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Church welcomes Indian court order against Vedanta

Copper plant plans to appeal to India's Supreme Court against order that it cannot reopen

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Church welcomes Indian court order against Vedanta

Protesters march near the copper plant owned by London-based Vedanta in India's coastal district of Tuticorin on May 22, 2018. (Photo: UCA News) 

A court in southern India has stopped a multinational firm from restarting its copper-processing plant, which was shut down two years ago following a protest that claimed 13 lives including those of four Catholics.

Madras High Court in Tamil Nadu state on Aug. 18 dismissed a petition by London-based Vedanta Limited seeking permission to reopen its multi-million-dollar plant in Tuticorin district.

"The court has done the right thing. It reflects the will of the people. The plant was instrumental in causing immense environmental pollution," Bishop Stephan Antony Pillai of Tuticorin told UCA News on Aug. 19.

The plant was shut down in May 2018 following a three-month public protest.

At least 13 people were killed and more than 100 injured when police opened fire on unarmed protesters on May 22 and 23. A Catholic priest was also among the injured.

"Our groundwater, soil and the ecology got polluted from the waste emitted from the plant as the company officials were callous in protecting the environment," Bishop Pillai said.

The effect of the pollution "was so much that we did not get proper rain and a large number of our people suffered cancer, breathlessness, skin diseases, tuberculosis, among other illnesses," he said.

"We experience better air and water quality, and we are beginning to get rain now."

Decades of struggle 

The company started its operation in Thoothukudi (formerly Tuticorin) in 1997 by setting up its Sterlite Copper plant.

The protest began when plans started to double its production capacity from 400,000 to 800,00 metric tonnes. The copper smelter has associated facilities including a refinery, copper rod plant and sulphuric acid plant. It also operates a 160-megawatt coal-based power plant.

Catholic priests and nuns were among people who led protesters demanding the shutdown of the factory to save their environment.

The plant's effluents affect 19 parishes in the city, which has some 100,000 Catholics.

Father Leo Jeyseelan, who was injured in the police action, said a bullet crossed his stomach and he has still not recovered fully from its effect.

He welcomed the court order. "It is a piece of happy news for all who protested — a real victory of the people," he said.

The protest was peaceful and nobody thought the police "would open fire indiscriminately at the protesters as it was going on for almost three months," he said.

"I still cannot walk properly, even today. I was badly injured and spent four months in hospital," said the priest, who withdrew from public life after the injury and now lives in a home for elderly priests.

Spontaneous protest

Father Jeyseelan said attempts were made to blame the Catholic Church for the people's spontaneous protest.

Following the protests, the Tamil Nadu State Pollution Control Board rejected the company's application for the renewal of consent to operate in 2018, saying it had violated environmental laws.

The state government issued an order to close the plant on May 28, 2018.

Vedanta challenged the order before the National Green Tribunal and secured an order in its favor in December 2018 to open the plant.

The state government challenged it in the Supreme Court, the top court in the country. In February 2019, the Supreme Court said the National Green Tribunal's order would not stand because it had no jurisdiction over the case.

The top court, however, allowed Vedanta to take its plea to Madras High Court, which resulted in the latest order.

Vedanta's chief executive officer Pankaj Kumar told a local newspaper that the company plans to challenge the High Court verdict in the Supreme Court.

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