In a victory to the Tamil Nadu government and protesters, the Supreme Court on Monday set aside the National Green Tribunal (NGT) decision to reopen the Sterlite copper plant at Thoothukudi.
The plant had been ordered to be closed down by the Tamil Nadu government due to environmental pollution.
A Bench led by Justice Rohinton Nariman concluded that the tribunal lacked jurisdiction to entertain the appeal by the plant's owner, Vedanta, against the shutdown.
Allowing the Tamil Nadu government’s appeal against the NGT decision, the judgment by Justice Nariman gave Vedanta liberty to move the Madras High Court for any interim reliefs.
Meanwhile, the plant remains closed.
Merits of the case
The court has not gone into the merits of the case and peremptorily set aside the tribunal decision on the ground of maintainability alone.
The appeal filed by the State, through advocate M. Yogesh Kanna, said the tribunal failed to consider the entire gamut of data, documents and evidence placed on record in the case to show that the plant had “ irreversibly polluted the ground water in and around the Thoothukudi district”.
The tribunal, in its December 15 order, directed the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) to pass fresh orders of renewal of consent and issue authorisation to Vedanta Limited to handle hazardous substances.
In the apex court, the State questioned the manner in which Vedanta approached the NGT directly when the statutory appeal against the TNPCB order to shut down the plant was pending adjudication before the appellate authority. It argued that Vedanta move to come to the NGT amounted to “forum-shopping”.
'No jurisdiction to judge on validity of G.O.'
Besides, the appeal contended that the tribunal did not have the jurisdiction to adjudicate upon the validity of a government order.
Only the constitutional courts have the power and the jurisdiction to do so. “It is submitted that the jurisdiction conferred upon the tribunal under Section 14 (1) of the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 does not include the power to examine the validity of government orders,” the appeal said.
The State argued that the tribunal went outside the four walls of the statute governing its functions to appoint a committee led by former High Court Chief Justice Tarun Aggarwala to prepare a report in the case. It said the NGT was not a constitutional court like the Supreme Court to employ unbridled powers to constitute a committee like that.
The committee, having been formed, failed to consider any of the contentions as well as documents while preparing its report. The NGT had, in turn, relied on the committee report.
“The scientific material and the analysis report on water and air pollution have not even been set out or considered. Thus, effectively the NGT assumed a non-existent jurisdiction but having done so, failed to exercise it by considering the facts and evidence while arriving at findings. There are no reasons but mere conclusions in the impugned order. It is unfortunate that the NGT has not bestowed adequate and serious consideration of the environmental pollution caused by the respondent’s [Vedanta] unit,” Tamil Nadu argued.
The State contended that Vedanta had not been complying with pollution norms, and the situation had severely deteriorated since 1996. “Far from taking precautionary steps, the unit has willfully flouted the norms and caused the present appalling situation where the groundwater contains TDS [total dissolved solids] more than 20 to 40 times the permissible limit,” it said.