Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has granted a final forest clearance to Posco’s Rs. 54,000 crore integrated steel project in Orissa, even while urging action against the sarpanch of one of the villages protesting against the project.
Last month, Mr. Ramesh offered some hope last month to the protesting villagers of Dhinkia and Gobindapur by taking note of their village council resolutions alleging that the Orissa government had failed to implement the Forest Right Act, which promises legal land rights to tribals and other forest dwellers. On Monday, the Minister scotched those hopes by choosing to accept the State government’s word that it has implemented the Act, and that there are no valid claims in the area.
“Faith and trust in what the State government says is an essential pillar of cooperative federalism which is why I rejected the [option of an independent inquiry into the contradictory claims],” said Mr. Ramesh’s order.
Trusting the State govt
On April 29, the State government told the Centre that the two palli sabha – or village council – resolutions were invalid as they were passed at meetings convened by the sarpanch without the authority of the gram panchayat, they were not recorded in a book kept for the purpose, and they were signed by only 60-odd people in each of the villages.
The Posaco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS) has alleged that the State government is deliberately showing only the signatures on the first page of the scanned document, while the hard copies of the resolutions show over 2,000 signatures.
Mr. Ramesh decided not to question the “bona fides of the democratically elected state government.“
“I must respect the reports from the sub-division officer and the Collector. Their views and also of the State government must prevail unless there is overwhelming and clinching evidence to the contrary,” he said. However, Mr. Ramesh seemed to give voice to his own scepticism with a footnote at this point. “This notwithstanding the fact that the State government has been actively canvassing for the project in question.”
The State government has also threatened stringent action against Sisir Mohapatra, the sarpanch of Dhinkia who is also the secretary of the PPSS, for misusing his official position and violating the Orissa Grama Panchayat Act. Mr. Ramesh’s order “expects” the State government to follow through on its threat, warning that “if no action is taken forthwith, I believe the state government’s arguments will be called into serious question.”
Granting the final clearance to South Korean giant Posco after a five-year delay, Mr. Ramesh added a condition that the steel company must bear the cost of regeneration of an equivalent amount of open, degraded forest land in another district as a compensatory measure. This is in addition to the 60 conditions listed in the initial clearance granted in January 2011.
Mr. Ramesh added that he “would expect” that the revised MoU between the company and the state government would not include any export of iron ore, noting that such provisions had made him “deeply uncomfortable”. However, it is unclear whether this can be considered a “condition”, as the issue is not under his direct mandate as Environment Minister.
While Posco welcomed the order, the PPSS accused the Minister of selling the livelihoods of 4,000 people, and the laws of the land, to the highest bidder.
Defending his order, Mr. Ramesh said that the implementation of the FRA and its relation to forest clearances “is a learning and an evolving process” which will continue to be upgraded and improved.
The PPSS expressed outrage with this approach. “We are not familiar with this novel concept. A law is either followed or not followed…To allow the forest land to be taken without implementing them is a criminal offence under two laws. A crime cannot be ‘a learning and evolving process’,” it said.