Sterlite: HC verdict shows TNPCB, govt in poor light

M Ramesh Chennai | Updated on August 25, 2020

The recent verdict of the Madras High Court in the Sterlite case shows the government of Tamil Nadu and its pollution control arm, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), in poor light. The judgment throws up innumerable instances when the pollution watchdog didn’t do its job.

The copper smelter plant of Sterlite Copper, part of the Vedanta group, was closed down by the Tamil Nadu government in May 2018, based on a similar order of the TNPCB. Sterlite moved the High Court of Madras against the closure and the court gave its judgment last week, upholding the closure.

The judges, T S Sivagnanam and Bhavani Subbaroyan, have lambasted the body multiple times in the judgment.

For instance, when the judgment refers to the mound of copper slag lying dumped at a point near a river, the judges note that “neither the TNPCB nor the District Administration took effective steps to abate the nuisance.”

They further observe that the district administration “cannot plead ignorance because the quantity of slag dumped is virtually a small hillock and visible to any passer-by. Therefore, this court can safely conclude that the officials of the District Administration turned a blind eye to the illegality.”

Finding TNPCB “equally culpable”, the judges say, “What needs to be done to these officers is a matter which requires serious consideration and to serve as a deterrent to the serving officers of the Board.”

(Sterlilte’s stand is that it had sold off the slag to a man called A Paul, who had stored it there—some 10 km away from Sterlite plant. Even though the company had an MoU with Paul to ensure the disposal of the slag, it was not allowed to do so and had even reported it several time to both the district collector and the TNPCB.)

Ground water quality

While talking about ground water quality, the judges take note of Sterlite’s stand that there was never a charge on that count against it, but say, “the regulator (TNPCB) failed to do their job.” They, however, said that Sterlite “cannot be exonerated” because the TNPCB failed to do its job.

An allegation against Sterlite is that it had been operating for many years without obtaining the authorisation under the Hazardous Waste Management Rules renewed by TNPCB. (Sterlite says that it’s application had been pending with the Board, like that of many other companies in the region—all of which still continue to operate without the HWM authorisation.) “The fact that authorisation was not renewed is a very serious matter,” the judges have said.

The judgment holds that Sterlite could not continue to handle and dispose-off hazardous waste just because the renewal of the authorisation was pending. (Sterlite feels the waste is not hazardous at all and says the TNPCB has allowed the waste to be used in road construction.) Having said that, the judgment comes down heavily upon the TNPCB saying, “stringent action has to be initiated against the officials who were in-charge at the relevant point of time, equally the superior officers and others at the helm of affairs.”

At another point, the judges come down heavily on the TNPCB for just accepting Sterlite’s reply to a show-cause notice of the Board, saying that “all the issues were being addressed.” The Board closed the issues raised in the show-cause notice based on the assurances. The judgment calls this “irresponsible”, even while noting, “it is not clear what assurance was given by the petitioner.”

“The Board has failed to disclose how the explanation offered by the petitioner was acceptable,” the judges say, holding the TNPCB “reckless” and calling for prosecution of the officials in-charge.

Gulf of Mannar

A point considered in the judgment is that of arsenic contamination, arising out of the toxic metal being present in the imported copper concentrate. The judges say the TNPCB failed to monitor the quality of the imported concentrate. “The quality of the copper concentrate is definitely an issue which is a matter of concern and we shift the blame to the TNPCB.”

In this context, the question of TNPCB’s prolonged silence in answering the application for renewal for handling hazardous waste material comes up again. Once again, the judges are livid. “It is rather surprising as to how the TNPCB continued to permit the petitioner to operate and handle and disposed of hazardous waste without renewal of the authorisation.

“Thus, we can safely conclude that there is every possibility of these hazardous chemicals being not accounted for, thereby causing hazard to the environment. The person to be blamed is the regulator and the regulator alone.”

The judgment also finds fault with the state government for not notifying the Gulf of Mannar as a National Park even though it was recommended by the Chief Wildlife Warden in April 2003.

“It is not clear as to why the State of Tamil Nadu is sitting tight on the proposal, are there any hidden beneficiaries who would benefit by delaying the publication of the notification?” the judgement says.

Published on August 23, 2020

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