So horseshoe crabs and Olive Ridley turtles in a patch of coastal Orissa will likely lose. But if proponents of aggressive economic development expect the conditional clearance of South Korea’s Pohang Iron and Steel Co.’s (Posco’s) project in Orissa to remain within the ecosphere as defined by these two species, it would be an error. As the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF), which cleared the project earlier this week, may quickly discover—as will Posco and its sponsor, the government of Orissa—this clearance will not amount to resolution of the conflict that has bedevilled the proposed $12 billion deal that has, as corollaries, a private port to berth large ships, a large township to house employees, and extensive iron ore mines in the north of the state. Indeed, it is likely to escalate the projects vs people debate. Activists will ensure it.
Within hours of the news, the Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS)—or Posco Resistance Struggle Movement—that has as epicentre the villages of Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gadkujang in Orissa’s Jagatsinghpur district circulated its protest. “The struggle against Posco in Jagatsinghpur will continue,” the email said. “The struggle against exploitation of tribal, farming and fishing communities of Orissa will continue. The battle to expose corruption in the Orissa government and the Union government (especially MoEF) will continue.”
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The shrillness is outrage at environment and forests minister Jairam Ramesh. He inadvertently built activist cachet this past year as along with colleagues he hit some erring projects hard—Posco, Vedanta, Lafarge, Adarsh, Lavasa emerged as cause célèbres—but is now seen as a turncoat. In the universe of the displaced and the activist, it matters little that Ramesh’s ministry has put fairly stringent conditions on the project, including a set percentage of profit for social welfare programmes. Only that Ramesh bent with the breeze: pressure from South Korea and top political circles in India, seeking at one stroke to arrest a potential bilateral slide with the India-friendly nation, a worrying drop in foreign investment over the past year and, alongside, keep his job.
The situation in Orissa is sour. For instance, during extensive conversations with PPSS office bearers last year, I got the impression they would not back down—it was either Posco pulls out, or bust. They have consistently opposed attempts at settlement by the government of Orissa to appease those likely to be displaced by various elements of the project. My queries about what would bring closure to the issue of compensation—how much more should government or Posco do?—brought a sharp response. It wasn’t about compensation, they said; it was about the “unjust” nature of the project, and the “unjust” manner in which the government operates, adopting the approach of fait accompli—guaranteeing a slew of deals and benefits to a business in order to attract investment—instead of including all people in the dialogue from the beginning. (Corruption is often a fellow traveller. The mining sector in Orissa is a mess as extreme as anywhere else in India.)
This grim mood is also evident in the vast Kalinganagar industrial complex north-east of Orissa’s capital Bhubaneswar; in Lanjigarh to the north-west where Vedanta’s stalled bauxite mining and alumina refining projects are located; and in the extensive mining belt near and along Orissa’s forested border with Jharkhand. Activists and villagers afraid of being displaced—and several who have been displaced and are currently rehabilitated in abysmal shanty towns—spoke freely of overtures being made by Maoist rebels and representatives of less extreme Left-wing factions to shepherd a clutch of anti-business protest movements.
While protesters and villagers have thus far held off, preferring instead a no-ideological-strings-attached approach, they admitted the temptation to give in, if only to have firepower to take on major corporations and medium-sized businesses that freely rely on state machinery to bully, bulldoze, beat and even kill those reluctant to give over their land and homes.
The move with the Posco project will inevitably turn the spotlight on several other areas in Orissa and elsewhere, in anticipation of Ramesh’s ministry offering conditional clearances to stalled or controversial projects. It will be unwise to see such developments as either a victory or defeat, depending on the perspective. On the other hand, it would help if the minister took a break from hectic global travel to journey to Orissa and tackled ground zero “climate” issues. The minister can play peacemaker. The environment in India has come to this.
Sudeep Chakravarti writes on issues related to conflict in South Asia. He is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. He writes a column alternate Thursdays on conflicts that directly affect business.
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