POSCO Proposal Riddled With Illegalities: HRF

A team of six human rights activists from Andhra Pradesh and New Delhi visited the State of Orissa for two days, on 16th and 17th of August, 2007 to enquire into the circumstances leading to the people’s opposition to the proposed iron and steel project of Pohang Steel Company Ltd (POSCO) near Paradip, and the response of the State administration and POSCO to the opposition. The team consisted of Dr Burra Ramulu, K Balagopal, VS Krishna and K Sudha of the Human Rights Forum (HRF) of Andhra Pradesh, P Venkat Rao of Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC) and Dr Bela Bhatia, researcher, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi. The following is a brief report of the team: 

Since the background facts are by now well known, we will concentrate on the issues we wish to draw the people’s attention to. We visited the village of Dhinkia which is one of the affected villages. We spoke to representatives of POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti and Nav Nirman Samiti, which are leading the resistance movement. We spoke to personnel of the Kujang tahsil office and POSCO’s office at Kujang. We also spoke to representatives of people’s organisations supportive of the anti-POSCO movement. Unfortunately, the efforts to meet the District Collector, Jagatsinghpur, and the Chief Secretary of the State were unsuccessful.

I. The Environmental Public Hearing conducted by the Orissa Pollution Control Board (OPCB), as is by now well known, was improperly conducted. It was held at Kujang, the tahsil headquarters, and not at the villages where the land is being acquired. Since these villages are about 20 kms away from the tahsil headquarters, and there is no public transport, it was wrong to have held the enquiry at Kujang. Moreover, there was heavy police deployment, which inhibited the affected villagers against whom a number of criminal cases have been registered in connection with their resistance to the project. For both these reasons, the affected people did not attend the hearing. Such a hearing can only be described as a farce.     

But there is more that is wrong with the Public Hearing. The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report and the Environment Management Plan (EMP), which are the basic documents for the hearing, were not made available to the people. It is a fundamental prerequisite of a Public Hearing that the basic documents are made available to the people in a language they understand, and explained to them. The villagers of Dhinkia had not even heard of the documents. Needless to add, no Oriya language translation of the documents was at all prepared.

The EIA prepared by M.N. Dastur & Company is a ‘rapid one’ based on the POSCO’s ‘project concept’ and ‘short term field investigations’. This fact is mentioned incidentally in paragraph 58 of the report, as if it is a minor matter. We must add that it has become standard practice in all parts of the country to hold Environmental Public Hearings on the basis of rapid EIAs even when there is no urgency. Such a practice defeats the very purpose of Environmental Public Hearings, but the PCBs of the various States could not care less. What could be the great urgency in establishing a huge steel plant which requires a number of clearances and infrastructural development before it can take off?  Why could not a full EIA be prepared before undertaking the Public Hearing? The PCB of Orissa owes the public an explanation for this. 

The other and very serious aspect is that the EIA does not at all deal with the apprehensions concerning the problems of water-logging in the catchment of the Jatadhari river due to the construction of the captive port in its estuary. A number of streams that drain a considerable area of Jagatsinghpur and Kendrapara districts flow into this river. The port is being planned right in the mouth of the river. This will result in obstruction of the natural drainage and consequent water-logging upstream of the river, though the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) representative of POSCO wanted us to believe otherwise. At any rate this is a serious apprehension, which the EIA should have dealt with. It has, however, been totally ignored.

Similarly, while the EIA does deal in a manner of speaking with the socio-economic effects of the land acquisition for the project, there is no discussion at all of the effect of loss of fishing rights due to construction of the port in the estuary, and the pollution which is bound to be caused to what remains of the estuary by the construction of the plant on its banks. Fishing rights are bound to be seriously affected. 

A comprehensive EIA and EMPO must be prepared, made available to the people in their language, and a Public Hearing has to be held anew in the affected villages.

 II. The second issue is the non-settlement of land rights before initiating any proposal for acquisition of land for the project. At the initial stage, the Government is handing over 4004 acres of land in eight villages to POSCO. The Government claims that of this, 437.68 acres is private land (for the acquisition of which compensation will necessarily have to be paid) and 3566.53 acres belongs to the Government. The Government land is classified as 251.05 acres of leasable land, 363.2 acres of communal land including pastures (gochar land), and 2951.56 acres of forest land. The forest land is in turn divided into 1938.15 acres of forest and 1013.41 acres of what is described as revenue forest, by which is probably meant village forests.

Whatever the classification, the whole of the land is life supporting. The three affected gram panchayats, namely Gad Kujang, Dhinkia and Nuagaon, which have a population of upwards of 20,000, derive their livelihood from this land. And a major share of it comes from the crops cultivated on the so-called Government land. Betel vines and cashew gardens abound in the land and provide a decent livelihood to the people. Betel is not a seasonal crop. The leaf is plucked every fortnight, throughout the year. The yield of the cashew gardens is seasonal but quite substantial. The two put together give a good income to the cultivators. Yet, the thousands of families cultivating these lands do not have any title to the lands they are cultivating, and hence they are not in law eligible for compensation.

If the law had no provision for giving them title to the land, we would not have blamed the Government. But in law, all the people cultivating the 3566.53 acres of Government are entitled to recognition of rights in the land but the Government of Orissa has failed to give them the rights. Sec 4 of the Orissa Prevention of Land Encroachment Act, 1972 gives the Tahsildar the power to regularise the occupation of Government land by the landless, up to an extent of 1 acre per family. The gochar (pastures) and communal lands are excluded from this, and so it applies to the ‘leasable’ Government land of 251.05 acres. However, Sec.8-A of the same Act says that in the case of occupation for more than thirty years, the Sub-Divisional Officer can grant rights in any Government land, which means pastures and communal land, too.  Since there is no dispute that the occupation has been continuous for as long as any one can remember, this provision applies and hence title could have been given for the whole of the 614.97 acres of non-forest Government land. It is not as if the fact of the occupation was not known to the revenue personnel. It was known and they were collecting fines annually from them. But they did not find time to settle the land with them.  

As for the forest land, in the past the occupants may not have had a legal right of regularisation, but after the passage of the Scheduled Tribes & Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, (Act 2/2007), the situation has changed. These occupants are not Scheduled Tribes but they are traditional forest dwellers in terms of that Act because they have been cultivating those lands for more than three generations, by all accounts. Hence, they are entitled to the benefits under that Act.

Thus, the Government of Orissa cannot pretend that the people in occupation of the 3566.53 acres of Government land to be made over to POSCO do not exist or that their rights do not exist. It must settle their rights completely before proceeding any further.

III. The MOU signed by the Govt of Orissa with POSCO not only commits it to providing infrastructural facilities for the POSCO, but compromises its status as a guarantor of public interest under environment, mining, forest and other statutes. The Govt. of Orissa has committed itself to playing a facilitator’s role in obtaining Mining license, CRZ clearance, clearance under the Forest Conservation Act, clearance under the Environment laws, etc. from the Central Government or statutory bodies. In fact, in the matter of these licences and clearances, the State Government is expected to give its report or recommendation based on objective assessment of the situation, a duty that it cannot contract out of. It is like a police officer entering into an agreement with an accused person in a criminal offence, that he will facilitate his acquittal. It only goes to show how far the desire to attract corporate investment has driven our rulers from not only Constitutional imperatives but the plain common sense of proper administration as well.

The promise made by the Govt. of Orissa in the MOU to the effect that it would recommend to the Central Government the grant of SEZ status to the POSCO plant is most strange, to say the least. Status of SEZ results in substantial fiscal loss to the country, and at least potentially the loss of legal protection to the rights of the workers and other people concerned with the plant. This sacrifice is supposed to be balanced by the benefit that production for export in competitive markets will bring to the country. Without prejudice to the issue whether such benefits are real, when it is not at all the case that POSCO will manufacture for the export market, and when POSCO never expressed any unwillingness to undertake the plant in the normal course, the recommendation of the status of SEZ is without any justification. SEZ status is not some jalebi to be distributed in moments of governmental pleasure. The SEZ status, if granted to POSCO, must be withdrawn. 

In raising these objections, we do not wish to be understood as saying that if only these objections are answered the people’s opposition to the plant would or should cease. We are raising these objections because they are evident on the face of it, and have no excuse even within a purely legal view of the matter. But we are aware that the anti-POSCO agitation, like all similar agitations across the country, is raising fundamental questions concerning developmental philosophy and policy. It is not a matter of industry vs agriculture, but of development understood as a high growth rate vs livelihood: development for the corporate houses and the urban middle classes vs livelihood of the poor and the rural society, more particularly in the context of a total lack of any policy of just and fair rehabilitation of the people affected by projects. The people suffering forcible displacement and deprivation are raising these questions but the corporate world, middle class India and the political class hungry for the spin off they get from this development are unwilling to answer them. 

K Balagopal
HRF State general secretary


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