The Supreme Court Thursday termed the COVID-19 situation as almost a "national emergency" while agreeing to hear Vedanta's plea for opening of its Sterlite copper unit at Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu on the ground that it would produce thousand tonnes of oxygen and give it free of cost to treat patients.
A bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde was unimpressed with the objection of Tamil Nadu government which initially sought hearing of Vedanta's plea on Monday and opposed its opening on various grounds including that it has been rejected by the apex court earlier.
"We understand all this. We will ensure compliance of all environmental norms by the plant and its oxygen producing facility would be allowed to operate. We are on the oxygen plant," the bench, also comprising Justices L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat, said when senior advocate C S Vaidyanathan, appearing for Tamil Nadu, objected to the plea of the company.
"There is almost a national emergency and you (Tamil Nadu) don't put spokes in the solution. We will hear it (plea of Vedanta) tomorrow," the bench said in the hearing conducted through video conferencing.
"The country is in dire need of oxygen and the Centre is augmenting oxygen from whichever source. Vedanta wants to make its plant operational, but let Vedanta only make it operational to manufacture oxygen for health purposes," Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said.
Between protecting environment and protecting human life, we must lean in favour of protecting human life, Mehta said.
Senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing for Vedanta, sought urgent hearing of the plea during the day itself and said people are dying on daily basis and we can produce and supply oxygen to treat COVID-19 patients.
"We can start in five to six days if you give a go ahead today. The company can manufacture tonnes of oxygen there every day and is ready to supply them free of cost," Salve said.
The Tamil Nadu government, however, referred to the records and said no oxygen production can be started by the company before two to four weeks.
The bench would hear the interim application on Friday.
The top court had earlier refused to accord early hearing to the plea related to mining major Vedanta's Sterlite copper unit at Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu which is closed since May 2018 over pollution concerns.
The apex court on December 2 last year had rejected the interim plea of Vedanta Ltd that it be permitted to inspect its Sterlite copper plant and to operate it for a month to assess the pollution level.
Vedanta had sought handing over of the plant for three months saying it requires two months to start the unit and the company should be allowed to run it for four weeks to ascertain whether its polluting or not.
While holding that interim plea of Vedanta for opening of the plant for four weeks cannot be allowed, the bench had made clear that the final hearing in the matter can be heard after physical hearing starts in the apex court.
Earlier, the interim plea by Vedanta was opposed by Tamil Nadu government which had claimed that the plant had been “polluting consistently”.
In August last year, Vedanta had moved the apex court challenging the Madras High Court order refusing to allow reopening of the Tuticorin plant.
The high court had upheld the orders of Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) directing closure of the unit in May 2018.
Vedanta had approached the high court in February 2019, seeking to reopen Sterlite plant which was closed following a May 23, 2018 order issued by the TNPCB in the backdrop of violent protests against the unit which left 13 people dead in police firing on May 21 and 22, 2018.
It had filed the petition in the high court as suggested by the Supreme Court, which had on February 18, 2019, set aside the National Green Tribunal order that allowed opening of Sterlite plant.