SC sets aside NGT order to reopen Vedanta’s Tuticorin Sterlite plant; No order on reopening of the plant [Full Report]

Supreme Court: The bench of RF Nariman and Navin Sinha, JJ has refused to allow reopening of Vedanta’s Sterlite plant in Tamil Nadu’s Tuticorin, which was at the centre of massive protests over pollution concerns. It, however, granted the company liberty to approach the Madras High Court.

The Vedanta group was, hence, seeking a direction to Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) to implement the National Green Tribunal (NGT) order which had set aside the government’s decision to close the plant. The state had, however, moved the Supreme Court, saying the NGT had “erroneously” set aside various orders passed by the TNPCB last year with regard to the Sterlite plant. It had said the tribunal had consequentially directed the TNPCB to pass fresh orders of renewal of consent and issue authorisation to handle hazardous substances to Vedanta Limited.

The bench allowed Tamil Nadu’s appeal against the NGT order on grounds of maintainability and said the tribunal has no jurisdiction to order reopening of the plant. It said:

“If an appellate authority is either not yet constituted, or not properly constituted, a leapfrog appeal to the NGT cannot be countenanced. As has been held by us supra, the NGT is only conferred appellate jurisdiction from an order passed in exercise of first appeal. Where there is no such order, the NGT has no jurisdiction.”

The Court, hence, held that since an appeal was pending before the appellate authority when the NGT set aside the original order dated 09.04.2018, the NGT’s order being clearly outside its statutory powers conferred by the Water Act, the Air Act, and the NGT Act, would be an order passed without jurisdiction.

The Court, however, directed that it will be open for the respondents to file a writ petition in the High Court against all the aforesaid orders. It added:

“If such writ petition is filed, it will be open for the respondent to apply for interim reliefs considering that their plant has been shut down since 09.04.2018. 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, which will be disposed of on merits notwithstanding the availability of an alternative remedy in the case of challenge to the 09.04.2018 order of the TNPCB.”

Background of the case:

  • At least 13 people were killed and several injured on May 22 last year when police had opened fire on a huge crowd of people protesting against environment pollution being allegedly caused by the factory.
  • The Tamil Nadu government had, on May 28, ordered the state pollution control board to seal and “permanently” close the mining group’s copper plant following violent protests over pollution concerns.
  • On December 15, the NGT had set aside the state government’s order for closure of the Sterlite copper plant, saying it was “non sustainable” and “unjustified”.

[Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board v. Sterlite Industries (I) Ltd., 2019 SCC OnLine SC 221, decided on 18.02.2019]

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