Tamil Nadu government permits operation of oxygen production unit at Vedanta’s Sterlite copper smelter in Thoothukudi

Published : April 26, 2021 17:17 IST

DMK leaders, including Kanimozhi, MP, address the media after attending the all-party meeting on reopening the oxygen unit at the Sterlite Copper unit in Thoothukudi, in Chennai on April 26. Photo: JOTHI RAMALINGAM B.

Despite strong protests from local peoples and environmentalists, the Tamil Nadu government has decided to permit Vedanta Limited’s controversial Sterlite Copper plant at Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu to operate its oxygen (O2) production unit “for four months under the monitoring of the State”. This decision was taken keeping in view the emergency oxygen needs of COVID-affected patients and in order to overcome oxygen shortage in the country. Many patients have died because of lack of medical oxygen in hospitals, mainly in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi.

Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami presided over an all-party meeting at the Secretariat complex in Chennai on April 26, in which a unanimous decision was taken to allow the industry’s oxygen manufacturing unit to “function for four months”. Recognised political parties, including the main opposition party the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took part in the meeting, which was necessitated by Sterlite’s plea in the Supreme Court that it be allowed to operate its oxygen plant to help overcome the emergency situation.

The political parties insisted that the government ensure that the plant is operated only under the direct supervision of the State. “No other unit on the industry premises should be allowed to operate,” the parties urged. The Chief Minister asked the District Collector of Thoothukudi to form a committee to supervise the production. The meeting also decided that the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board would be asked to restore power supply to the oxygen production unit only. The produced oxygen should be allotted to Tamil Nadu and the surplus could be ferried to other States, the meeting decided. The unit has capacity to produce 1,050 tonnes of oxygen a day.

On April 22, Sterlite Industries approached the Supreme Court with a plea that it might be permitted to operate its oxygen plant on the premises of its Thoothukudi copper smelter plant. The State government opposed this on the grounds that opening the plant would lead to a serious law and order situation. The industry management argued that the oxygen unit should be permitted to open so that it could provide free of cost thousands of tonnes of oxygen for medical use. The Central government supported the plea, citing the urgent need for medical oxygen in the country.

The copper smelter was shut down on May 23, 2018, by the State Pollution Control Board following a massive people’s protest against environmental pollution, in which 13 civilians were killed in police firing on May 21 and 22. In August 2020, the Madras High Court rejected the industry’s petition to reopen the plant and the Supreme Court endorsed the High Court’s decision.

Chief Justice of India (CJI) S.A. Bobde, presiding over the Supreme Court Bench on April 23, took strong exception to the State government’s claim that it could not allow the plant to be reopened fearing law and order problems. Senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, appearing for the affected families, submitted that people were not for reopening Sterlite Industries and added that Tamil Nadu had surplus oxygen production. The Bench, including Justices L. Nageswara Rao and S. Ravindra Bhat, said when people were dying, could a State say “we will still not run it because there could be law and order problems?” "We are not interested that Vedanta or A, B or C runs it. We are interested that oxygen should be produced," the bench said. It sought a convincing answer from the State to the question whether it would allow Vedanta to operate its unit, or whether the State would take over the plant to produce oxygen, by April 26.

The State government announced its decision on April 26 following an all-party meeting. It also organised a closed-door public hearing in Thoothukudi on April 23, in which local people opposed any move to allow Sterlite to resume operations. Those opposing the reopening of the industry had also chased away some of those who supported the reopening. The copper smelter at the SIPCOT Industrial Complex at Thoothukudi has remained shut since the tragic events of May 2018.

Meanwhile, on April 26 Vedanta filed a special leave petition before the Supreme Court saying that the Tamil Nadu government did not have the requisite operational expertise. "The running of the oxygen plant by the State government is likely to pose grave danger not only to the assets but to the personnel deployed for operation, as the operation critically involves the operation of high pressure vessels, heavy duty compressors, high voltage equipment and proprietary control systems,” it claimed.

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