Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has asked the Orissa government to initiate action against a plant of the Jindal Steel and Power Limited (JSPL) in Angul for starting construction in the non-forest section of the project site even before being granted clearance for the forest section.

This directive was issued on Monday after it was revealed that the Ministry withdrew its own show-cause notice against the company, citing a conveniently amended circular, which was used only in the Jindal case. Congress MP Naveen Jindal is the vice-chairman and managing director of the JSPL.

Mr. Ramesh rejected any suggestion that the rules were manipulated to help the company. “I want to make it absolutely clear that no rule was changed in any way to benefit the JSPL,” he said in a statement, also issued on Monday.

However, his reply to a question asked in the Rajya Sabha last week shows that the Jindal case was the only one in which the short-lived amendment was used.

According to Mr. Ramesh's answer in Parliament, his Ministry issued a circular on January 6, 2011 revising the guidelines to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. Earlier, the guidelines said that in projects that involve both forest and non-forest land, “work should not be started” on non-forest land until the forest clearance was granted. The revision inserted a vaguer clause, saying “it is advisable that work should not be started,” allowing Jindal officials to argue that they did not violate the guidelines, and there was no need to withdraw their clearance on that ground.

Consequently, the Ministry's directions on the show cause, dated February 10, 2011, ignore this charge of non-compliance to the guidelines, even while issuing stricter conditions in other areas.

The Ministry then withdrew the circular amending the guidelines on February 17, 2011, according to Mr. Ramesh's answer in Parliament.

In his statement, Mr. Ramesh clarified that he was unaware of the circular, which was issued without his approval after discussion in the Forest Advisory Committee. “I took a serious note of this lapse and immediately ordered that status-quo ante be restored,” he said.

Agreeing that the JSPL had violated its clearance conditions, Mr. Ramesh said he had asked the State government to take action as “is the usual practice.” However, the directive to the State government comes over a month after the show cause was disposed of, and the amendment was withdrawn.