The three members of the Posco panel who want to scrap all environment and forest clearances for the South Korean giant's Rs. 51,000 crore project in Orissa have prepared a damning expose of the shaky legal ground under the dissenting report of panel chair Meena Gupta.
In a letter sent to Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh on Wednesday, the trio – tribal affairs expert Urmila Pingle, former director general of forests Devendra Pandey and Madras High Court advocate V. Suresh – have pointed out that Ms. Gupta's recommendations "are not only untenable but legally impermissible".
Snubbing Mr. Ramesh's repeated attempts to play down the differences within the panel on Tuesday – "the concerns are identical, it is a matter of different interpretation", he said – the trio has asked the Minister to post their report separately from Ms. Gupta's.
"The interpretation being made in some quarters that our report and Ms. Gupta's report are largely the same is simply incorrect," said the letter. "The reports differ in approach, conclusions and substance."
The panel was set up by the Environment Ministry 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. Ms. Gupta, who was chosen to head the committee, was Environment Secretary when the Posco clearances were granted in the first place, prompting concerns about 'conflict of interest' in some quarters.
Ms. Gupta's report recommended that the existing 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 starts.
"Her recommendation that there should be further environmental impact assessments without revoking the clearance is untenable," said the letter sent by the three majority members. "Under law, an impact assessment is not a private exchange between Ministry and company but a basis for scrutiny by all authorities and the public," they said, pointing out that the public hearing essential to granting a clearance could only be held after the impact assessment was carried out.
The trio also argued that Ms. Gupta's recommendation to impose a three-month deadline on the process of settling local claims on forest land was "a contravention of the Forest Rights Rules and an usurpation of the legal powers of the gram sabha." By "imposing her own legal interpretation over that required by law and by the Ministry itself", her recommendations "would encourage further manipulation", they warned.
The letter also strikes down Ms. Gupta's stand that the three members were going against the committee's terms of reference by probing the merits of the clearances granted by the government, rather than sticking to how the company complied with those clearances. In fact, they point out that Ms. Gupta has conveniently left out the relevant item when listing the panel's terms of reference.
The three members have also questioned Ms. Gupta's argument – which has repeatedly been made by Mr. Ramesh as well – that the Posco case must be treated differently from Vedanta because it did not involve tribal communities.
"Both POSCO and Vedanta are alike in the sense that in both instances there is gross violations of law with impunity," they said, terming the argument discriminatory and diversionary. "It is indeed strange to say that the rule of law should be followed only for tribals and if the project is already underway, but the same can be overlooked and condoned if the project affected are the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and fishing community who according to us are also equally vulnerable and exploited sections of society...It is most unfortunate that the interests of the two most vulnerable sections of our society - SCs and STs - are being pitted against each other in order to favour corporate interests."