks and cylinders bursts affecting the inhabitants around the plant and killing the plant workers. Earlier this year, the protest intensified as the Plant sought permission for 100% expansion. On May 22, 2018, thousands of people decided to march to the district collector’s office to submit a petition. Tamil Nadu government issued an order imposing section 144 pumping thousands of cops in the city. Police suddenly unleashed brutal lathi charge over the peaceful demonstration and started to shoot at the protesters. By the “official” records 13 were killed in the incident, including seventeen-year-old law student Venista. The unofficial death toll may cross 50.
The martyrs are said to be the prominent faces of the movement, raising doubts if they were specifically targeted. Following the firing, Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board issued orders to close Sterlite copper smelter with immediate effect. Madras High Court’s Madurai Bench ordered that construction work on the second plant be stopped. Later, an Expert Committee was appointed by the NGT to look after the appeal made by Vedanta against the TNPCB’s decision to shut down the plant. In the report submitted by the committee in November it was said that the order to shut down the plant was against the principles of natural justice since no notice or opportunity for hearing was given to the appellant (Vedanta Ltd). After hearing responses from both the parties, NGT has now set aside the Tamil Nadu government’s order calling it “non-sustainable” and “unjustified”. Tamil Nadu government has planned to appeal against NGT order in the Supreme Court.
Nevertheless activists and movements have raised their disappointment and dissent over the role TN government as well. Makkal Adhikaram movement conducted protests in various regions of Tamil Nadu urging the TN government to come up with a separate act similar to Jallikattu, ensuring the closure of the plant. Speaking to the press Mukilan from Sutru Soozhal Padhugaapu Iyakkam said “For plants like Sterlite to come, the policies of the government are the reason. So banning or shutting down such plants is not possible by judgments and orders. Never will courts be against such plants. Be it Neutrino project, GAIL project or the Hydrocarbon project, only people’s agitation can resist them and not by appealing to courts.”