The environment minister has given POSCO the go-ahead based on contentious evidence. Raman Kirpal has the details
UNION ENVIRONMENT Minister Jairam Ramesh put his ‘faith’ to the test by giving forest clearance for the 12 million tonne steel plant of the South Korean major POSCO in Odisha last week. He ‘trusts’ that the state government conducted a thorough search and found that there are no tribals or traditional forest-dwellers living in the Jagatsinghpur forest area, 12 km from Paradip. To do this, he accepts the state government’s claim that Dhinkia sarpanch Sisir Mahapatra fraudulently prepared documents to show that the majority of the villagers are opposed to the steel plant in their area.
Signatures of the villagers were forged and there is actually no major resistance to the POSCO plant, the state government asserts. “Faith and trust in what the state government says is an essential pillar of cooperative federalism,” Ramesh says in his order. “Therefore, I hold that there has been no valid claim for recognition of forest rights in Dhinkia and Gobindpur as required under the Forest Rights Act, 2006.”
A week after his ministry’s nod for the plant purely based on state government assurances, the local administration announced that it will resume land acquisition from 18 May.
The total forest land to be acquired is 1,253 acres located in Kujang tehsil of Jagatsinghpur. A local uprising is on the cards as farmers cultivating betel vines on the forest land have begun to protest.
The resistance is real and hopefully it will not turn bloody like it did in Mayawati’s Uttar Pradesh.
Ramesh’s steely faith in the state government’s assertion overlooks a site inspection report submitted by his own Chief Conservator of Forest in 2007. “Since there was a lot of resentment among the local people against the project, only a part of the project area near Gada Kujanga was inspected by road and then an aerial view was taken of the area from the low-flying helicopter,” said the conservator’s report. This finding belies the state government’s claim that there are no locals staying in the forest area.
And the mood is evident from the fact that the Forest Department could not even access the area on foot or by jeep for fear of local backlash. The department carried out a ‘rapid’ Forest Clearance Assessment through a low-flying helicopter for this gigantic project, which will consume one of the biggest tracts of forest land. It will uproot 2.8 lakh trees and hundreds of families from eight villages. This is where POSCO will establish its plant, township and private port.
Where will the raw material come from? A memorandum of understanding signed with the Odisha government in 2005 says the company will also develop and operate mining facilities in areas allocated by the state government. One such area was Khandadhar iron ore mines, but the issue went to the Orissa High Court, whichpronounced itself against mining. The case is now pending in the Supreme Court. POSCO is expected to demand more area for mining in the future.
Another ad hoc measure is allocation of water from Mahanadi for the steel plant. The state government has given permission to draw 16.5 million gallons per day (MGD) from the river, but in the same breath it also says that POSCO should not exceed drawing of 10 MGD.
Ramesh has again put his faith in the state government’s assurance that the water consumption will not exceed 10 MGD and POSCO will make its own arrangements in case there is a scarcity of water. Besides, the ministry has given its clearance for setting up of a 4 million tonne plant in the first phase. But the government is providing land, water and infrastructure for a 12 million tonne plant.
In the end, Ramesh has asked the state government to take action against the sarpanch for his ‘fraudulent act’. “If no action is taken, I believe the state government’s arguments will be called into serious question” — this is Ramesh’s mild admonition to the Odisha government while giving the go-ahead to the Rs 51,000 crore project.
Raman Kirpal is the Editor, Special Reports with Tehelka.