State had challenged NGT’s decision to appoint a panel
The Supreme Court has refused a plea by the Tamil Nadu government to review its September 10 order allowing a National Green Tribunal-appointed ‘independent and credible committee’, led by former high court judge Justice Tarun Agarwala, to look into the State’s closure of the Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi district.
On September 10, a Bench of Justices Rohinton Fali Nariman and Indu Malhotra rejected objections raised by Tamil Nadu against NGT’s August 20 decision to appoint the Justice Agarwala committee without first deciding the question of maintainability and merit of the Vedanta appeal before it.
The tribunal had tasked the committee to examine the plant’s ‘environmental compliance as well as impact on inhabitants as perceived or actual’. “Application for listing of review petition in open court is rejected. Having carefully gone through the review petition, the order under challenge and the papers annexed therewith, we are satisfied that there is no error apparent on the face of the record, warranting reconsideration of the order impugned. The review petition is, accordingly, dismissed,” Justices Nariman and Malhotra observed on November 20.
“Our review was based on the grounds that the NGT should have first decided the maintainability of the Vedanta appeal before setting up a committee to examine the closure of the plant. We had challenged that the setting up of the committee was against the law,” T.N. counsel Yogesh Kanna said.
In a release, Sterlite Copper CEO P. Ramnath said: “We welcome the decision of the Supreme Court.”
On that day, the Bench refused to intervene when the State challenged an NGT order allowing Vedanta to access the administrative unit inside the Thoothukudi plant. Instead, the court ordered Tamil Nadu to return to the NGT and specifically raise the issue of maintainability.
Tamil Nadu, however, came back to the Supreme Court a second time.
In a hearing held on September 10, the State informed the apex court about the appointment of the expert committee. The State contended that the tribunal had appointed the expert panel without referring to the apex court’s August 17 order that the NGT “may continue to hear the matter both on merits as well as on maintainability and finally decide the matter on both counts”.
However, senior advocate C.A. Sundaram, for Vedanta, made a timely intervention for his client in the hearing. Mr. Sundaram argued that the court should allow the NGT-appointed committee to continue with its work and submit its report in the tribunal. The NGT could very well hear and decide on the question of maintainability subsequently. The court had finally seemed to agree with Mr. Sundaram’s submission on September 10 and recorded that “since our order is not referred to in the August 20 order passed by the NGT, we need only to state that once the committee’s report is given to the tribunal, it will proceed to decide the matter in accordance with our August 17 order”.
The State had argued in the apex court that the NGT had “failed to note that an order passed by the State government under Section 18(1)(b) of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 is not appealable before the NGT as per the statute”.
The State had contended that NGT’s jurisdiction “pertains to civil disputes relating to environment and not a policy decision taken by the State of Tamil Nadu”.
The State had argued that the tribunal failed to appreciate the report provided by Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board stating that the quality of groundwater collected at eight locations in and around the copper smelter plant of M/s Vedanta Limited revealed that the level of TDS was “very high”.
Mr. Ramnath said: “We would like to reassure the people of Tamil Nadu that we have always been operating the smelter within prescribed norms and have submitted all supporting data and evidence to the National Green Tribunal.”