POSCO – How To Destroy India's Coasts And Aggravate Climate Change
December 2008: History will judge India’s Central Government, the Orissa State Government and the Ministry of Environment and Forests harshly. In their haste to curry favour with Foreign Direct Investors and powerful people, they have turned into rubber stamps for the destruction of India.
Principled officers are virtually hounded out of the MoEF, cronyism and groupism is the order of the day and many believe that ignorance, avarice and arrogance are now its hallmarks. This incisive piece by Kanchi Kohli and Manju Menon underscores just one of the many conspiracies hatched by the leaders of our country and within the Ministry of Environment and Forests, which has proved unequal to the task of protecting the ecological security of India.
Those of us who had gathered at Paatna village that day enjoyed the unlikely calm that prevailed despite the seemingly tense situation. We stuck to our routines to maintain the sense of normalcy and it was a welcome suggestion when a group of youngsters from the village offered to whisk us away for a walk in the area. We walked past small, coastal wetlands, bamboo groves and huge sand dunes. The sandy spread was dotted with several bamboo and cane enclosures within which betel creepers thrived. Not too far away from our walking route lay the Jatadhari estuary that winds past several villages in the Dhinkia panchayat before opening widely into the Bay of Bengal.
Paatna and Dhinkia are truly picturesque. However, both are probably better known for their energetic resistance against the state government and India’s largest Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) project, the South Korean Pohang Steel Company (POSCO), which proposes to set up a 12 million tonne steel plant and captive port in Ersamma block, Jagatsinghpur District in Orissa. This operation is directly linked with mining, road laying and a captive power plant, as seen in the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) POSCO has signed with the Orissa State Government. If constructed, the plant will stand on the village, its lush paddies, fruit orchards and betel plantations.
The proposed port that will come up at the mouth of the Jatadhari creek will ravage sand dunes almost six metres high, the spawning and breeding grounds of several fish species, a fragile estuarine stretch and much more. The construction at the mouth will cause water logging along the length of the creek and eventually destroy it.
If one is aware of the process of obtaining an environmental clearance in the country, this project will not come as a surprise. With a willing Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and often even the judiciary, this doesn’t require much skill or finesse – just repeating the magic words ‘development’ and ‘growth’ usually suffice. POSCO was quick to realise that the delay in obtaining a Special Economic Zone status can be circumvented by getting environment and forest clearances of various components of its operations separately. It was the steel plant and captive port that were first on the list.
On April 15, 2007, a joint public hearing mandated under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006 was held for the port and the steel plant. As is the standard occurrence, locals and NGOs complained that relevant documents were not available in time and definitely not in the local language. A case was filed in the High court for a stay on the project, and objections were raised at the time of the public hearing, but none of this was to come in the way of this mega-project – the ‘largest FDI’ is what they were told, it didn’t matter what their questions were.
With this project on the radar of the Prime Minister’s Office, decisions had to be made fast. Now, if you thought that our government was slow on the uptake, the report of the public hearing arrived at the corridors of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, New Delhi within three days. The papers were looked at by two separate Expert Appraisal Committees (EAC) on infrastructure (for the port) and the industry (for the steel plant), without any joint discussions and approval was given. Quite interestingly, when the EAC on infrastructure projects sat to review the project from April 19, 2007 onwards for three days, they dispensed with an earlier recorded option of a site inspection, took POSCO’s explanations on board and recommended the clearance of the port project. The clearance letter for the port was issued a month later on May 15, 2007. It included a special clause that all the issues addressed at the time of the public hearing had to be addressed comprehensively post clearance and a report was to be submitted within six months. This, of course, meant that all the comments from the time of the public hearing would be rendered irrelevant. In his submission to the Orissa State Pollution Control Board, Biswajit Mohanty, coordinator of Operation Kachhapa, an ambitious sea turtle conservation programme, and Sanctuary Wildlife Service Award winner in 2001 wrote, “Due to the disposal of such huge quantities of dredged material in the sea, not only will the benthic fauna at the offshore waters adjoining the port site be affected, but also the feeding grounds of olive ridley sea turtles at Devi river mouth and Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary (located 30 km. from the port site).” Like many other people of Orissa, Mohanty also shares concerns of what a private port, that is to come up 12 km. away from the existing Paradip port, would do to the fishing economy and the revenue of the Port Trust.
The environmental clearances for both the port and the steel plant were obtained in May and June 2007 respectively. But this was not all. The setting up of the steel plant and port, at the cost of US $ 12 billion, required a diversion of 1,253.255 ha of forest land for non-forest use. The grant of clearance meant the felling of about 2.8. lakh trees, a proposal the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the MoEF granted without hesitation in August 2007.
A Supreme Court order of April 27, 2007 stating that all proposals recommended by the FAC, had to be scrutinised by the Supreme Court’s Godavarman (forest) bench’s Central Empowered Committee (CEC) came to the rescue. The CEC stepped in, took on board submissions of civil society organisations that had petitioned them and dug out additional facts.
Its recommendations linked the operation of the plant and port with POSCO’s proposed mining plans, for which procedural formalities have not been completed. This was regarded as a critical component of the project according to the MoU of POSCO with the state government, but failed to find mention in the EIA reports and other critical statements about the project. The CEC report clearly held that, “instead of piecemeal diversion of forest land for the project, it would be appropriate that the total forest land required for the project including for mining is assessed and a decision for diversion of forest land is taken for the entire forest land after considering the ecological importance of the area, number of trees required to be felled, adequacy and effectiveness of the R&R plan for the project-affected persons and benefits accruing to the State. The diversion of forest land for the plant, without taking a decision for the linked uses particularly the mining project may not be in order.” It also recommended the setting up of an independent expert committee as the number of trees at risk is very large.
The CEC report created ripples. The proposed mining site is located in the beautiful Khandadhar Hills in Sundergarh district of Orissa. There was an ongoing legal battle as the Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Ltd (KIOCL) had also staked its claim on the same hill. As we await a final go-ahead to POSCO, one cannot help but think of what is at stake. These forests are rich in flora and fauna and sustain the Paudi Bhuiyan tribal communities, which form 74 per cent of the population in the surrounding area. Additionally, mining would irreparably impact the famous Khandadhar waterfall – which is also a famous tourist destination.
On August 8, 2008, the Supreme Court of India ordered that POSCO’s forest clearance be sent back to the decision-makers in the MoEF. They picked on only part of the CEC report and directed the setting up of an expert committee to look at mitigation measures. The arguments in court that preceded this spoke about the assurance of the state government that POSCO will receive a mining lease, if not in Khandadhar then elsewhere in the state. A necessary obligation that the Orissa state took upon itself, when it committed in the joint MoU that it would procure all the necessary clearances for POSCO.
We were in Paatna that day to record and join in the struggles of the locals. That morning on April 1, 2008, we marched with the villagers and supporters from Paatna to Balitutha where people had broken the police barricade. People had converged from all around to heed to the call by the Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS) to re-capture the four-month-old barricade put up by the administration in November 2007. For the villagers struggling against POSCO, it was a critical step ahead but also one that made the atmosphere tense with fear of retaliation from the authorities.The people of Paatna fight for themselves, but they fight for us too. They stand to protect not just their livelihoods, but the invaluable benefits, material and aesthetic, of these unique ecological spaces.
Did someone say FDI again?
The campaign against POSCO needs your urgent intervention. You can get more information and updates on http://stoposco.wordpress.com/.
Write, demanding immediate withdrawal of all clearances to the projects, dropping all false charges against PPSS activists and comprehensive reassessment of components of the projects and their cumulative impacts before any further clearances:
Naveen Patnaik, Chief Minister,
Fax: + 91-674-2400100
Vijai Sharma, Secretary, MoEF,
New Delhi – 110 003.
P.R. Mohanty, Director General of Forests and Chairman, Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), MoEF,
New Delhi – 110 003.
Tel.: +91-11- 24361509.