In a setback to Vedanta Group and shot in the arm for the Tamilnadu government and activists, the Supreme Court Monday refused to allow reopening of Sterlite plant in Thoothukudi. However, the apex court granted it liberty to approach the Madras High Court. A bench headed by Justice R F Nariman said it is allowing Tamilnadu’s appeal against the National Green Tribunal (NGT) order only on grounds of maintainability. Considering the State government’s appeal, the apex court ruled that the NGT had no jurisdiction to order reopening of the plant.
At the same time, the Supreme Court added that Vedanta had the liberty to approach the High Court with its plea for reopening of the plant expeditiously. The bench stated that it was setting aside the tribunal’s orders in this regard only on grounds of maintainability without venturing into the merits of the case. The apex court upheld the contention of the Tamilnadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) that its orders under the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 (‘Air Act’) and Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, denying permission to the plant to continue operations could not have been challenged directly before the NGT. They should have been first contested before the appellate authority constituted under the Act and only then challenged before the NGT.
“Obviously, since no order or decision had been made by the appellate authority under either the Water Act or the Air Act, any direct appeal against an original order to the NGT would be incompetent. On the facts of the present case, it is clear that an appeal was pending before the appellate authority when the NGT set aside the original order dated 09.04.2018. This being the case, the NGT’s order being clearly outside its statutory powers conferred by the Water Act, the Air Act, and the NGT Act, would be an order passed without jurisdiction,” the SC said.
“Given the fact that we are setting aside the NGT judgements involved in these appeals on the ground of maintainability, we state that it will be open for the respondents to file a writ petition in the High Court against all the aforesaid orders. If such writ petition is filed, it will be open for the respondent to apply for interim reliefs considering that their plant has been shut down since 09.04.2018. Also, since their plant has been so shut down for a long period, and they are exporting a product which is an important import substitute, the respondent may apply to the Chief Justice of the High Court for expeditious hearing of the writ petition, which will be disposed of on merits,” it added.
Though Law Minister C Ve Shanmugam has said the State government would face the case if the Vedanta Group approached the High Court for relief, activists and protesters in Thoothukudi are concerned about it. Not just them, the business community, too, wants a permanent solution to the issue.