The order of the Madras High Court closing down the copper smelting plant of Sterlite Industries at Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu is one more serious set back for the growth of the chemical and allied industries in Tamil Nadu. A few years back, a well operated and profit making South India Viscose Ltd., Coimbatore was forced to close down due to order of the judiciary on environmental ground. .This unit could not overcome the shock and finally it was wound up. In the process, Tamil Nadu lost substantial production capacity of viscose rayon and hundreds of people lost the jobs.
The predicament faced by both Sterlite Industries and South India Viscose can be broadly viewed as similar, since both the companies have been operated at reasonably good standards, employing best of technologies that are globally available . Certainly, problems faced by the units were not due to them but inspite of their efforts. It is also necessary to remember that several of the plants operating in similar conditions and parameters like that of South India Viscose Ltd and Sterlite Industries are presently running in other parts of the world.
Another recent serious set back for chemical industries in Tamil Nadu was the giving up of the large titanium dioxide project by Tata Group at Tuticorin, due to problems in land acquisition. In such cases, Tamil Nadu Government has largely remained aloof, resigning itself to the developments as if it has no role in the matter.
In the case of Sterlite Industries, Madras High Court has not only ordered the closure of the unit and censured the management of the unit and in the process, it also squarely blamed the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and Central Environmental Ministry.Obviously, Madras High Court has over ruled the environmental authority in this matter, as Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board has no objection to the operation of Sterlite Industries in its present conditions.
Environmental Ministry of Government of India have well laid out specification for discharge of emission from the operating plant premises. The authority like Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board can provide environmental consent only if the operating specification would be adhered to by the units as per the prevailing environmental rules and regulations. One wonders whether it would be appropriate for the court to over rule the decision of the Pollution Control Board in such matters, as the environmental authority must have been guided by the stipulated standards laid out in the rules.
Possibly, the Madras High Court suspects that the Pollution Control Board have not implemented guidelines of the rules and regulations of the Government of India in strict accordance with the laid out specifications. But, there is no indication in the judgment and the court has not pointed out any such specific lapses by Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board
Ordering the closure of well run chemical units on environmental ground can always be a matter of controversy and doubtful decision , as the subject is one of cost benefit analysis and technological issues as well as loss of jobs and economic loss to the state. Judiciary can ill afford to maintain a tunnel view.
In ordering the closure of the unit, obviously the Madras High Court is concerned about the consequence of social problems. To safeguard the interests of the over 2500 direct and indirect employees, it has ordered the payment of compensation but such compensation can be only once payment or payment for short duration and it will not relieve the problems of the affected employees in a meaningful way. The court has further directed District Collector to find alternative jobs for the employees, which is unrealistic and far fetched order, that can not be implemented by the District Collector due to various constraints.
Is there not any other way that the court can deal with the environmental issue concerned with the Sterlite Industries? Instead of closing down the unit straight away, which is likely to cripple the unit permanently leading to loss of production capacity and economic loss for the state, the court could have given some time for Sterlite Industries to solve the problems.
The court could have imposed heavy penalty on Sterlite Industries for environmental violation and insist that such penalty amount should be distributed to the affected people. Finally in all such cases, where the industries and employees suffer, the officials in the Pollution Control Board and environmental ministry go scot free, receiving only strictures from the court, which do not materially affect them.
Actually, the corrective measures should have been taken by the environmental authorities long time back. Have we ever heard about them being punished or suspended ? Why has not the court asked the Pollution Control Board and Government to pay compensation to the victims who have suffered due to environmental hazards caused by their negligence?
N S Venkataraman