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The Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed Vedanta to operate its oxygen production unit at its Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, amid the oxygen shortage across the country during the second wave of Covid-19.
However, it said Vedanta shall not be allowed to enter and operate the copper smelting plant under the garb of this order.
A special bench comprising Justices DY Chandrachud, L Nageswara Rao and Ravindra Bhat said “the nation must stand together in this moment” and there should be “no political bickering” over oxygen generation by Vedanta during a national crisis.
“We are inclined to allow Vedanta’s prayer to operate the oxygen plant as a standalone unit. The order is passed only in view of the national need for oxygen. The order will not create any equity in favour of Vedanta,” it said.
The court said the state government had met executive and political stakeholders and decided to let Vedanta operate the plant, which would be able to produce up to 200 MT of liquid oxygen within 10 days.
The apex court asked the Tamil Nadu government to form a committee comprising the Thoothukudi district collector, superintendent of police, district environmental engineer, sub-collector and two government officials with knowledge of the matter to oversee the functioning of the oxygen plant. The committee can consult local community members to assuage any concerns, the apex court said.
The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has also been asked to form a three-member panel of environmental experts from Tamil Nadu.
The victims of the Vedanta crisis can choose two members to be on the committee. If they fail to nominate such members within 48 hours, the state government shall nominate the members, Justice Chandrachud said. The order allows Vedanta to operate till July 31, after which the court will assess the pandemic situation, he said.
Vedanta also has to submit a list of technical and non-technical staff who are essential to run the plant.
Saying that the court was aware of the concerns of the local community regarding the reopening of the plant, the judges said, “We are in a national crisis today where people are dying due to the lack of oxygen … There cannot be political bickering in this court. We are in a national crisis, we have to support nation as a court. [It’s] a national calamity.”
The plant run by Vedanta arm Sterlite was sealed by the Tamil Nadu government on May 28, 2018, due to environmental concerns. Thirteen people were killed when police opened fire during a protest against environmental pollution allegedly caused by the plant.
Senior counsel CS Vaidyanathan told the SC that the Tamil Nadu government had met representatives of all political parties and agreed to temporarily reopen the plant for four months. “Vedanta will be allowed only to reopen the oxygen plant. It cannot start is copper smelting operations. The operation will be under monitoring of a government committee,” he said.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the bench he was not concerned with the dispute between the state and Vedanta. But a facility is available which is unutilised, he said. He said whatever oxygen is manufactured at the plant should be for medical purposes and be given to the Centre to be allocated to every state. “If there is a big surge in some state, then we may have to send a bit more to that particular state. Let the oxygen be given to Centre for state-wise allocation,” Mehta said.