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Conditional nod for Posco project evokes mixed response

Special Correspondent



Jairam Ramesh

NEW DELHI: Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh's conditional clearance for Posco's $12-billion steel project in Orissa, after putting it on virtual hold for six months, has been met with bouquets and brickbats.

He has imposed 60 “additional conditions” on the 12-million-tonne-a-year steel plant and its captive port and power plant, and demanded a “pointed assurance” from the State government that forest rights are not being violated.

Industry bodies, which have been criticising Mr. Ramesh for his “anti-growth” agenda, joined Posco and the Orissa government in welcoming the order as a “careful balance” between environment and growth.

However, the decision shocked activists and environmental experts — including those who were part of the Ministry's own inquiry committee — leaving them outraged by the “farcical” nature of the order, which they say, supports violations of the law.

The Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti has vowed that it will not accept the Ministry's verdict. “We will not give up our lands, our forests and our homes to this company. It is not the meaningless orders of a mercenary government that will decide this project's fate, but the tears and blood of our people,” said spokesman Prashant Paikray. “If this project comes [through], it will be over our dead bodies.”

The project, India's single largest foreign direct investment, is the result of a memorandum of understanding signed between the Orissa government and Korean steel giant Posco in June 2005. It received environmental approvals in 2007 and a forest clearance in 2009, but after numerous protests from local people and environmental experts, the Environment Ministry set up a four-member inquiry committee and ordered the State government to stop land transfer to Posco.

‘Conditions not fulfilled'

As per the final order issued on Monday, 60 “additional” conditions have been stipulated. However, the conditions include following air quality standards, green area guidelines and coastal regulations which are already mandatory, and can hardly be defined as “additional.”

“What we said in our [majority report of the inquiry committee] is that the conditions of the original clearances were not being fulfilled. And now he has just put in more conditions. What is the point of that?” asks Urmile Pingle, a tribal affairs expert. Their report, commissioned by the Ministry, had noted that “imposing vague conditionalities seems to be a way out for the various agencies from taking hard decisions on crucial issues.”

Citing the example of the “additional condition” that in case of water shortages, “the company will voluntarily sacrifice water intake for facilitating irrigation,” Ms. Pingle asked: “What is a voluntary sacrifice? How are you going to mandate it?”

Diluting forest rights

Experts are even more appalled by the conditional forest clearance, which throws the ball back into the Orissa government's court. Posco's forest clearance has been under a cloud owing to the non-implementation of the Forest Rights Act. While the Orissa government denied the existence of forest-dwellers in the area, the inquiry committee provided documented evidence to prove their presence there.

However, Mr. Ramesh washes his hands of any responsibility by asking the Orissa government to once again give him a “categorical assurance” that there are no forest-dwellers on the land earmarked for Posco, “since the State government has the primary responsibility for ensuring and guaranteeing compliance with the Forest Rights Act, 2006.” He has promised that he will grant a final forest clearance “as soon as” the State government's assurance is received.

Activists have vented their ire on the Minister. “This clearance is a contradiction that would reduce the credibility which the Minister has earned for the Ministry for the first time and would go down in history that the MoEF has supported the offences and illegalities,” said the National Alliance of People's Movements, led by activist Medha Patkar.

Strategic significance

In the conclusion of his order, Mr. Ramesh noted: “Projects such as Posco have considerable economic, technological and strategic significance for the country.”

Industry bodies agreed. “The project has been a matter of concern in the context of foreign investment in India as well as from the point of view of the sustainability of the larger green field projects,” said Chandrajit Banerjee, director-general of the Confederation of Indian Industry.

“We welcome and accept with humility and gratitude the decision of the Hon'ble Minister of Environment & Forests,” said Posco India managing director G.W. Sung.

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