The Supreme Court’s refusal to entertain a Special Leave Petition filed by Vedanta seeking to challenge an August 2020 Madras High Court judgment — which called for the closure of Vedanta’s copper smelting plant in Thoothukudi for repeated environmental violations — upholds the citizen’s right to clean environment.

The unit received environmental clearances in 1995 and commenced production in 1997. However, concerns were raised over the years about the large-scale environmental pollution caused by the unit’s operation. Ever since, the plant has been the subject of many rounds of litigation, including one at the SC in 2013 and Madras HC in 2020.

The unit had been a polluter between 1997 and 2012 owing to non-compliance with environmental standards and operated without the consent of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) for almost 16 years. Also, the unit did not have proper systems for hazardous waste disposal and had also dumped large amounts of copper slag, which not only lead to air and water pollution but caused floods in the region.

The Madras HC came down heavily on TNPCB in its 2020 judgment and held that the regulator failed to exercise its powers in a timely and effective way.

Upon considering the merits of Vedanta’s challenge to the Madras HC’s judgement, the Supreme Court opined that the case did not warrant any interference.

The apex Court believed Vedanta was afforded enough opportunity to take remedial action to obliterate environmental violations and clarified that the closure of industry is not a matter of first choice. It was only upon witnessing the persistent environmental pollution and the lack of remedial measures by Vedanta that the Madras HC was compelled to call for the unit’s closure.

The SC also observed that it was conscious that Vedanta’s unit had been instrumental in contributing to the assets of the nation and providing employment and revenue to the surrounding area. However, it was also essential to be mindful of other well-settled principles of sustainable development, the polluter pays principle, and the public trust doctrine.

The polluter pays principle is a norm in international and domestic environmental law, which holds that those who pollute or degrade the environment should bear the costs of the mitigation and restoration. This principle, in the words of the Apex Court, serves as a reminder that economic activities should not come at the expense of environmental degradation or the health of the population.

In addition, the doctrine of public trust reinforces the idea that governments hold natural resources in trust for the public’s benefit. The Supreme Court opined that the state must act as a steward of the environment, ensuring that environmental resources are protected from exploitation.

Lastly, and most importantly, the Supreme Court held that everyone was entitled to an unqualified right to a clean environment. In this regard, the Apex Court observed that it was aware of the concept of intergenerational equity, which suggests that the present generation, while reaping benefits from the earth, also holds its resources in trust for future generations.

In view of the above principles, the Supreme Court found no merit in Vedanta’s plea and opined that the matter did not warrant any interference. In effect, the 2020 Madras High Court judgment, which called for the closure of the copper smelting plant, stands upheld.

The decision of the SC aligns with a series of previous judgments that prioritise the right to a clean environment above all. This ruling highlights the significance of environmental compliance for businesses operating in India. As socially conscious investing and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) considerations gain prominence within the Indian business landscape, companies must be vigilant about meeting stringent environmental standards. The verdict certainly is a reminder for businesses to prioritise sustainable practices and ensure minimal environmental impact, reflecting a broader societal shift towards environmental consciousness and responsibility.

In Indian Council for Environ-Legal Action case, the Supreme Court ruled that individuals engaged in hazardous or inherently dangerous activities would be responsible for any environmental damage caused, irrespective of whether they exercised reasonable care. Moreover, in MC Mehta vs Union of India (1986), the apex court, while addressing the accountability of industries, emphasised that enterprises must conduct their operations with the highest safety standards. In case any harm arises from the activities of an enterprise, it would be strictly liable to compensate all those affected by such harm. Similarly, in MC Mehta vs Union of India (2004), the SC held that air, water and soil were indispensable elements of life, and their misuse or pollution, leading to the deterioration of others’ quality of life, could not be tolerated.

As environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations gain prominence, companies must be vigilant about meeting the environmental standards. The verdict is a reminder for businesses to prioritise sustainable practices and ensure minimal environmental impact, reflecting a broader societal shift towards environmental consciousness and responsibility.

(The writers are advocates at Trinity Chambers, Delhi)