Locals oppose opening Vedanta’s oxygen plants in TN amid Covid surge

The plant was ordered to shut down in 2018 by Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and the state government over environmental violations. The case is still pending in the Supreme Court.

Sterlite Copper plant, owned by the Vedanta group of companies, has sought approvals of the Tamil Nadu government and the Centre to operate its oxygen plants to meet the rising demand for Covid-19 patients across the country. The company has also filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking its permission to open only the oxygen plant at the copper smelter unit to produce 1,050 tonnes of oxygen per day for hospitals.

However, tension prevailed at the Thoothukudi collector’s office Friday during a public hearing on the reopening of the copper plant. The Tamil Nadu government had asked the Thoothukudi district administration to conduct a public hearing and sent its report by April 23 (Friday) to submit an affidavit before the Supreme Court.

The meeting, chaired by District Collector K Senthil Raj, started at 8 am and had participants from among the general public, activists, and political parties who support or oppose the opening of the plant.

Due to the Covid-19 restrictions, only a few handpicked members were invited and this created chaos with both parties claiming that their supporters were left out. There were heated exchanges between the two groups and the administration was forced to call in the police personnel to bring the situation under control.

Close to 500 police personnel were deployed outside the district collector’s office. Locals staged a protest saying they don’t want the oxygen supplied by Vedanta company. “We don’t want it (oxygen supply) from them. When our people got shot in 2018, the government didn’t ask for any public opinion. This is a drama by the Vedanta Company to restart their plant. Covid-19 can only kill us but If we allow Vedanta to reopen their plant here, not just us but even our future generations will be affected. We will not let that happen, we will fight till our last breath,” an angry protester told the reporters.

The Supreme Court Thursday termed Covid-19 as a national emergency and agreed to hear Vedanta’s plea on Friday for opening its Sterlite Copper unit at Thoothukudi on the ground that it will produce a thousand tonnes of oxygen and give it free of cost to treat patients. Tamil Nadu government, however, had opposed any urgent hearing of Vedanta’s plea. It opposed the reopening of the smelter plant on various grounds, including that it had been rejected by the apex court earlier. In response, the Supreme court said it is almost a national emergency and the country is in dire need of oxygen. The court asked the state to let Vedanta make its plant operational only to manufacture oxygen for health purposes, adding that “between protecting the environment and human lives, we must lean in favour of human lives”.

The plant was ordered to shut down in 2018 by Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and the state government over environmental violations. The case is still pending in the Supreme Court. On May 22, 2018, at least 13 people were killed and several others were injured when the Tamil Nadu police opened fire on people who took out a demonstration against the construction of a new smelter plant by Vedanta.

On Friday, the state government said the reopening of the plant could potentially lead to a law-and-order problem as the public has been opposing it. The Supreme Court said if Vedanta cannot be allowed to run the plant, then the Tamil Nadu government should take over the unit and manufacture oxygen on an emergency basis. Further, the court added that some states are in dire need of oxygen and the resources of the country should be distributed equally.

Senior Advocate CS Vaidhyanathan, appearing for the state, said he will consult with the government and respond on reopening the plant. The court has scheduled the next hearing on Monday.

There were reports that vehicles of some of the people who spoke in favour of Vedanta at the public hearing were attacked.

Speaking to indianexpress.com, anti-Sterlite activist Viyanarasu said the meeting was called by the collector all of a sudden without informing people who had been leading the protest against Vedanta over the years.

“What is the need to organise a meeting in this Covid-19 crisis? Who permitted them? The case is still in the Supreme Court, the CBI and Justice Aruna-Jegadeesan Commission is still probing the incident. In December 2020, the Supreme Court rejected Vedanta’s request to open or maintain its plant. If Vedanta is allowed to operate, won’t the residents suffer again? On several occasions, we have informed the district administration not to conduct any meetings but to a public poll on whether they want the plant to be reopened. That way, people who vote in favour of Vedanta can be easily identified because they don’t belong to this district. They would be provided with a few 100s or 200s (in currency notes) and brought from another district to support this company. Let the government wait for the Supreme Court’s verdict,” he said.

Activist Fathima Babu echoed the refrain. She said people who participated in the meeting in favour of opening the plant didn’t know the purpose of oxygen or the danger that the reopening of the plant could cause to residents of Thoothukudi. “Majority of those who participated in the meeting raised strong objections to opening the plant. Only a few people, who were provided money to speak in favour of the company, spoke in favour of reopening the plant. There was a huge police force outside the building, it was not necessary at all. People protested outside the district office because they were not allowed to participate in the meeting. The government could have organised this in a much better way,” she said.

Those in favour of reopening the plant said the Thoothukudi residents need to understand that hundreds of people are dying due to lack of oxygen and hence, on a humanitarian basis, the plant should be allowed to open to produce oxygen.

(With PTI inputs)

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