It’s too early to write Posco off

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Trust the unabashed commitment of our political leadership for the POSCO project to circumvent the green tribunal’s review order

By Jay Mazoomdaar

 Villagers affected by Posco rally to defend their land rights
The resistance: Villagers affected by Posco rally to defend their land rights Photo: Jay Mazoomdaar

ON 30 March, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) suspended the final order of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) dated 31 January 2011 that cleared the POSCO project in Odisha. It brought relief and hope for many fighting the project.

The NGT has stalled work until a full review of the project can be undertaken by specialists with fresh terms of reference. We have had two such reviews in the past. The majority in both review panels reported glaring illegalities in the project that found echo in the NGT’s observation that “a project of this magnitude… has been dealt with casually, without there being any comprehensive scientific data regarding the possible environmental impacts.”

Yet, those reviews did not come in the way of the project getting the final clearance from the MoEF in 2011. So can yet another review reverse what seems a fait accompli?

In August 2009, then environment minister Jairam Ramesh ordered that no forest land be diverted without the consent of the affected gram sabhas. But in December, he granted the ‘final clearance’ for land diversion in violation of his order. He issued a face-saver in January 2010: the ‘final clearance’ was ‘conditional’, depending on the settlement of rights under the Forest Rights Act (FRA).

Odisha promptly lied that there were no traditional forest dwellers in the project area. In the next few months, two Centre-appointed committees — under NC Saxena and Meena Gupta — nailed those lies. But Ramesh offered yet another ‘conditional’ final clearance in January 2011, asking Odisha to furnish an ‘assurance’ that there were no ‘eligible persons’ under the FRA in the area. The state termed the gram sabhas ‘illegal’ and repeated all the claims earlier trashed as ‘false’ by the MoEF panels. On 2 May, Ramesh gave the ‘final approval’ for land diversion.

The backroom developments were still more shocking. On 8 May 2007, the finance ministry sought an update on the project, which was to be sent by 18 May to then finance minister P Chidambaram. On 16 May, A Raja issued an environment clearance to POSCO’s port. Again, in a letter dated 4 June 2007, the finance ministry sought the status of the POSCO applications. The MoEF Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) cleared the plant on 20 June.

In the past, two reviews did not come in the way of the project getting the final clearance

Meena Gupta took charge as MoEF secretary in June 2007 when the ministry was under the PMO. While it took even Raja eight months and a nudge from the finance ministry to clear the POSCO port, Gupta issued the green clearance for the plant in less than three months. When Odisha sought clearance for diverting forest land, Gupta got an in-principle nod from the FAC in less than two months.

Surprisingly, Ramesh handpicked the same Gupta to head the fact-finding committee in 2010. Unsurprisingly, Gupta was the lone dissenter in the panel and found nothing wrong with the clearance for land diversion that she had issued.

While the project was being examined for its legal merits, PM Manmohan Singh assured South Korean President Lee Myung-bak of a speedy clearance when the latter visited Delhi in January 2010. Steel minister Virbhadra Singh even offered a six-month deadline for the handover of land. Manmohan repeated the assurance at the Asean summit at Hanoi in October 2010. At the G-20 summit at Seoul in November, India’s Ambassador to Korea SR Tayal said “every effort is being made by all stakeholders” to see the project through. Such was the pressure on the MoEF to clear the project before the G-20 meet that Ramesh, after failing to meet the deadline, blamed the FAC for the delay and assured his bosses that “the decision will be taken within a couple of weeks”. Against mounting legal odds, it took him a few months though to deliver.

Five days before the NGT order, Manmohan thrice assured the Korean government and investors that his “government is keen to move forward with the POSCO project”. With the PM’s commitment unwavering, courts, tribunals and inquiries be damned.

Jay Mazoomdaar is an independent journalist.
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