ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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'Strategic' Concerns Trump All

Should the "strategic significance" of the POSCO project override the concerns of its victims?

Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister for Environment and Forests, is full of surprises.What is not surprising about him though is his lack of consistency and the ease with which he reverses his own stated position. There is little doubt that Ramesh has been one of the most accessible environment ministers. Also, that he appears to understand the importance of factoring in environmental protection and people’s rights into the decision-making processes leading to clearances for big industrial, mining or power projects. He listens to those who protest against such projects in different parts of India with far more attention than his predecessors. His initial responses always raise hopes that he will break the well-established tradition of governments of all political hues to ride roughshod over both environmental and people’s interests. And then, he lets people down. After making all the correct noises, he suddenly changes his tune. After questioning state governments that clear projects with perfunctory environmental clearance procedures, he turns around and says that these very governments should be trusted. And in the end he brings out what seems to be his trump card, “strategic significance” that compel the clearance of various projects.

So while a nuclear plant in Jaitapur, Maharashtra, based on untested imported technology, stands cleared because of such “strategic significance”, a mega steel plant in Orissa, representing India’s largest foreign direct investment project, has been cleared citing the very same reason. What is the nature of these “strategic” concerns for clearing the proposed Rs 55,000 crore, 12 million tonnes per annum steel plant to be built by the Korean steel giant POSCO? It has been delayed for over six years because of stiff resistance from the people living in the project area who will lose their lands and their sources of livelihoods. Is allowing India’s biggest direct foreign investment of such “strategic” importance that it can be pushed through over the objections of local people and despite serious environmental concerns? From the start in June 2005, when the Orissa government signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with POSCO, questions have been raised about the project. Environmental impact assessments done by the state government to grant clearance were challenged in the court. In October-November last year, the environment ministry appointed three committees to evaluate whether the environmental clearance given to the project violated coastal regulations and forest and other environmental laws. The clear consensus of these expert panels was that there had been serious irregularities in the clearances granted, that people’s rights to the forests would be infringed, and that the proposed captive port would adversely effect fishing communities and the coastal environment. Yet, by January 2011, the project was given “final” clearance by the ministry.

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