By Mayank Aggarwal*
Resistance among villagers that led to the South Korean steel company, POSCO, pulling out of the 12 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) integrated steel plant with captive power plant project in Jagatsinghpur district of Odisha is brewing again, following the decision to allow Sajjan Jindal-led JSW Utkal Steel Limited to carry out the project.
Alleging that the public hearing conducted for the project in December 2019 was a farce, the palli sabha (village council) of Dhinkia village has already passed a resolution against the project. The other villages in the project area are expected to follow suit as well.
The project, which involves an investment of about Rs 500 billion (Rs 50,000 crore), was to be set up by POSCO-India Private Limited and had got forest clearance in May 2011 for diversion of 1,253.225 hectares of forest land for the establishment of an integrated steel plant in Jagatsinghpur district of Odisha.
However, the project had faced resistance on the issue of settlement of forest rights under the Forest Rights Act 2006 and the environment ministry had held that no forest land shall be handed over to the company until the forest rights are settled. Subsequently, the project faced stiff resistance and, in 2017, the company pulled out of the project.
Following this, in June 2017, the Odisha government approved giving the area to JSW Utkal Steel Limited. Thereafter the project came to the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) seeking transfer of the forest clearance. The project was then discussed in several meetings of the FAC in 2019.
Finally, in its August 2019 meeting, the FAC noted that the project now requires forest area of 1,083.691 hectares against the earlier approved 1,253.225 hectares and recommended the transfer of forest clearance.
“The comparative land use submitted by the state government suggests that most of the land use is similar in nature to the earlier approval. This proposal has been deliberated in earlier meetings. FAC observed that the approval under Forest Conservation Act 1980 granted to one project proponent for a specific purpose, can be transferred to another project proponent if the purpose and land use remains the same,” FAC noted in its meeting while noting that earlier permission was given for 30 years.
The Odisha government had also informed the FAC that POSCO-India Private Limited also has no objection if the approval granted to it, is transferred to JSW Utkal Steel Limited. It had even noted that the JSW Utkal Steel Limited shall be allowed to “use the diverted forest land” with same stipulations as prescribed in clearance to POSCO.
It had noted that 169.534 ha of balance forest land shall be returned to the forest department and that shall be adequately afforested with native forest species and shall be protected at the cost of the new user agency.
However, this has failed to cut ice with villagers in the area, who have been against the project.
Local villagers are against the JSW project
In December 2019, in a public hearing organised at Gadakujang in Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur area regarding the project, the villagers protested against the project and demanded the scrapping of the project. The local villagers have alleged that the state government taking the land given to POSCO under its land bank after POSCO’s pullout was illegal.
Prasant Paikray of the Anti-Jindal and Anti-POSCO movement explained to Mongabay-India that rights of villagers under the FRA 2006 are yet to be recognised and they won’t give up claim on their land.
“Thousands of people whose forest rights have not been settled would be impacted due to this project. Of the eight villages in the project area, Dhinkia village has now passed a resolution against the project. Other villages may also follow suit,” said Paikray.
The unanimous resolution was passed by the people of village Dhinkia on February 25, 2020. A translated version of the resolution passed by the palli sabha (village council) notes that people have been staying at the place for hundreds of years and have been dependent on the forest for their survival.
“Apart from betel vineyards, this lush fertile land has provided us with cashew, coconut, drumstick, mango, jackfruit, betel nut, pineapple, guava, many other varieties of fruits, roots, and vegetables. We also raise our cattle and livestock on this land and also carry out extensive fishing here. We cannot survive without this forest as most of us are landless. Therefore we will not allow any factory to be built here,” the resolution said.
The resolution demanded that their individual and community rights over forests must be recognised first and the consent of the palli sabha must be taken before that forest is diverted for non-forest usage.
“But, the government has failed to do both. The public hearing for JSW conducted by the government on December 20, 2019, was completely undemocratic and illegal because the project affected people did not participate in it. We were not provided with any information about the public hearing and people were brought from other places to participate in the hearing. Therefore, the public hearing must be declared invalid,” the resolution said.
It noted that despite our protest and opposition the company’s employees are frequently visiting our village and luring our people with false promises, which is creating disharmony and affecting the fraternity in the village.
Paikray informed that during the protests against POSCO as well all the villages had passed similar resolutions. “Until the rights of villagers are settled, we will not allow any JSW official to enter our village,” he said. The villagers may even resort to legal options to ensure their rights are settled.
“We are being threatened that we will be charged with false cases and arrested like in the past during the anti-POSCO agitation, and when we are in jail they will build the JSW project. We are all living in great fear now. Today we have decided that from now on we will not allow any JSW employees to enter our village. If the company continues to send its people to our village to rupture the harmony and fraternity of our community then the government and the company will be held for any unrest and law and order situation that will arise,” the resolution said.
Earlier, in a letter sent to the MoEFCC on January 31, 2020, the leaders of the Anti-Jindal Anti-POSCO Movement had voiced their opposition to the project.
They had also stressed on the issues related to water requirements for the project stating that the adequacy of water available for the project needs very close scrutiny. Highlighting that the steel plant would get water from Jobra barrage of Mahanadi River near Cuttack through an 87 -kilometre long pipeline, the letter said this is despite the “rising evidence that the Mahanadi River is already water-stressed.”
Environment clearance procedure violated
Kanchi Kohli, who is a senior researcher with the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), said there are a few aspects of this issue, which need to be understood.
“First, the inevitability of land-use change. Once an area is identified for an industrial and infrastructure project, its fate is sealed. In the present case, the state government enclosed the diverted and acquired land even though the earlier land-use change in favour of POSCO was never realised. Second, the public hearing gave the impression that there are two projects for which the hearing is being done. However, there are at least five projects in question which are of integrated nature,” Kohli explained to Mongabay-India.
She elaborated that in-fact, there is no impact assessment of the township which will be constructed for the project. “There is an upfront violation of the environment clearance procedure which has not been recognised by the environment ministry and the expert committee.
“Third, the issue of forest rights compliance has always been contested. The transfer of forest diversion ignores this entirely. The current resolution of the palli sabha is a constitutional affirmation that the recognition of forest rights is still contested. Instead, the environment ministry has treated it as a routine transfer of government land,” said Kohli.