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Perfect lesson for industrial polluters

The Supreme Court of India is clearly on a roll. Just a day after giving out the landmark verdict against Novartis AG’s patent protection plea, it has now slapped a whopping Rs 100 crore fine on Sterlite Industries’ smelting copper plant in Tamil Nadu’s Tuticorin area, to restore ecological damages and environmental pollution that took place from gas leak, industrial effluents and chemical waste materials coming out from the plant.  The apex court’s decision comes in the wake of the severe environmental degradation in the Tuticorin area caused by the plant’s waste materials during the period 1997 – 2011, and according to Justice A K Patnaik of the esteemed bench, ‘an amount less than Rs 100 crore would not have the desired deterrent effect.’ In addition, the court has also said that this damage price will not affect other damage claims made by way of civil suits during this period, which is a right lesson for irresponsible corporate practices prevalent in the sector. Sterlite, which is part of the controversial Vedanta Resources group, is among the several subsidiaries under scanner for causing massive ecological destruction in the states of Chhattisgarh and Odisha, particularly for mining ores like bauxite in these regions, much to the detriment of their natural habitats and ecological balance.

However, Supreme Court’s decision to fine Sterlite Industries’ Tuticorin plant is also an overruling of the previous Madras High Court order in 2010 to shut the installation down, owing to complaints of major gas leak. The plant had been under the scanner even before it had come into existence in 1997-98, when local leaders objected to its setting up over justified environmental concerns. The plant, which is located about 10 kilometres from the Gulf of Manner Marine Biosphere Reserve, housing more than 150 species of coral, seas grass beds and fishes, was a surefire health hazard to the entire ecosystem of the region. In fact, a 1998 investigation into the plant’s green quotient by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) had recommended that the unit be closed down, though no heed was paid. In 2001, the AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu helped reopen the disputed plant, much to the consternation of local and green groups, which objected to the plant’s obtaining the environmental clearances despite having demonstrably shaky safety belts. Following the Madras High Court order, which it had got stayed by a Supreme Court verdict, the plant had been operating normally until the recent gas leak incident, which made the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board order Sterlite to close the unit. However, with the Supreme Court penalty imposed on it, even the relief of not having to close the plant down might not go down well with the London-based Vedanta group. Nevertheless, the fact that these global polluters, who are also tangled in bauxite mining and aluminum refinery scams in India, have been given a clean chit as far as continuing of operations are concerned, is not good news. Stricter regulations must come into being and be implemented without fail if ecological preservation has to be ensured.
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