The Vedanta-owned Sterlite Copper Plant in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi, which was shut in 2018 amid protests bearing similarity to violent environmental vigilantism, has now been allowed to open by the government of Tamil Nadu for the sole purpose of manufacturing medical oxygen, at a time when the nation faces an unrelenting second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic which has given rise to nightmarish logistical issues pertaining to the timely transport of oxygen. The decision to open the copper smelting plant was taken at an all-party meeting chaired by chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami at the secretariat in Chennai on Monday.
Behind the decision of the Tamil Nadu government to allow the reopening of the copper plant for a period of four months for producing oxygen is the might of one man – senior advocate Harish Salve. India’s foremost legal eagle and a corporate lawyer par excellence, Harish Salve had taken the plea of Vedanta to reopen the Sterlite plant before the Supreme Court. The apex court had agreed to hear the matter, as Vedanta had argued that it must be allowed to play a role in helping the country during the time of crisis.
Harish Salve would most definitely secure the Supreme Court’s nod to reopen the Sterlite copper plant, and that would be a PR disaster for ‘Dravidian’ parties, who had turned the anti-Sterlite protests into an existential battle which the people of Tamil Nadu were fighting against the eternal enemies of the ‘Dravidian’ culture. It is therefore not surprising that all parties unanimously agreed to allow the partial reopening of the copper smelting plant – with extravagant restrictions of course. It is entirely possible that various vested interest groups and political forces in the state feared seeing the top court allowing an unrestricted reopening of the Sterlite plant, which would undo all the evil designs of anti-industry and anti-development activists.
TFI had earlier explained how the apex court allowing the plant to open for oxygen production would open the floodgates for Vedanta to capitalize on the resultant goodwill, following which Harish Salve might push for the permanent opening of the production facility that was closed three years ago due to protests from China-paid environmentalists. Being the shrewd lawyer that he is, getting the Supreme Court to agree to the same would not be a herculean task for him.
The closure of the Sterlite copper plant has done immense damage to the economy of the country, and massive benefit to Chinese and Pakistani copper producers. The company also paid 2,200 crore rupees in tax to the government. The Tamil Nadu government had ordered the closure of the plant in May 2018. But the National Green Tribunal (NGT) cleared the reopening of the plant a few months back. However, the Supreme Court overruled the NGT order and the plant remains non-operational. The matter is sub-judice and the case is pending in Madras High Court.
Harish Salve being roped in to fight for the reopening of the Sterlite plant, and the Centre being sympathetic to the same has scared many in Tamil Nadu, who now cannot afford to be seen as unreasonable environmental vigilantes. It is the might and ability of Harish Salve to win the most difficult of cases which seems to have paved the way for the Sterlite plant to be allowed to produce oxygen.