Tamil Nadu

HC reserves verdict on Vedanta’s plea to reopen Sterlite copper plant

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We shall endeavour to deliver judgment as early as possible, say judges

Justices T.S. Sivagnanam and V. Bhavani Subbaroyan of the Madras High Court on Wednesday reserved their verdict on a batch of cases filed by Vedanta Limited to reopen its Thoothukudi Sterlite copper smelting plant. The plant remains shut since April 9, 2018 after Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) refused to grant consent to operate (CTO) the plant due to environmental concerns.

“We shall endeavour to deliver the judgment as early as possible,” the senior judge in the Bench said after the conclusion of marathon arguments advanced by a battery of lawyers for 36 full days since June 20 this year.

Apart from TNPCB, the State government too had on May 28, 2018 ordered for closing down the plant permanently. The Government Order was issued after 13 anti-Sterlite protesters were shot down in a police firing on May 22 that year.

‘Knee-jerk reaction’

Therefore, the primary argument of Vedanta was that the closure was nothing but a knee-jerk reaction to the police firing. It also accused the government as well as the TNPCB of not having produced any acceptable material to prove the charge of damage caused by the plant to the environment.

The government countered the arguments by stating that CTO was denied much before the firing and that the plant was indeed an environmental hazard.

After the incident of police firing, the matter was agitated before the Supreme Court for a few months until the latter on February 19, 2019 directed Vedanta to approach the Madras High Court.

“If such petition is filed before the High Court, it will be open for Vedanta to apply for interim relief considering that their plant has been shut down since April 9, 2018. Also since their plant has been so shut down for a long period, and they are exporting a product which is an important import substitute, the respondent may apply to the Chief Justice of the High Court for expeditious hearing of the writ petition,” the apex court said.

Accordingly, the company filed multiple writ petitions in the High Court on February 22, 2019 challenging different executive orders passed against it and all those petitions were admitted by a Bench of Justices M. Sathyanarayanan and M. Nirmal Kumar on March 1, 2019. However, that Bench did not grant any interim relief permitting Vedanta to maintain the plant until the final disposal of the cases filed by it.

After the deputation of Justice Sathyanarayanan to the Madurai Bench of the High Court in June 2019, the then Chief Justice Vijaya Kamlesh Tahilramani ordered listing of the case before a Bench led by Justice Sivagnanam.

Accordingly, the latter began hearing the case along with Justice Subbaroyan on June 20, 2019 and a host of senior counsel including C. Ariyama Sundaram, G. Masilamani, P.S. Raman and AR.L. Sundaresan appeared for Vedanta.

On the other side, the TNPCB was represented by senior counsel C.S. Vaidyanathan and the State government by senior counsel K.V. Viswanathan and Advocate General Vijay Narayan. Senior counsel R. Vaigai, Mr. Vaiko and advocates N.G.R. Prasad, T. Mohan, Balan Haridoss, A. Yogeshwaran also argued on behalf of the interveners opposing the plant. After 28 days of hearing with intermittent adjournments, Justice Sivagnanam suddenly got deputed to Madurai Bench from September 3.

Hence, the lawyers made a representation to the then Chief Justice Tahilramani to permit Justice Sivagnanam to remain in the principal seat of the High Court in Chennai for a week so that the arguments could be completed. However, she ordered that the case be listed before Justice Sivagnanam and Justice R. Tharani in Madurai which was not acceptable to the lawyers since they would have to argue the entire case afresh due to the introduction of a new judge in the Bench.

In the meantime, Chief Justice Tahilramani resigned and Acting Chief Justice Vineet Kothari permitted the hearing to continue before the Bench comprising Justice Sivagnanam and Justice Subbaroyan. Yet, the case could not be taken up for hearing until Justice Sivagnanam returned to Chennai last month after completing his three month tenure in Madurai since video conferencing was not found to be a viable mode of hearing given the voluminous case bundles that had to be referred to.

After Justice Sivagnanam returned from Madurai last month, Chief Justice Amreshwar Pratap Sahi waved the green signal for the recommencement of the hearing from December 16. Accordingly, the matter was heard for eight more days before the judgment got reserved on Wednesday.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2020 8:56:01 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/hc-reserves-verdict-on-vedantas-plea-to-reopen-sterlite-copper-plant/article30518041.ece

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