All three in one verdict: How Madras HC gave relief for people and a blow for Sterlite and TN Govt?

In a landmark verdict, the Madras High Court has, on Tuesday, penned the judgment of not allowing the re-opening of the Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi, that posed a severe threat to the lives and livelihoods and the verdict has answered the voices and concerns of the people and activists by pouring a major relief to them by refusing to consent to the re-opening of the plant. 

Through the verdict, the Madras High Court had brought a meaningful end for the two-decades long fight of the activists and people against the copper plant. In its 815-page verdict, the High Court bench had rejected all the ten petitions moved by Vedanta Limited, a parent body of the Sterlite plant, and made the plant accountable for defying the environmental rules and the High court bench had also castigated the Tamil Nadu government for being less concerned on the health condition of the people of Thoothukudi. 

The Madras High Court bench comprised of Justices TS Sivagnanam and V Bhavani Subbaroyan ran the race of argument and had given a major blow to the Vedanta Limited, signaling the voices of people won and always win the race. In its final verdict, the court had dismissed the group's petitions of challenging respective orders of the government and the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) in closing the plant and rejecting the renewal of consent to operate the plant. 

On April 4, 2018, the TNPCB had rejected the renewal of consent and in the following month, the state government had issued orders to seal the plant permanently following the protests and police firing against the people that killed 13 residents who were protesting against the plant and the threat that it possessed to their lives. The government had cited that the plant had defied the environmental laws. However, the Vedanta Group had moved its petitions to the High Court and challenged the orders. 

In its petitions, Vedanta said that it has been incurring a loss of Rs 5 crore per day after the closure of the Sterlite plant and it has estimated that it has lost between Rs 3,500 crore to 4,000 crore as the plant was remained shut for over 790 days. It also argued that the employment opportunities of the people attached to the plant had damaged and the closure has also hit the Indian economy as it ought to import copper as the national demand for copper could not be met. 

In counter, the petitions from the activists and political parties had ruled out Vedanta's claims and explicitly stated the company had violated the environmental laws. The hearing of the matter ran for nearly 40 days during the High court noted the arguments of the stakeholders and reserved its order in January this year. In a much-awaited judgment, the High Court pronounced its verdict on Tuesday in which it upheld the orders of the state government and TNPCB against the copper plant, dismissed the petitions of the Vedanta limited, and poured a major relief to the people by refusing to allow the re-opening of the plant. 

In its 815-page order, the High Court has outlawed the claims of Vedanta on bringing the economy to the picture and pressed that the environment is supreme when its compared to the economy. Along with giving a major blow to the company, the order has also castigated the Tamil Nadu government and the copper plant over being less-concerned on the health of the local people. One of the important factors to be noted from the verdict is that the government's least concern on the well being and health of the people located in the vicinities of the plant. 

The court had highlighted the study conducted by the Department of Community Medicine, Tirunelveli Medical College in 2008, which had become one of the crucial evidence of the activists that the copper plant had flouted the environment laws on air. The study, which was titled 'Health Status and Epidemiological Study around 5 km Radius of Sterlite Industries limited, Thoothukudi, was carried out by the Tirunelveli Medical College which surveyed a population of 80,725 people around Sterlite and comparing it to the areas without large-scale industries in the pearl district. 

In its study, the Medical college revealed that there has been an increasing number of brain tumors among men and menstrual disorders among women living around the copper plant along with the respiratory diseases and multiple disorders related to ear, nose, and throat. The study further revealed that the iron content in the groundwater in Therkuveerapandiapuram and Kumareddiyapuram was about 17 to 20 times higher than what was permitted by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) for drinking water and two out of seven groundwater samples had larger levels of fluoride that the prescribed levels. 

By citing the health report, the High court observed that this study cannot be disregarded and noted that the company had been disclosing the Community Health Monitoring Reports to the TNPCB once in six months since 2011 and it has disclosed such report before the TNPCB in February 2018 for the last time which stated that there has been no major health effects caused by the industry. However, in its verdict, the High Court said that there has been no concrete material was disclosed before the bench to picture how the   TNPCB and authorities processed the health monitoring reports submitted by the company once in six months. 

The Court noted that there has been a lack of oversight in monitoring the health condition of the people as the TNPCB had neither shown whether it has a team of medical experts to overview the health reports or it transferred the reports to the District Medical Hospital and the court said it was justified that the periodical reports disclosed by the copper plant once in six months were merely filed in the pollution control board. 

The court has castigated the state government and said that its government's duty to provide a clean and healthy living atmosphere to the people and concerned authorities should take the matter with utmost seriousness if the operation of the industry raises health concerns. By comparing the medical report and the data filed by the copper plant, the court further stated that the authorities should have accessed the reviewed the health condition of the people living around the copper plant and observed that the health concern of the people in and around the factory hadn't been monitored by the authorities properly. 

Though the company disclosed the report for once in six months, such reports won't fulfill the adequate requirements and the government authorities should have been cross verified the reports, which haven't been done by the government and the court has also said it requires a detailed probe into the matter on how the operation has impacted the health condition of the people. As soon as the verdict was pronounced, the residents and activists had started celebrating that their fight has won after two decades and all the state political leaders had welcomed the judgment that upheld people and the environment over industries.

It has been a verdict of all three in one- a major relief to the Thoothukudi people, a big blow to the Vedanta group, and a strong castigation against the state government over its less concern of monitoring the health condition of the people.