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POSCO Fiasco MoEF to decide its fate in ensuing Forest Advisory Committee Meeting

Updated: November 6, 2010 2:54 pm

The country’s biggest foreign direct investment POSCO steel plant in Kujanga near Paradeep in Odisha eventually lands in troubled water. Uncertainty grips proposed mega steel project’s starting. The reasons is that Union Ministry of Environment and Forests [MoEF] sponsored four-member panel headed by retired bureaucrat Meena Gupta to prove the alleged Environment and Forest Rights Act violations against Odisha government and POSCO which have failed to submit a single recommendation and submitted two reports which would be likely discussed in ensuing Forest Advisory Committee meeting to be held on October 25. It will decide the fate of Rs 52,000 crore POSCO project. The ball seems to be in the court of the MoEF now which has to give the much awaited clearance for the project to go ahead.

                Moreover the Union MoEF is in confusion for the panel’s divided reports. The panel head Meena Gupta recommends further assessment of provisions given by the central government, the environment and forest clearances given to the POSCO’s proposed Rs 52,000 crore steel project be allowed with additional conditions. While the other three members of the panel Dr Urmila Pingle, V Suresh and Dr Devendra Pandy suggest the revocation of the environment and forest clearance given to POSCO. Moreover the trio members have described in their reports serious irregularities and lapses at almost every stage, little care has been to follow the laws of the land allowing the given South Korean company to start its project.

                Meanwhile the MoEF has asked Odisha government to defend its stand during the FAC meeting scheduled to be held in Delhi. State forest secretary Arabinda Behera pointed that we will unlikely put forth our views to answer the queries raised by the Meena Gupta committee’s divided reports in FAC meeting and still we believe MoEF would consider our pleas for starting of POSCO project.

                Interestingly the panel head Meena Gupta has expressed her approval with other members’ observations—denying POSCO port project, giving SEZ status to POSCO and modification of state government rehabilitation and resettlement packages for the affected people. But she has affirmed her stand on environmental clearance given to POSCO during her tenure as union forest department secretary, the other members have raised several objections to Meena Gupta’s environmental clearance to POSCO.

                Overall the panel reports indicate that the state government’s role is suspicious and lacks transparency on all aspects, including environment, Forest Rights Act implementation, Coastal Regulatory Zone [CRZ], Environment Impact Assessment [EIA], mines lease, which have suppressed many vital information about the status and feasibility of POSCO project. It has raised the possibility of POSCO facing more delays.

                Earlier the MoEF committee was set up under National Advisory Council member NC Saxena to review the implementation of the Forest Rights Act at the proposed POSCO site areas. The committee members had visited the project site villages to review the allegations and it had concluded that the Odisha government did not try to ascertain the rights of the local people on the forest land as required under the FRA. The committee found that the local people were longstanding residents of the proposed project area, have traditional dependence on the forest land, are eligible for rights under FRA and are not willing to give land to the POSCO project.

                Meena Gupta committee too examined the incident during its two trips to project area and reaffirmed on the earlier Saxena committee report and ignored the state government’s submission that no tribal people were either residing or cultivating the forest land. On reality nearly 30 people of four tribal families were residing in the Polanga village, heart of the project site, and one Mina Hembrum a Scheduled Tribe woman is the Panchayat ward member of the hamlet.

                Basudev Behera, a member of Panchayat Samiti, Erasama, reveals that the district administration had given erroneous report to the MoEF and its visiting two committees that no tribal people were residing in forest land. So in order to save its own skin from the visiting committees, the district administration allegedly took away these tribal of Polanga village to Erasama block office. After the committee’s departure from project areas the tribal were allowed to return to their village. As many as 11 tribal families now live in project site areas, he informs.

                Meena Gupta committee too enquired the Environment Impact Assessment [EIA] public hearing held in project site villages and raised queries. One public hearing was organised, which revealed POSCO proposes to establish two projects, a steel plant and a captive port. The state government and pollution control board however defended the two projects were related and existed in the original MoU signed by the state government so it did not need to hold two separate EIA public hearings.

                Taking ground realities of the POSCO EIA public hearing it reports that state pollution control board and Jagatsinghpur district administration had organised an EIA public hearing for the POSCO project in Kujanga in April 2007 and three subjects—proposed steel plant, captive port and SEZ status to POSCO—were discussed. The anti-project people living in the project areas had boycotted the public hearing while hundreds of project supporter villagers and few outside NGOs had participated in the event. During the deliberation many participants raised objection to selecting the venue of the public hearing which was 15 km away from the project site. Local people were totally unaware as they had not been informed earlier. So the public hearing had ended in chaos. Most of the attending project supporters endorsed starting of the POSCO steel plant but they had strictly said no to the proposed POSCO port in Jatadhari river mouth and opposed giving SEZ status to POSCO. Allegations were rife such as few participating NGOs and locals had been prevented from speaking the public hearing that irked participants.

                Ironically the state government and POSCO expose a gross mistake as the original MoU, which was signed on June 22, 2005, for establishment of 12 million per annum capacity steel plant at an investment of Rs 52,000 crore, expired its validity on June 2010 and the pact is yet to be renewed or extended by both the parties. Official sources say that the renewal proposal is under progress while state government wants to bring in few changes in the original MoU citing the job policy and job reservation for local affected people and unemployed youth of state. POSCO is averse to the change and also has communicated its reservations to the state government and referred the issue to its higher-ups in South Korea for taking a decision.

Critics of the POSCO project and Meena Gupta committee too have revealed that the Odisha government did never do its ground work and studies the realities before or after signing the MoU with POSCO as a consequence the mega project is facing utter uncertainty and MoEF has beaten the state government black and blue on all aspects of project inception.

                On turn the project opponents are jubilant following the present POSCO impasses and project sympathisers are obviously worried knowing the recent developments are affecting the project works. However thanks to the South Korean industrial group, still optimistic for the proposed project, as a POSCO official remarks: “We have not been able to commence any operation owing to our commitment to obtain all necessary statutory clearances before commencing any operation.”

By Kahnu Nanda from Jagatsinghpur

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