New Delhi: Posco’s plans for a mega steel plant in Orissa, already delayed by four years, don’t seem to be any nearer fruition with protests by local residents against the project turning violent and security forces resorting to firing and cane charges to quell the agitation.
An added twist to the dispute is the assertion by the district administration (Jagatsinghpur) that approvals for the project had been obtained, while the protesters say this ignores the objections of two villages.
The process for the settlement of rights under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) has been completed and consent taken for the diversion of forest areas to other purposes, according to the administration.
The ministry of environment and forests, which gave final clearance to the project in December, later clarified that the approval would be contingent on the forest rights settlement process being completed and consent being obtained from the gram sabhas.
Posco India has obtained all clearances and the only conditions that remain to be fulfilled are the counting of trees to determine the extent of the afforestation the company will need to undertake and the payment of compensation for relocation and rehabilitation, said Vikash Sharan, vice-president, corporate affairs.
“If anyone has legitimate claims, there are channels to address those,” Sharan said. “The aggrieved can go to the MLA or collector or even the state government or lastly, the legal channel. We will do whatever we are required to do.”
Under the FRA, “other forest dwellers” who have been living in the area for 75 years and have been using the land, biodiversity and natural forests for their livelihoods are entitled to “community forest rights”. These rights have been verified and settled, but even then, consent is required at any time (i.e., both before and after the recognition process is complete).
The district administration told the state government on 23 February that the necessary process had been completed and that there were no tribals or other forest dwellers in the area. Gram sabha resolutions from Dhinkia and Nuagaon villages, dated 5 February, say however, that the villages had refused consent to the Posco plant and that there are “other forest dwellers” in the area who have been living there for three centuries.
In addition, on 23 March 2008, the Dhinkia village council formed its forest rights committee (FRC), which is the elected body under the FRA to accept and forward claims under the Act. The resolution also said that the people of the village have rights in the area and are refusing consent to any transfer.
Prashant Paikray, spokesperson for Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti, a local collective of those against the project, said that the villagers (other forest dwellers) have forwarded their claims to the FRC.
“But the district administration refused to accept some of our resolutions. We had also sent the resolutions by registered post to the collector’s office,” he added. Mint has reviewed all documents mentioned, including the resolution asserting community forest rights.
District collector Gyanaranjan Dash, who had said the process had been completed, retired five days later on 28 February.
The new collector, Narayana Chandra Jena, said he wasn’t aware of what happened prior to his taking charge and that he would need to check the records. Jena did not answer calls made to him after this exchange.