by Janaki Lenin,Firt Post Apr 8, 2012

So what if it was the largest-ever FDI in India? The law finally caught up with it on 30 March 2012, when the National Green Tribunal suspended POSCO’s environmental clearance and ordered a fresh review. We can celebrate the outcome in this day and cynical age: It is still possible, though not easy, to get environmental justice in this country.

Since June 2005, when the agreement between the Government of Orissa and the South Korean Pohang Steel Company, aka POSCO, was signed, there have been behind-the-scenes manipulations, lax implementation of law, and suppression of information. All the main players – the state Government of Orissa, Government of India, and POSCO – colluded.

P Chidambaram, then Minister of Finance, and Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister, are known to have breathed down the neck of A Raja, then Minister of Environment and Forests, to fast track necessary clearances for POSCO. In fact, on 15 May 2007, his second last day as Minister, Raja granted environmental approval to the POSCO port. A month later, approval for the steel and power plants came through. That’s how close it was.

Supporters of Communist Party of India (CPI) hold placards during a protest in New Delhi June 24, 2011. Reuters
Repeated complaints of non-implementation of the Forests Rights Act led to a Review Committee being set up in July 2010. Who does the Ministry choose to chair this Committee? The former Secretary under whose watch clearances were granted in the first place. As the chair, Meena Gupta was to review her own decision. She was both judge and defendant. Did the Ministry really expect her to be critical of her own work?

However, the other three members of the committee were so appalled by the numerous violations, that they drastically differed in opinion from Gupta and submitted their own report. The report said both the Ministry’s Expert Appraisal Committees which granted environmental clearances were filled with yes-men and biased in favour of the Korean company. The majority members of the Review Committee called for nothing less than cancellation of clearances granted to POSCO.

Jairam Ramesh, then Minister of Environment and Forests, ignored the Review Committee members’ report and ignominiously issued the final order in January 2011. Perhaps to neutralize the outrage, he piled on 60 conditions contingent on the clearance. But since the Ministry has no way, much less intent, of checking if the company complies, the stipulations are toothless. The approval was for all practical purposes a carte blanche.

Is all this complaining about a mega project just the romantic, anti-development moans of social misfits out of touch with reality? What is wrong with the POSCO enterprise?

The steel plant requires more than 12,000,000 litres of fresh-water per hour. So, the state offered Jobra barrage on the Mahanadi, 86 km away. But this also happens to be the main drinking water source for Cuttack city and Jagatsinghpur District. When there was a public outcry, the state suggested POSCO siphon water from Hansua Nallah, an irrigation channel. Farmers of the area have banded together and formed a group to protest the use of this water, and they are supported by several political parties. So, at the moment, the plant has no assured source of water.

Seaports on the east coast of India cause devastating erosion on one side of the port and a massive pile up of sand on the other. The POSCO port is to be located on the mouth of an estuary, one of the most dynamic and fragile coastal ecosystems. In order to create a channel for ships to enter the port, POSCO intends to dump sand on the mouth of the Jatadharmohan creek and demolish a sand spit about 500 m away. Sand dunes, which protect the coast from storm surges, will have to be leveled to build the port. Each one of these drastic engineering activities is prohibited as the area enjoys the highest protection under the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification. Did the regulators even see the port’s engineering plans before clearing it for construction? Is the Coastal Notification just window dressing that no one really needs to pay any attention to?

The POSCO port will be just a few km away from Gahirmatha and Devi nesting beaches, one of the largest nesting grounds of olive ridley sea turtles in the world. Would the turtles’ migratory paths intersect shipping routes? Would lights illuminating the port cause nesting turtles to abandon the site, or the defenseless hatchlings to be disoriented and head en masse inland to their deaths at the POSCO site? Other wild creatures such as horseshoe crabs and three species of dolphins use the area as breeding and foraging grounds. Would turbidity, caused by constant dredging to maintain the shipping channel, support any life along the coast? How will this affect the livelihoods of lakhs of coastal people in the area? How will a solid clunker of a port obstructing flow of currents and sediments alter the coast? What would be the likely impact on the mangroves of Bhitarkanika National Park, India’s last safe population of saltwater crocodiles and a site recognized by the international RAMSAR treaty? No one has a clue.

POSCO doesn’t just threaten our natural heritage and local livelihoods. It threatens a key infrastructural asset too. In 2005, T.R. Baalu, the then Minister of Shipping, Road Transport and Highways said in the Lok Sabha that privately owned POSCO port may cause severe erosion to public-sector Paradip port. He asked the Orissa Government to undertake a detailed study of erosion impact before allowing the POSCO port to be built. Besides, dredged material from POSCO could silt the channel at Paradip during some months of the year. On the basis of zero studies, the Orissa government insists all will be fine. We may have numerous institutes and experts, but the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the PMO appear to place greater trust in the state’s guarantee. Despite the many threats to local wildlife and the livelihood of lakhs of people in the area, POSCO is adamant it wants its own port even though Paradip Port is only 10 to 12 km away. And our magnanimous government pampers the company.

Although the total capacity of the steel plant is 12 MTPA (metric tons per annum), the company sought clearance only for 4 MTPA. But, it wants land for a 12 MTPA capacity plant. Not only did POSCO split up the whole undertaking into separate components, it lowered the capacity of its plant to maximize its chances of getting clearance.

This entire edifice will be constructed at great ecological and human cost on the premise that there are accessible raw materials somewhere. There are none. Even while the State and Centre are hustling the enterprise forward, POSCO has no iron ore for its steel plant or to export through its port back to the mother country, and no coal mine to fuel its power plant.

The State government recommended giving the Khandadhar iron ore mine to POSCO, but there are 290 other claimants. One of them went to court which set aside the state government’s recommendation, and now POSCO has appealed to the Supreme Court. What if it loses the case again? There is no information on which coal mine will be assigned to POSCO. The state’s largesse in doling out millions of tons of ore at dirt cheap prices is another story of loot and plunder.

This huge scheme got away with its clearances on the basis of a hastily conducted Environment Impact Assessment (EIA). The plant and port would be connected by railway, roads, and pipelines, which have all been left out of the EIA’s ambit. The assessment did not include the yet-to-be-identified water source, nor examine the impact of this mega-development on human lives, much less wildlife. It also didn’t consider the source of raw materials for this project. If all these impacts aren’t considered, what exactly is an EIA for? Is it just a meaningless ritual?

And then there’s the forest clearance. Unlike the Expert Appraisal Committees, the Forest Advisory Committee headed by the Director General of Forests refused to issue the clearance needed to divert forest land. Before the diversion can take place, the rights of people resident in the area have to be settled under the Forest Rights Act. The state has absolutely refused to do this, even going to the extent of denying that anybody lived on the land earmarked for development. In fact, compared to the generous offer of 4000 acres of land to POSCO, the state is denying its own people any rights at all. Yet, Ramesh over-ruled the Forest Committee’s considered opinion and issued an executive fiat.

In a parallel development, in late March 2012, the Comptroller and Auditor General accused the Orissa government of misusing the Land Acquisition Act in favour of industrial houses such as POSCO.

Seven years after the agreement was signed and more than ten months after POSCO got all the necessary paperwork cleared with the aid of its powerful friends, if the enterprise exists only on paper, it’s because of local people’s opposition. When every single state mechanism and law that protected their rights has been undermined, people have peacefully braved daily harassment and violence being dealt to them by privately-hired goons and state police.

On his recent visit to South Korea, the Prime Minister assured President Lee Myung-bak that POSCO’s plans will be approved. Considering the close watch he’s been keeping on the paperwork, the environmental and forest rights problems could not have escaped his attention. And yet, how was he confident that the scheme will be approved?

Clearly, this entire undertaking needs to be evaluated comprehensively and that’s what the National Green Tribunal has ordered. In the face of the Ministry of Environment and Forest’s callous disregard of laws and ignoring the critique of the Review and Forest Advisory Committees it set up, the Tribunal’s verdict comes as welcome succour.