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Conditional Clearance, Unconditional Compromise

Updated: February 19, 2011 11:12 am

The scene is sombre and distressing. Villagers stood about in small silent groups. News of the conditional clearance given by the Environmental Minister was trickling in. There was bewilderment all around in Balitutha.

                It was understandable that Jairam Ramesh had a choice between the devil and the deep sea. The last six months, ever since the Meena Gupta Committee had submitted the twin reports, had been flip flop days for the minister. It was from one horn of the dilemma to the other.

                In deciding the fate of POSCO’s integrated steel plant and port, Jairam Ramesh was caught between living up to his holier than thou image and upholding the laws that he has sworn to uphold vis-à-vis bowing down to the pressures and succumbing to the whims of his masters in the Congress Party.

                The ministry has imposed 28 additional conditions as part of the environmental clearance for the steel-cum-captive power plant and 32 conditions are imposed while according environmental clearance to the captive minor port in the state. How much of this would be implemented is anybody’s guess. Naveen Patnaik too gave a guarded view of the whole clearance. He will have to look at the gift horse in the mouth very carefully. He now has a hot potato his hands, as the ball has now been kicked inside his court.

                Since the last three months, terms such as “strategic interests”, “biggest chunk of foreign investment” , “being pragmatic and not dogmatic”, “investor sentiments” etc were the catch phrases that were doing the rounds in the corridors of power. The UPA government has put its full weight behind the project, going all out to assure and assuage the Koreans that the project would be through come what may. The Prime Minister’s Office gave ample indications that it was keen see the project through.

                In fact, the Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma, on the 21st January, had openly assured the South Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-Hoon’s that the “necessary clearances” will be given soon. He had said this at a press conference organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry.

                On what basis Mr Sharma gave this assurance remains a mystery, but it does add to the “non-environmental” pressure being brought to bear down on the environment minister.

                The South Koreans were pushing very hard, in fact they even did indulge in some arm twisting. The South Korean trade minister was very certain that it would be “good for the Indian economy”. The carrot at the end of the stick was dangled time and again. Kim Jong-Hoon said, “Many South Korean companies are looking at how the case is being dealt with. It is a good test of how Indian authorities can host foreign investments and channelise them towards economic development. Your concerns are legitimate. But at the same time we have to look at the significance of the project. …Although you have your concerns, balancing those concerns with the importance of these investments is required.” Promises of finding the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow were given.

                The project had the solid backing of the Naveen Patnaik government in the state. In fact the state government bent itself so backward to accommodate the Koreans that it fell flat. The Saxena Committee and the Meena Gupta Committee had both practically written the death knell of the project, but how it rose griffin like from the ashes is something that will continue to surprise many for days to come. Gross violations of the Forest Conservation Act, Environment Protection Act, Coastal Zone Regulation Act, Forest Rights Act besides a slew of charges of human rights violations have been exposed.

                Many political watchers and industry experts have been astounded at the resilience of the Koreans, who in spite of not moving an inch forward in five years still have the gumption to stay put. One can safely say that everything that could go wrong for the project went wrong. They tried every trick of the trade. Taking a leaf out of the Chief Minister’s book, the Koreans too played possum and adopted the dictum of “less is more”. It is a well-known fact in the state capital Bhubaneswar that many bureaucrats and journalists were taken on luxury junkets to Korea and pampered with gifts. The Korean chaebols are as corrupt and manipulative Posco had the Naveen Patnaik administration at its beck and call, with book lickers toeing to every line that the company dictated.

                Posco is an integrated steel, power, mining port project and separate clearances had to be given to all four.

                The Korean project, if completed, will be one of the largest steel projects in the world—with a combined production capacity that would equal the six big Indian steel plants at Bhilai, Bokaro, Durgapur, Rourkela, Burnpur and Salem. What impact it will have on the private steel players is anybody’s guess? It is a established fact that Posco is one of the most powerful chaebol of Korea, its role of big business is extended to the political arena. The Korean government is pushing and browbeating the Indian counterparts for the implementation of the project. The chaebols in Korea have an inherent tendency to be monopolistic, and their interests are protected by the state. The Indian steel industry is aware of the potential threat that it faces once the project comes up. In fact there are rumors doing the round that the Tata’s have been funding the Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti’s agitation over the last few years.

                Even the pro-Posco brigade is taking this clearance with a pinch of salt. Jairam Ramesh’s clearance will now spur the agitation and the whole area will now once again be a battle zone. With its tainted image, the state government will have to handle the situation with kids gloves, they will just not be able to withstand another Kalinganagar-type situation. The writing is clearly on the wall, it is tough days ahead for both Posco and Naveen Patnaik.

By Anil Dhir from Balitutha

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