In a 3:1 split opinion, an Environment Ministry panel has disagreed on whether or not to scrap all environment and forest clearances for South Korean giant Posco's Rs. 51,000-crore integrated steel project in Orissa.

While the forest panel will consider the split report on October 25 and the coastal and environment clearance divisions will also examine it, Union Minister of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh will take a final call on the project's fate after discussions with the State government as well.

Recommending that all clearances be revoked, the three independent experts on the committee slammed the Ministry for approving the project in the first place — an indirect attack on the chairperson of the panel, who was the top bureaucrat in the Ministry when those clearances were originally granted.

The chairperson of the panel, the former Environment Secretary, Meena Gupta, submitted a dissenting report. She felt that the clearances could continue, even while a comprehensive and integrated Environmental Impact Assessment was carried out for both the steel plant and its captive port, so that additional conditions could be imposed before construction started.

The other three members of the committee — tribal affairs expert Urmila Pingle, the former director- general of forests, Devendra Pandey, and Madras High Court advocate V. Suresh — slammed such an opinion. “The imposition of additional conditions to the existing [environment clearances] will not at all remedy the lapses and illegalities,” said their report,

They accused the Ministry of issuing a “mechanical clearance, [making] a mockery of rule of law,” pointing out many serious lapses, illegalities, and suppression of facts in the environmental and coastal clearance processes. A hasty, limited impact assessment was carried out, while many communities were left out of the public hearing process.

The Ministry ignored its own directives, and the procedure of law in granting the forest clearance, while the Orissa government and the district administration have been undemocratic and obstructionist in their implementation of the Forest Rights Act, they said.

“The POSCO project is an example of how a mirage of ‘development' can be used in an attempt to bypass the law. Such attempts, if allowed to succeed, will result in neither development nor environmental protection, but merely in profiteering. This will cause immeasurable harm to the nation and to the rule of law and justice in our society,” they said, in the final conclusion of their report, recommending wide-ranging changes to the clearance process itself.

The four-member panel was set up in July to probe all environmental approvals granted to the Posco project, the implementation of the Forest Rights Act and the resettlement and rehabilitation provisions.

Presenting the split report in the presence of the committee on Monday, Mr. Ramesh attempted to play down the differences, saying that while “the concerns are identical, it is a matter of different interpretation.”

He also emphasised that while the Posco project was India's single largest FDI investment, and an integral part of its Look East Policy, environmental laws would apply regardless.

The Posco project came into existence with an MoU signed between the Orissa government and the Korean steel giant in June 2005.