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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 21, May 14, 2011

Letter to Dr Manmohan Singh

Tuesday 24 May 2011, by S G Vombatkere

Dear Dr Manmohan Singh,

I am writing concerning the decision of the Union Minister of State for Environment and Forest, Shri Jairam Ramesh, giving final forest and environmental clearance to the Pohang Steel Company (POSCO) for its project in Odisha.

Shri Jairam Ramesh and the Odisha Government have disregarded the resolutions of Palli Sabhas (Village Councils) that opposed handover of land for the proposed POSCO project. As per Section 6 of the Forest Rights Act 2006, villagers of Dhinkia and Govindpur organised Palli Sabhas on February 21 and 23, 2011 respectively, sending copies of their resolutions to the Odisha Govern-ment and the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) for information. The Odisha Government has suppressed facts and declared in its submission to the MoEF that the Palli Sabha resolutions were fake, stating that “only 69 and 64 signatures respectively were put in the Dhinkia and Govindpur Palli Sabha resolutions”. However, I learn from the people of the area that in reality, out of a total of 2445 voters in Dhinkia village 1632 voters, and out of a total of 1907 voters in Govindpur village 1265 voters signed on the Palli Sabha resolutions. It is thus clear that more than 65 per cent of the village people participated in both Palli Sabhas and passed resolutions rejecting the proposal for diversion of land. They have separately sent the Palli Sabha notices, the notices to the Executive Officer, and the resolutions of Dhinkia and Govindpur villages to the MoEF.

It is a matter of great concern that the MoEF, acting in possible collusion with the Government of Odisha and against the best interests of the POSCO project-affected persons (PAPs), has chosen to overlook the key issues raised by the PAPs on the illegalities committed in the forest and environment clearance process. The central issue which the MoEF and Odisha Government have avoided, is compliance with the require-ments under the Forest Rights Act, particularly Section 4 (5), and the MOEF guidelines issued in August 2009, which obliges the Odisha Govern-ment to ensure compliance with the Forest Rights Act by obtaining the consent of the Palli Sabha in the areas proposed for diversion of forest land. It is worth mentioning that it is this very fact that was the ground for the MoEF issuing the “stop work order” on August 5, 2010.

Subsequent visits and fact-finding by the Saxena Committee and Meena Gupta Committee have substantiated the claim of the PAPs, proving beyond doubt that (1) there are other forest dwellers in the proposed areas depending traditionally on the forests for their livelihood, (2) sufficient documentary evidence is available which shows the existence of forest rights (this is also already on the MoEF files), and (3) the Forest Rights Act is not being implemented by the Odisha Government in the area.

Thus, based on the Meena Gupta Committee’s Report, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) has recommended withdrawal of forest clearance. The Odisha Government has been repeatedly denying the existence of tribal people in the proposed project area, whereas the 2001 Census confirms their presence. Besides this, the PAPs have also submitted sufficient concrete evidence that there are tribals who are cultivating the forest land in the area. In July 2010, the Odisha Government, indulging in clear violation of human rights, used the police force to illegally occupy the land of two tribal persons, namely, Shri Ramachandra Murmu and Shri Rajendra Hembram, both of Polang village. The Odisha Government is also using police force or terrorising the people using the threat of the police force, and foisting false cases against the rural and tribal people who are protesting against the POSCO project.

THE initial rejection by Shri Jairam Ramesh of the Compliance Report submitted by the Odisha Government on April 13, 2011, was truthful and correct, giving hope to the PAPs that justice would be done. However, on April 29, 2011, Shri Jairam Ramesh visited Odisha amid huge demonstrations demanding that he formally withdraw the provisional forest, environmental and Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) clearances, since they were given based on falsehoods. On the contrary, on May 2, 2011, Shri Jairam Ramesh gave the final forest and environmental clearance. I fail to understand the logic or the legality or the sense of fair play and justice that may have motivated this clearance, which flies in the face of the facts already known to the MoEF and Odisha Government. As things stand now, the feeling is that this decision has been a disgraceful and dismal capitulation to the desires of the corporate lobby and against all norms of justice and fair play.

I am given to understand that POSCO was one of the mega-projects which was approved on May 15, 2007 by the then Minister, Ministry of Environment and Forest, Shri A. Raja, presently of 2G-spectrum-scam notoriety. This was a mere month after the controversial statutory Environ-mental Public Hearing on the project was held, involving major human rights violations. Shri A. Raja clearly displayed unseemly haste in approving the POSCO project, which cannot but be now viewed with the lens of the 2G-spectrum scam. The recent forest clearance granted by the MoEF appears to be one with the earlier approval which could only have been under the influence of the POSCO lobby. The PAPs and others are now demanding that the ongoing CBI enquiry into the 2G-spectrum allocation should be extended to include investigation into the motivations involved in the POSCO project. This shows that people at the grassroots level have little or no confidence in the sense of fair play and justice of the Union Government, which is supporting the Odisha Government in its disgraceful and criminal anti-people stance and illegal actions that favour the corporate world.

In view of the foregoing, I condemn the decision of the Union Minister of State for Environment and Forest, Shri Jairam Ramesh, that gives final forest and environmental clearance to the POSCO company for the use of 1253 ha of forest land on the basis of the factually and legally incorrect and misleading Compliance Report rendered by the Odisha Government.

The recent huge demonstrations against corruption resulting in a Joint Drafting Committee for an effective Lokpal/Lokayukta Bill have raised hopes of cleaner governance than in the past. It should not be necessary for every politician in power to be dragged kicking and screaming before the public (like Shri A. Raja or Shri Suresh Kalmadi), to heap further ignominy on the already embattled Congress-led Union Government.

I therefore appeal to you to immediately have the forest clearance and other environmental clearances accorded by the MoEF for the POSCO project withdrawn, and also take all transparent measures to punish the concerned elected and appointed officials in the Odisha Government and MoEF who have been influenced by POSCO to act against the best interests of the poor rural and tribal people of Odisha and of the Republic of India.

Yours faithfully,

Mysore Maj Gen S.G. Vombatkere (Retd)

Copies by E-mail to:

# Shri Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister, MoEF, New Delhi. ,

# Shri Naveen Patnaik, Chief Minister of Odisha. ,

# Chairperson, National Human Rights Commission, New Delhi. ,

# Smt Sonia Gandhi, President, Indian National Congress, New Delhi. , 10janpath@vsnl.net

Major General S.G. Vombatkere retired as the Additional Director General, Discipline and Vigilance in the Army HQ, New Delhi, after 35 years in the Indian Army with combat, staff and technical experience. The President of India awarded him the Visishta Seva Medal in 1993 for distinguished service rendered in Ladakh. He holds a Ph.D degree in Structural Dynamics from IIT, Madras. He coordinates and lectures a Course on Science, Technology and Sustainable Development for undergraduate students of University of Iowa, USA, and two universities of Canada, who spend a semester at Mysore as part of their Studies Abroad in South India. He is Adjunct Associate Professor of the University of Iowa, USA.

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