ON 30 March 2012, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) delivered a judgment that has sent India’s largest FDI back to the drawing table. In the landmark order, the NGT suspended the conditional environment clearance granted last year, and directed the environment ministry to carry out a ‘fresh review’ of the POSCO project. The project, a 12 million tonne iron and steel plant, has been one of India’s most hotly debated industrial projects. More than seven years since it was first proposed, the project has been symptomatic of India’s development riddle itself. While POSCO supporters see the project as a boost for India’s investment credentials, adversaries point to major irregularities and violations of law, human displacement, and the potential of largescale environment disaster.
In a vindication of protests against POSCO, the NGT in its order has noted that the full impact of the project is yet to be measured, since environmental impact assessments were made only for a 4 million tonne plant, not the full 12MT which POSCO plans to expand to. This is what TEHELKA had earlier reported, detailing the loopholes in the ministry’s clearance. While the environment clearance was given for a 4 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) steel plant, resources — land, water and iron ore — were allocated for a 12 MTPA project.(See Whose Steel, Who’s Stealing; TEHELKA 11 December 2010).
Significantly, this judgment comes just days after PM Manmohan Singh assured South Korea that efforts were under way for an early implementation of the POSCO project in Odisha. Singh told South Korean business leaders in Seoul that the government was “keen to move forward with the project,” while adding, “India is a stable and profitable long-term investment opportunity.”
The NGT bench consisted of members Justice CV Ramulu and Devendra Kumar Agarwal. The tribunal observed: “A close scrutiny of the entire scheme reveals that a project of this magnitude, particularly in partnership with a foreign country, has been dealt with casually, without there being any comprehensive scientific data regarding the possible environmental impacts. No meticulous scientific study was made on each and every aspect of the matter, leaving lingering and threatening environmental and ecological doubts unanswered.”
Just 48 hours before the tribunal ruling on POSCO, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) pointed out serious irregularities in the allocation of land to private promoters, misuse of emergency provisions for land acquisition and under-valuation of compensation for private land owners by the Odisha government. “The government misused the emergency provision under Section 17(4) of the Land Acquisition Act in several cases, depriving the land losers of the opportunity to be heard,” said the CAG report, tabled in the Odisha Assembly. The audit report pointed out that the state government acquired nearly 438 acre by paying a compensation of Rs 11.85 crore while the present market value of the land is more than Rs 65 crore.
The Odisha government had signed an MOU with POSCO for the steel plant to be set up near Paradip port, in Jagatsinghpur district in 2005. It has been embroiled in controversy since.
In August 2010, POSCO’s forest clearance was suspended following complaints of violations of law.
An enquiry committee constituted under Meena Gupta, a former MoEF secretary, was formed to review the project. In October 2010, three members of the enquiry committee submitted a landmark report saying environmental and forest clearances were illegal, while Meena Gupta dissented to say that the project can be cleared with additional conditions. On 31 January 2011, the MoEF with Jairam Ramesh as environment minister upheld all clearances to POSCO, while prescribing some additional conditions, mostly consisting of studies to be done in future. In June 2011, Prafulla Santra, an activist and convener of National Alliance of People’s Movement, challenged the final order in the NGT. This tribunal was created by the environment ministry two years ago to provide speedy environmental justice and help reduce the burden of litigation in the higher courts. POSCO has the option of appealing against this ruling in the Supreme Court.
In its ruling, the NGT questioned the appointment of Meena Gupta as the chairperson of the review committee, which was set up by the MoEF, stating that the ministry had ignored the views of the other three members and accepted Gupta’s arguments. “Whether Meena Gupta’s actions are fair or not, they are definitely hit by her personal, official, departmental bias. This is in gross violation of principles of natural justice,” the tribunal stated.
CAG pointed out irregularities in the allocation of land to private promoters by the ruling BJD
Describing this order as a ‘conspiracy’ against the state, ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) MLAs have now asked the state government to clear doubts over the fate of this Rs 52,000-crore mega project. The issue was raised in the Odisha assembly during zero hour, when members of the treasury bench along with those of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) expressed concern over the NGT order.
Meanwhile, POSCO has said that it is a law-abiding firm and would comply with all the directives in this regard. “The National Green Tribunal has asked the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) to review afresh the clearance and we will ensure that we follow all directions given to us,” said a company official.
Welcoming the verdict, anti-POSCO activists strongly criticised Jairam Ramesh and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik for selling the livelihoods of 4,000 people and the laws of the land to the highest bidder. For the last seven years, activists of POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS) have refused to allow any construction work to begin. Villagers in Dhinkia, the panchayat most severely affected by the project, have been demanding scrapping or relocation of the project. They claim it will deprive them of their major source of income from the betel vines spread across nearly 3,000 acres of forest land.
“IT IS painful for a citizen of an independent and democratic nation to realise that his/her elected representatives are willing to serve an unscrupulous and erring corporation even if the people who have elected them suffer in terms of life and livelihood,” said petitioner Prafulla Samantra. “In light of the verdict, I demand scrapping of the project and booking the firm for all violations. Book the culpable officers for criminal conspiracy against the people and the land.”
“It is heartening to realise that the rule of law has been upheld by the National Green Tribunal,” added senior environmentalist Biswajeet Mohanty. “As a democracy, we cannot bend laws and overlook violations just for the sake of accommodating the largest FDI in India. The entire POSCO project is shrouded with illegalities. Land acquisition, environmental clearances, forest clearances and port clearances have been done in blatant violation of the laws of the country. The objections by the MoEF’s own officers and expert committees were over-ruled by the MoEF. This ruling establishes that both the (Odisha) state and the centre violated environmental laws to favour this project proposal.”