The Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed Vedanta to operate its oxygen production plant at its Sterlite Copper premises in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi, NDTV reported. The court held that the decision was necessary as the prevailing coronavirus situation was a “natural calamity”.

A bench of Justices DY Chandrachud, L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat said that Vedanta can start the production of oxygen in around ten days and should supply it for free. An expert panel will oversee the production, the court said, adding that oxygen will be given to the Centre for allocation to the states.

“There is a national crisis,” said Justice Chandrachud said. “People are dying... We have to get the local community on our side.”

The court also said that there should be no “political bickering” on the verdict. “We are here to protect [the] lives of citizens,” it said. “We have to support [the] nation as a court.”

The expert panel will decide the number of workers to be allowed inside the plant, the Supreme Court said. It also asked the Tamil Nadu government to form a panel, including the district collector and the Tuticorin superintendent of police, to monitor the activities of Vedanta.

The verdict came a day after the Tamil Nadu government allowed the plant’s reopening for four months. Last week, the Supreme Court had suggested that the Tamil Nadu government take over the plant as oxygen is essential for the survival of critical coronavirus patients. The court made the observation while hearing a plea by Vedanta on the grounds that it would produce oxygen and give it free of cost to treat patients.

The copper smelter plant was sealed after 13 people protesting against its expansion 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.

Oxygen crisis

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 published on April 22, India’s daily requirement of medical oxygen is 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 national Capital, last week hospitals took to social media to plead with the government to replenish their oxygen supplies and threatened to stop admissions of new patients.

On April 23, as many as 25 “sickest” coronavirus patients died overnight at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital. A day later, at least 20 coronavirus patients died due to a shortage of oxygen at the city’s Jaipur Golden Hospital.

Amid this crisis, various countries and regions, including the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States, have pledged to send urgent medical aid to India. Pakistan, France and China have also offered help in recent days.

Meanwhile, India on Tuesday registered 3,23,144 new coronavirus cases in a day, taking the total number of infections to 1,76,36,307 since the pandemic broke out in January 2020. While the single-day infection count is slightly less than Monday’s, India registered more than 3 lakh cases for the sixth day in a row. With 2,771 deaths, the toll went up to 1,97,894.

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