Environmental activists on Wednesday expressed disappointment with a National Green Tribunal-appointed committee’s conclusion that the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to shut down the Sterlite Copper smelter in Thoothukudi district on May 28 is illegal, improper and “in violation of natural justice”.

Describing the finding as “predictable”, Fatima Babu, a member of the Anti-Sterlite People’s Movement and one of the interveners in the case, said, “We had earlier expressed our doubts about the neutrality of the committee by way of an application at the NGT, which was summarily dismissed without a proper hearing.”

The state government issued the order to shut down the Sterlite Copper smelter after 13 people protesting the planned expansion of the plant were killed in police firing in Thoothukudi on May 22. This followed two decades of protests by activists and residents who claimed the plant – set up in 1996 – had contaminated the air and water in the region and caused health problems.

In June, Vedanta challenged the state government’s closure order in the National Green Tribunal and challenged the state pollution control board’s rejection of Sterlite’s Consent to Operate application and its May 23 order stopping electricity and water supply to the unit.

On August 23, the tribunal set up the three-member committee to conduct an “independent probe”.

The Anti-Sterlite People’s Movement alleged that the three-member committee’s report made no mention of any findings on pollution, hazardous waste mismanagement and other legal violations by Sterlite Copper, a subsidiary of the United Kingdom-headquartered metals and mining firm Vedanta Resources.

However, the interveners are yet to receive a copy of the report. “When [we] appealed for copies of the report, the NGT said they might consider providing the copies on December 7, when the next hearing is scheduled,” said Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer and Babu’s counsel.

Babu added, “Asking [us] to participate as parties without sharing the information on the basis of which we could argue is unjust and against the principle of natural justice.”

The activist also said the tribunal is not the appropriate forum to challenge the state government’s order shutting down the plant permanently. “Government decisions can only be challenged in the High Court or Supreme Court,” she pointed out.

Dutta added that the committee has recommended certain conditions and changes under which the company can function again. “We do not know what those changes required to be made [are],” he added. “We have to wait for the next hearing.”

He, however, said the committee has directed the Central Pollution Control Board to ensure that Vedanta complies with pollution norms.

Protests, shutdown, challenge

The three-member committee submitted its report, in 48 volumes, to the tribunal on Tuesday. It concluded that the orders of the state pollution control board and the Tamil Nadu government were not maintainable as the company was not given an opportunity to defend itself, according to Ritwick Dutta.

The National Green Tribunal will now hold the final hearing in the case on December 7 and pronounce its order.

While setting up the committee in August, the National Green Tribunal had noted in its order that the Sterlite Copper plant’s contribution to copper production in the country and the fact that it employed 1,300 people could not be ignored.

The plant had the capacity to produce 4,38,000 tonnes of copper anodes per annum, or 1,200 tonnes a day.

In September, the committee – headed by former Meghalaya High Court Chief Justice Tarun Agarwal, with scientists Satish C Garkoti and HD Varalaxmi as its members – visited the plant in Thoothukudi and conducted observations. They held public consultations in Thoothukudi and in Chennai in October.

At a hearing in Chennai on October 5, the committee received more than 3 lakh letters opposing the reopening of the plant, The News Minute reported. Nearly 1.7 lakh of the representations were reportedly from the Anti-Sterlite People’s Movement.

Later that month, the Tamil Nadu government told the National Green Tribunal that the air quality in Thoothukudi had improved since the plant was shut down. Fathima Babu, too, had said then that pollution control board data showed an improvement in ambient air quality.