Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, who had earned the praise of activists by seeking strict enforcement of forest and environment laws, last week gave the go-ahead for two controversial projects, reversing his earlier decisions, apparently under pressure.
On May 2 he allowed Odisha (formerly Orissa) to make available 1,253 hectares of forest land to South Korea’s Pohang Iron and Steel Company (Posco), which is to set up a giant steel plant in the state. Land acquisition for the project had been stopped in August 2009 after he directed that there should be no diversion of forest land in violation of the Forest Rights Act.
On Friday he lifted the stop-work order issued to the Maheshwar Hydel Power Corporation Ltd last year as its promoters had not complied with the conditions of environmental clearance, especially those relating to relief and rehabilitation of persons affected by the project.
The Maheshwar dam is part of the massive Narmada Valley development project which provides for the construction of 30 large and 135 medium-sized dams. The project has been at the centre of a decades-long agitation by the displaced tribal population under the banner of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Movement).
Jairam Ramesh’s new order refers to many letters Madhya Pradesh’s Bharatiya Janata Party Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan and former Congress Chief Minister Digvijay Singh had written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urging continuance of the project. It also mentions a series of review meetings convened by the Prime Minister’s Office. This indicates that he has issued the order under relentless pressure.
Environmentalists have charged that the centre with clearing the two projects on the strength of false declarations made by the states about relief and rehabilitation.
The Posco plant will deprive about 50,000 farmers of Jagatsinghpur, Keonjhar and Sundargarh areas of their means of livelihood. One of the large dams under the Narmada project, the Maheshwar dam is expected to displace about 35,000 people.
The agitations against the two schemes have attracted international attention. Civil society groups in South Korea are among those who have extended support to the movement against the Posco project. The US power utility Ogden Energy Group, which was to have funded 49 per cent of the equity for the Maheshwar dam, had pulled out in 2000 in view of the widespread local opposition. It was the fourth investor group to withdraw from the project.
Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a civil society group backing Adivasi movements in the country, has pointed out that the new order relating to the Posco project is against the Supreme Court-appointed committee’s recommendation that, instead of making piecemeal allocation, the land required for the steel plant and for mining must be assessed and a decision taken on land diversion after considering the impact on ecology and the rehabilitation and resettlement plan.
India enacted a series of laws to protect its forests and the environment at the instance of prime minister Indira Gandhi immediately after the Stockholm summit of 1972, which she had attended. However, corporate promoters of projects found it easy to bribe their way out of their legal obligations. The state governments often ignored the agonised cries of forest-dwellers and environmental activists. Appeals to the judiciary, too, yielded only partial relief.
Jairam Ramesh, on becoming minister in charge of Environment and Forests in May 2009, initiated a series of steps which gave rise to hopes of strict implementation of laws. While environmentalists began to look upon him as one fighting on their side, the development-at-any-cost school dubbed him a “green fundamentalist.”
Ironically, the Green Warrior has beaten a retreat even as the government claims to be pushing for tight controls. Last week the central government said in future it would not give environmental clearance for mining and industrial projects needing more than 40 hectares of forest land unless the promoters first obtained a certificate from the forest department stating how much forest would be diverted.
India, striving to catch up with the advanced nations, needs to remember that it is working under different conditions. The United States has about 30 per cent area under forest, as against 21 per cent in India. Its population density is only 34 per square kilometre as against India’s 324 per sq km. China, with a population density of 140 per sq km, is trying to raise its forest cover of 18 per cent to 26 per cent by 2050. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 9, 2011.