The Supreme Court on Friday suggested that the Tamil Nadu government takes over Vedanta’s plant in the state to produce oxygen as the country battles a terrible second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, reported Bar and Bench.
The court was hearing a plea by Vedanta seeking opening of its Sterlite copper unit at Tuticorin on the ground that it would produce oxygen and give it free of cost to treat coronavirus patients. While the Centre has backed the plea, the Tamil Nadu government has opposed it.
Senior Advocate CS Vaidyanathan, appearing for Tamil Nadu, told the court that reopening the plant could pose law and order problems since the public was opposed to it. “I don’t want a repeat of 2018 incident,” said Vaidyanathan.
He was referring to the incident in which 13 people protesting against the expansion of Vedanta’s copper smelter plant were killed in police firing on May 22, 2018. Residents of the area have consistently claimed the plant contaminated the region’s air and water resources.
“Why don’t you fulfil your responsibility in manufacturing oxygen?” asked the court. “Just because you have problem with Vedanta you will not manufacture oxygen? What kind of argument is this? We are not interested whether Vedanta or A, B, or C runs it. We are interested in ensuring oxygen is produced. It is not a question of Vedanta. People are dying. You [state] can produce oxygen.”
The Central government also agreed to the court’s observations.
However, senior advocate Colin Gonsalves argued that the state was not manufacturing oxygen as it was already in surplus in the state. But, Chief Justice SA Bobde said other states were in need of oxygen. “The national assets of the country should be equally distributed among the citizens,” the bench said.
Vaidyanathan said that he would speak to the government officials and get back to the court. The court said it will hear the matter again on Monday.
On Thursday, the top court had called the Covid-19 situation almost a “national emergency” when it had agreed to hear Vedanta’s plea.
Meanwhile, tensions ran high in Thoothukudi on Friday after the district collector convened a meeting of representatives of the anti-Sterlite movement to seek their response on the matter, The New Indian Express reported. While most of the activists opposed reopening of the plant, chaos erupted as the authorities evicted the press from the venue and did not allow members of political parties to participate in the meeting.
In a written statement jointly signed by 10 activists, they sought the dismantling of the unit before operating the oxygen plant. The district collector assured that he would recommend to the state government not to open the plant, The New Indian Express reported.
The country’s healthcare system has collapsed under the strain of the surge of daily coronavirus cases. Several states are experiencing crippling shortages of oxygen and other critical equipment. As per an analysis by Scroll.in, India’s daily requirement of medical oxygen is currently more than double the amount that has been exempted from industrial use – 4,600 metric tonnes. And the country may run out of stocks in a few weeks even if all industrial oxygen is diverted to medical use.
In the Capital city of Delhi, private hospitals are knocking on the doors of the High Court, desperately pleading for oxygen supplies as stocks run dangerously low. Several facilities have warned they only had supplies worth a few hours left.
On Thursday, the High Court had directed the Centre to ensure that oxygen supplies and its transportation remained undisrupted. It asked the government to provide adequate security to the transporting vehicles and create special corridors.
Hours before that, the Centre had ordered that no restrictions should be imposed on the movement of medical oxygen between states. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also asked state governments to “come down heavily” on those who are hoarding oxygen used to treat coronavirus patients as several states faced shortages.