The decision of the Ministry of Environment and Forests to revalidate the environmental clearance issued to South Korean steelmaker Posco for the proposed steel plant in Odisha is based on a piecemeal approach, rather than a comprehensive and cumulative assessment of all parts of the project. It cannot claim to rely on sound judgment. What distinguishes the proposal from the welter of projects before the Ministry is its major Foreign Direct Investment potential, estimated at more than Rs.50,000 crore. There is little doubt that it will take massive investments to pull the masses out of deep poverty, and new industries are vital to achieving this goal. Significant expansion of the economy has taken place over the past two decades, creating much wealth. Unfortunately, this has also coincided with grossly uneven distribution of negative externalities. In the case of Posco, the acquisition of land has been a contentious issue, evoking strong protest from local communities which remain unconvinced about the benefits. Evidently, neither the project proponent nor the Odisha government has come up with persuasive arguments over the past eight years on why villagers should part with their land when their livelihood is linked to it. Moreover, there is no effort to reach a consensus on the renewal of environmental clearance, now for a production capacity of eight million tonnes per annum, even with conditionalities that include spending on ‘social commitments’ by Posco.
Grant of environmental clearance for the steel plant addresses only one of many components of the Posco project — mines, a port, railway lines and a housing facility that are integral to the functioning of the steel plant have been delinked. That point has already been made by the National Green Tribunal, which had recommended to the Centre that it consider the cumulative impact, and the concerns expressed by review committees set up to evaluate it. If the Ministry’s decisions must carry credibility, it must provide a detailed report on how these suggestions have been complied with. In the case of the equally high-profile Vedanta bauxite mining project in Niyamgiri in Odisha, the Ministry has deferred to the sentiments of the tribal residents and rejected the bid. Appropriating natural resources for development remains a contentious issue in a populous country where land is scarce and rehabilitation systems are weak. It has to be done selectively, and only after careful study of the impacts by credentialled specialists. There is little scope in a democracy to override public opinion, and impose unpopular decisions. It is also misleading to cast environmental safeguards and development as conflicting imperatives when they are vitally interlinked.