National Green Tribunal stalls POSCO

In a stirring judgement passed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT), the green signal given to South Korea’s Pohang Iron and Steel Company (POSCO) to go-ahead with their mega steel project in Odisha has been suspended.

The suspension will remain in place till the environment ministry reviews it, taking into account the complete capacity of the project. According to the Tribunal, the clearance granted for the proposed project at this point requires to be set aside as 'arbitrary and illegal'.

The proposal was for an integrated steel plant with a production capacity of 12 million tonnes per annum (MTPA), along with a captive power plant in Jagatsinhpur district of Odisha which was first granted a clearance in 2007. The decision was then challenged vehemently by local people especially opposing land acquisition and the project was stalled. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) directed a special review committee, chaired my Meena Gupta, former Secreatary of MoEF, to monitor and evaluate the compliance of the environment clearance (see POSCO review body divided, Down to Earth, Nov 15, 2010), and a new environmental impact analysis (EIA) report was required to be submitted.  The new report which was finally granted a clearance on January 31, 2011 was the center piece of the current contention.

As pointed out by the Tribunal, though the memorandum of understanding between the Odisha government and POSCO says that the plant will have a capacity of 12 MTPA, the EIA for the project has been prepared on the basis of four MTPA of steel production, providing a justification that further EIA reviews will be done for the project as and how it expands. But land, water, and other infrastructure allocated were for 12 MTPA capacity. Clearly, the current EIA report is a huge under representation of the scale of impact that the project will have on the surrounding environment and the community.

It was a jubilant moment for the people of Jagatsingpur, Odisha, who have been relentlessly fighting for their rights against the giant corporation. The appellant in the case, Prafulla Samantara of Lok Sakti Abhiyan in a pressnote said, “People will not depend on any judicial process but recent verdict of the NGT shows that people were right in their opposition and they will continue their struggle against any unjust and immoral imposition on them which would destabilise their life and livelihoods.”

Prafulla also argued that no public hearing notice was issued by the State Pollution Control Board (atleast) in two local newspapers nor the executive summary of the EIA report was made available to the public as mandated by the provisions of the EIA notification. The venue of the public hearing was also set at a prohibitive distance in Kujanga village, about 15 km away from the site of the proposed plant. As a result, many villagers likely to bear the immediate brunt of the project could not participate in the process.

The granting of the clearance was further challenged on the grounds of Meena Gupta being the Chairperson of the review committee. As argued by Prafulla, Meena as the Secretary of MoEF had been involved in granting the original environmental clearances to POSCO, and thus her being in the review committee is likely to have biases for defending her own position. The bench observed that the entire process was 'vitiated in the eyes of law'.