The Supreme Court on Wednesday proposed forming a “non-partisan” committee to objectively evaluate environmental concerns and to suggest additional conditions, if any, for re-opening Vedanta Sterlite’s copper plant at Thoothukudi district in Tamil Nadu.

The copper smelting plant was permanently shut down on the orders of the Tamil Nadu government six years ago on grounds of pollution. The 2018 closure of the plant was preceded by nearly 30 years of local protests, which had even led to an incident of police firing.

“We have to find a way forward... We have to reach a win-win solution by which the concerns of the State as a custodian of the health of the people will be protected, your (Vedanta) concern as an investor is protected, and our concern that this is not a facility lost to the nation is taken care of,” Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud, heading a three-judge Bench, observed during a day-long hearing.

The Bench said the committee could submit its report to the apex court in a month.

Vedanta has moved the court against the closure. Senior advocate Shyam Divan, for the company, said the plant was a national asset. Its production had amounted to 1200 tons of copper a day. Fifty percent of the product was used domestically. There were only three or so such plants. Thousands of employees were in dire straits with the closure of the plant. Divan said the Tamil Nadu government had itself consented to locating the plant in an industrial area. The industry, being in the red category, had been operated under the highest degree of scrutiny. The degree of compliance with environmental norms had been very high at the threshold. The State’s direction to close the plant was disproportionate.

Divan said Vedanta was in “broad agreement” with the suggestion of the court to form an expert committee. He urged the court to let the company refurbish the plant at its own risk and cost in the interim.

“There is degeneration taking place every month. It needs massive overhauling,” Divan pleaded.

Senior advocate CS Vaidyanathan, for the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, countered that the “way forward” for Vedanta was to “sell the plant and go elsewhere.” They had attempted it, he said.

Senior advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan, for the State, said the plant landed in Tamil Nadu after a series of rejections by Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Goa in the 1990s.

“The State feels quite strongly on this issue...This court had imposed ₹ 100 crore compensation on them 11 years ago. There are some things money cannot buy,” Sankaranarayanan submitted.

He said every political dispensation in the “highly polarised” State of Tamil Nadu had supported the closure.

“Out of 59,600 industries operating in the State, why would I close just this one? We are supported by the history of their past conduct. Dumping slag for one. That reason alone was enough for me to close the plant,” Sankaranarayanan argued.

Chief Justice Chandrachud said some sort of “middle ground” must be ironed out. Even if Vedanta sold up, some other player would have to ultimately invest in the site, the court reasoned.

“We have to instead explore what should be the best modalities to subserve public interest. Ensure protection and reparation if the committee per se finds no reason to shut down the industry. This industry generates revenue for the nation and the State. The country should not lose this asset,” the Chief Justice remarked.

The court said Vedanta, however, in case the committee recommends re-opening, cannot resume operations with the same standards of 2018. A domain expert’s view on how to make the plant state-of-the-art should be taken and complied with, even if it meant investing ₹ 100 crore initially.

“The committee will dictate, you have to comply,” the Chief Justice addressed Divan.

The court said the State’s concerns cannot be taken lightly. The State represented the interests of the public. The residents of Thoothukudi had to be “carried along,” and the orders of the court in the case had to inspire public confidence.

“The Tamil Nadu government is answerable to the community residing in Thoothukudi. They are your constituents,” Chief Justice Chandrachud observed.

The court urged both the State and Vedanta to suggest modalities and domain experts for the committee by the next hearing on February 15.

“There should be a broad element of consensus on both sides instead of us pushing the order down everyone’s throats... You (Vedanta) can do business only if the State is on board. That is the hard reality of India,” Chief Justice Chandrachud said. eom

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