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When people are encumbrances and projects are a national necessity

By Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon

Though the Supreme Court gave the go-ahead to the POSCO project in Orissa in August, community resistance continues, fuelled by the arrest of anti-POSCO activist Abhay Sahu

The Government of Orissa agrees to acquire and transfer all the above-mentioned land required for the Overall Project, free from all encumbrances….” MoU between POSCO and Orissa state government

Abhay Sahu, the leader of the Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS), was arrested late-evening on October 12 2008 as he returned from a medical treatment in Vishakhapatnam. For the last three years he has led a strong community movement against the takeover of fertile coastal agricultural land for an integrated plant and captive port by South Korean steel giants, POSCO. For the state government and the company, the strong people’s movement under his leadership was one of the biggest roadblocks to entry into the proposed project area. 

While several arrests of PPSS activists have been made in the last four years on false and baseless charges by the state administration, this arrest came close after the Supreme Court, on August 8, 2008 finally closed the case related to the forest clearance granted to one part of the project and ordered that the project could be set up after receiving final approval from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). 

The people of Dhinkia panchayat in Ersama block have resisted project operations since 2005. Strangely, the state government did not unleash its law and order machinery and quash this resistance as it had done in other parts of the state. After all, this is the state that gunned down 14 tribals in Kalinganagar to make way for Tata Steel and which has been responsible for unnumbered deaths and arrests in Kashipur where the Utkal Alumina project was to come up. This is possibly because the state has been a shrewd and correct judge of the way things would move on the project. It waited for the apex court to give its decision so that all its subsequent moves, violent or otherwise, could be undertaken legally.  

It has been clearly established that the legal regimes for decision-making on environment and forest clearance for development projects ride roughshod over the very concerns for which they were brought into place. The POSCO experience is no exception. It was on April 15, 2007 that a public hearing (as mandated by the Environment Impact Assessment [EIA] notification) for POSCO operations took place in the presence of platoons of the paramilitary forces. Ironically, this public hearing was a joint one for its proposed steel plant and port, even though the environmental clearances were later recommended by two separate committees of the MoEF. Criticism of the shoddy Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report and opposition to the displacement that the project will cause were both key elements of this public hearing.  

Within three days of the public hearing, its report reached the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in New Delhi. From April 19, 2007 onwards the MoEF’s Expert Appraisal Committee on infrastructure projects sat to review the project. At this meeting they dispensed with their earlier call for a site inspection, took note of POSCO’s explanations and recommended the clearance of the port project. Quite interestingly, one of the special conditions mentioned in the environment clearance letter of POSCO’s port project states that all the issues addressed at the time of the public hearing must be addressed comprehensively, and an Action Taken Report must be submitted within six months. In effect this meant nothing less than the sidelining of all that was said at the time of the public hearing, to be looked at post facto, even though the concerns were related to the irreparable damage to be caused by the project.  

Critiquing the EIA report, Mark Chernaik of Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW), a network of public interest attorneys, scientists and activists, states that the EIA report for the port has not looked at impact of the worst-case spills that can be caused by large cargo vessels, and also the impact of the 87-kilometre pipeline that is to be constructed to draw 12,000-15,000 million litres of water per day. Further, even the impact of changes in ambient air quality on the area have not been studied. Biswajit Mohanty, the head of Operation Kachchappa to protect the Olive Ridley sea turtles in Orissa, has written in his submission to the Orissa State Pollution Control Board that the EIA has not studied the impact of the port construction on the adjoining beaches beyond 5 km. The Garihmatha Marine Sanctuary, about 30 km from the project site, is likely to be impacted. According to a study of the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) the beach north of the existing Paradip port in the same area has eroded because of the existence of this port.  

In May and June 2007, the steel plant and port received official environmental clearance.  

The next step was to get a forest clearance under the Forest Conservation Act. These operations require diversion of 1,253.255 ha of forest land for non-forest use. The grant of clearance would mean felling of about approximately 2.8. lakh trees. According to procedure, the proposal was considered by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) under the MoEF on August 9, 2007. This committee recommended the grant of forest clearance. However, due to the existence of a Supreme Court order dated April 27, 2007, this recommendation also needed to be cleared by the Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee (CEC). This committee in its report saw that there was more to POSCO’s operations than just the plant and port. 

POSCO’s MoU with the Orissa state government clearly states that the company requires 600 million tonnes of iron ore to meet the production target of 12,000 million tonnes per annum. What this implied was that the steel plant is directly dependant on the procurement of iron ore and its mining is therefore integrally linked to the project. The EIA and forest clearance documents consider the fact that the clearance of the mining component is deeply linked to the other two. When this came to their knowledge, the CEC in its November 14, 2007 report recommended, amongst other things, that there should not be piecemeal diversion of the forest land required. And before taking a final decision on the forest clearance of the plant, the clearances for the mining component should also be in order.  However, the Supreme Court thought otherwise and following court deliberations on August 8, 2008 sent the proposal back to the MoEF to consider for grant of forest clearance, indicating that they did not have an objection in this regard. The court order does not say anything about the CEC’s recommendation that the impact of the project needs to be considered in its entirety. It does however recognise that 2.8 lakh trees in the coastal area are to be felled for which mitigation measures should be put in place. For this they have appointed one of the CEC members, S K Patnaik, along with representatives of MoEF and Orissa government to suggest mitigation measures.  

Today POSCO is poised to make “legal” inroads into the area. But the villagers’ resistance to their presence has only grown   This is even as Abhay Sahu and several other PPSS leaders have been and continue to be arrested. News of the leader's arrest has brought numerous groups in Orissa and other parts together and the demand for his release is gaining ground. 

Dhinkia panchayat seeks the support of the nation. This is our chance, after having missed one too many, to tell our politicians preparing to go back to their voters that our people and their living environment matter more to us than projects that will boost economic growth.  

The authors are members of Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group and are based in Delhi. 

Infochange News & Features, December 2008