The National Green Tribunal (NGT), in an interim order, has termed the shutting down of Vedanta Limited’s Sterlite copper smelting plant in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district “unjustified”. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) on May 23—a day after 13 protesters were killed in police firing—had ordered the permanent closure of the plant that has been at the centre of protests by locals dating back to 1999. While several locals have alleged environmental pollution for decades—both “toxic fumes” from the plant and contamination of drinking water by leachate from the plant—and consequent health effects that a government report backs, this has been contested by Sterlite which has maintained that its emissions were well within the norms. Even the groundwater allegation, it says, were incorrect. The May protest in Thoothukudi was triggered by Vedanta’s announcement of expansion of plant capacity. Against such a backdrop, the TNPCB had ordered the closure citing non-compliance, and the State Industries Promotion Corporation also announced that it would take back the land granted to the plant for expansion.
The NGT appears to believe Vedanta and cites an expert committee report to say that the TNPCB’s closure order “is against principles of natural justice”. The report also states that “the grounds mentioned in the impugned orders are not that grievous to justify permanent closure of the factory. Other issues raised also do not justify the closure of the factory even if the appellant was found to be violating the conditions/ norms/ directions”. The NGT has maintained that if it eventually orders the reopening of the plant—which now looks likely—the plant and TNPCB have to meet a host of environmental impact monitoring conditions. The NGT stand, read vis-a-vis TNPCB’s, highlights the gaps in environmental governance in the country. Their widely varying stands point at either a lack of standardised norms for pollution control or, worse, mean either the NGT or the TNPCB has drastically misread the environmental impact of the Sterlite plant, to the cost of either environment/public health or industry/development, respectively. Unfortunately, the problem is not of just this instance. Given pollution monitoring is not disaggregated for sources—it is difficult to see why this hasn’t happened yet—and standards are not uniform, crackers get banned and restrictions are imposed on movement of vehicles to check pollution when the major source could be farm fires, construction dust, etc.
Among the many conditions the NGT sets in case the plant is reopened, one is that the state pollution regulator and other state bodies must give approvals in a time-bound manner; indeed, delayed green clearances are often the bane of both industrial development and environmental governance. In the same vein, the NGT would also require Sterlite to move fast on addressing several problem areas like gypsum and slag disposal. All this means environmental governance is falling through the gaps in compliance by industry and in standard-setting by the regulators—something that India needs to address quickly.