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Balancing The Environment

Balancing The Environment

“My dear countrymen, India has shown that the march towards development is possible by balancing the environment”. Yes, among others, this is what Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his address to the nation on the occasion of our Independence Day this year from the ramparts of the Red Fort.

Exactly 3 days later on 18 August this year the Madras High Court in its 815 page judgment ordered the shutdown of Sterlite Industries.

The unit had begun its operations in Tamil Nadu’s industrial hub of Thoothukudi in 1997 after Goa, Gujarat and Maharashtra declined to permit its manufacturing activity in their respective states due to public opposition.

Ever since the foundation stone for the Rs 1300 crore copper smelter was laid in October 1994, Sterlite has been involved in one legal battle or the other. 

No sooner the plant received operating licences, the National Trust for Clean Environment challenged such clearances before the Madras High Court. 

However barely six months after the plant began operations in January 1997, producing 391 about tonnes of copper anode per day, there were reports of street vendors near the manufacturing facility falling sick besides complaints of headaches and coughing.

In November 1998, a Madras High Court commissioned study by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute concluded that the location of the Sterlite plant which was within 14 km of the Gulf of Mannar, flouted the government’s stipulation as it was located in an ecologically sensitive area. 

NEERI also reported that gas leaks from Sterlite made nearby workers sick. The groundwater water was also found contaminated with arsenic, lead, and selenium, among other chemicals. 

Anti-Sterlite activists seem to allege that although NEERI report was highly critical of the environmental norms flouted by Sterlite, just a few months later in February, 1999, NEERI gave it a clean chit even though it had found more than permissible amounts of groundwater and air pollutants in and around the factory site.

In a nut shell, Sterlite’s legal issues include its location (proximity to the ecologically sensitive region of the Gulf of Mannar) its failure to create a sufficient green belt around the factory; that without public hearings, the plant was given permission to begin operations and there were no checks and measures for the pollutants from the manufacturing unit which were seeping into the ground water.

In October 2008, a study by researchers from the Government-owned Tirunelveli Medical College found a high prevalence of respiratory tract infections among residents living within a 5 km radius which was attributed to air pollution from a mix of gases and particulate matter.

The Madras High Court orders shutting down the Sterlite plant in September 2010 on the grounds that the continuing air pollution being caused by the noxious effluents discharged into the air by the copper unit had a more devastating effect on the people living in the surroundings. 

The Supreme Court in April 2013 stayed the 2010 Madras High Court order to shut down Sterlite but slapped it with Rs 100 crore fine for flouting environmental norms. 

In June 2013 after a three month closure, Sterlite reopened after the National Green Tribunal allowed the unit to commence operations on the grounds that there was no scientific data, analysis, etc, to show emission from the plant was in excess of prescribed parameters.

On 23 March 2018, Tuticorin residents woke up to itchy eyes including burning throat and experienced difficulty in breathing trouble. The plant had been shut on the night of March 21 for routine maintenance for two days. It is said that while maintenance activities were on, some people in the neighbourhood began to complain of breathing trouble and nausea.  With reports of queues at doctors' clinics growing longer causing panic, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board swung into action only to find that sulphur-di-oxide levels had gone off the charts on the night of March 23 and was found exceeding the prescribed limit. The copper unit is immediately shut down.

As people marched to the Thoothukudi District Collector’s office on the 100th day of protest on 22 May 2018, violence reportedly erupted and 13 people lost their lives in police firing. The State Government shut the plant on 28 May 2018 and Sterlite filed an appeal before the National Green Tribunal (NGT) against the closure order. NGT constituted a Committee under a retired High Court Judge to examine the matter which had representatives from the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change and Central Pollution Control Board. Based on the Committee’s report, on 15 December 2018, NGT ordered for allowing operation of the plant revoking closure order. However, the order of NGT was stayed by the Supreme Court on 18 February 2019 on the grounds that the matter lay outside Tribunal’s jurisdiction, as the matter was pending in Madras High Court.

Ever since the Bhopal Gas tragedy killed hundreds of people in 1984, environmental awareness has grown in leaps and bound. The Ministry of Environment and Forests was established in 1985 (now rechristened Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change) is the apex administrative body in the country for regulating and ensuring environmental protection. The Environment Protection Act enacted in 1986, an umbrella legislation designed to provide a framework for the coordination of central and state authorities established under the Water Act, 1974 and the Air Act, provides for the protection and improvement of environment.  

The Judiciary has lent a helping hand in protecting the environment and the three principal maxims governing the arena of environment are the sustainable development, the polluter pays and the precautionary principles. In Vellore Citizens' Welfare Forum vs. Union of India and Others, the Supreme Court in 1996 laid down the salient principles of sustainable development consisting of the Precautionary Principle and the Polluter Pays Principle being its essential features stating: "The "Precautionary Principle" in the context of the municipal law means:

(i) Environmental measures by the State Government and the statutory authorities must anticipate, prevent and attack the causes of environmental degradation. (ii) Where there are threats of serious and irreversible damage, lack of scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation. (iii) The "onus of proof" is on the actor or the developer/industrialist to show that his action is environmentally benign.

In so far as the “The Polluter Pays Principle" is concerned the Apex Court in 2006 in

Bombay Dyeing & Mfg. Co. Ltd vs Bombay Environmental Action rightly observed that once the activity carried on is hazardous or inherently dangerous, the person carrying on such activity is liable to make good the loss caused to any other person by his activity irrespective of the fact whether he took reasonable care while carrying on his activity. The rule is premised upon the very nature of the activity carried on". Consequently the polluting industries are "absolutely liable to compensate for the harm caused by them to villagers in the affected area, to the soil and to the underground water and hence, they are bound to take all necessary measures to remove sludge and other pollutants lying in the affected areas". In M C Mehta vs. Union of India, the Supreme Court maintained in 2002 that the balance between environmental protection and developmental activities could only be maintained by strictly following the principle of' sustainable development. This is a development strategy that caters the needs of the present without negotiating the ability of upcoming generations to satisfy their needs. The strict observance of sustainable development will put us on a path that ensures development while protecting the environment, a path that works for all peoples and for all generations.

In all probability, Mr Anil Agarwal, a tiny scrap dealer-turned multi billionaire Chairman of Vedanta Resources headquartered in London and ranked 38th richest Indian on the Forbes rich list in 2019 may use all his available resources to reopen the Sterlite plant at Thoothukudi. That Sterlite was the single-largest private company handling a consistent annualised volume of about 38 lakh metric tonnes of cargo and closure of the plant has affected the livelihood of thousands of people in related industries is a cause for concern. There are reports that copper prices have shot up. But for now the people of the port city seem to be overjoyed at the closure of the copper smelting unit. 

So, in balancing the environment, has public pressure finally won?

(Published on 24th August 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 35)