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Clearing Forests and People in Odisha

While granting final forest clearance to the POSCO project on 2nd May 2011 in the Indian state of Odisha, Jairam Ramesh, Minister of Environment and Forest, Govt of India  and the much touted new green hero of the day, said “Faith and trust in what the state government says is an essential pillar of cooperative federalism.” And, he goes by the words of the state government apparently forgetting that it’s the ‘Rule of Law’ that guides the centre-state relationship, not ‘faith and trust’.  The minister, who acted quite un-green in approving the project, should have been little more vigilant in believing the vague terminologies invoked by the state government like ‘faith and trust’ while there are recorded evidences of malafide by state government in furnishing false information, particularly on settlement of Forest Rights Claims in the area, to the central government.

POSCO project

On June 22, 2005 Pohang Steel Company (POSCO), a large South Korean corporation, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Government of Odisha.  This understanding outlined POSCO’s proposal to invest  $12 billion ( around 54 thousand crores in Indian rupees)  and plan to build a 12 Million Tonne Per Annum ( MTPA) integrated steel plant, captive port and mines in Erasama block of Jagatatsinghpur district. This is tipped as the highest FDI to India. 4004 acres of land is required for establishing the project of which about 2900 acres are forest land and the rest are private land. In addition to this, land for a railways, road expansion and mine development are also to be provided. The MoU was however valid for five years, which stands expired now. Renewed MoU is yet to be signed as both the parties are in final stage of negotiation on clinching out the nitty-gritty of the MoU. The people of the area have been opposing the project from the beginning.

Palli Sabha resolutions ignored

The first and foremost issue is relating to Palli Sabha (Palli Sabha is the assembly adults of a revenue village which is synonymous to the generic term Gram Sabha) resolutions of the Dhinkia (held on 21st February 2011) and Gobindpur (23rd February 2011) villages under Dhinkia Village Panchayat (Village Panchayat is the lowest elected body in India), which dismissed the diversion of forest land to the project. (Three Village Panchayats are to be affected by the project; they are Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gad Kujang) These resolutions were sent to the Minister by the anti-project outfit POSCO Pratirodha Sangram Samiti (PPSS). In his order the Minister relied on the fact submitted by the state government, given in response to the resolution, that resolutions were signed by some 69 out of 3445 voters in Dhinkia village and by 64 out of 1907 voters in Gobindpur village. This lacked the quorum, argued the state government. (The quorum under Forest Rights Act (FRA) mandates presence of two third of total voters of the village in the Palli Sabha meeting). However in reality in case of Dhinkia Palli Sabha resolution the numbers of signatures are 1632 and in case of Gobindpur it is 1265. Prashant Paikrai, the spokes-person of the outfit says “We had faxed only two pages of the resolution to MoEF but the complete copy was sent to both the MoEF and state government by registered post. The state government has lied on the number of signatures backing the resolutions. Still unfortunate is that Jairam Ramesh also accepted it unquestioned. The facts have now been presented before the High Court in a petition.”

Apart from the ground of quorum, the state government also has raised the issue of power of the Sarpanch (Elected head of a Gram Panchayat) to convene a Palli Sabha. In the response to the issue the state government has stated “Two resolutions purported to have been passed by the Palli Sabha are not available in the book (recorded by the gram panchayat secretary and signed by the Sarpanch) and are therefore fake ones”. MoEF also purportedly analysed various provisions of Orissa Gram Panchayat Act, Forest Rights Act and Rules and came to the conclusion that the resolutions are not valid documents. Many legal experts do not agree to the conclusion of the state and central government. In fact, the Odisha Chief Secretary’s order on 4th February 2009 states that when the Forest Rights Committee in a village wishes to present its findings there is no need to wait for any government decisions to convene any Palli Sabha and the ward  member and Sarpach have to be impressed upon the need to hold the Palli Sabha. In the records relating to the aforesaid resolutions, the Panchayat Secretary writes that he could have not attained the meeting as there is no government order for him to attend. While in genuineness the Panchayat Secretary is guilty of violation of provisions for not attending the meet, to suit to its agenda the state government has suspended the Sarpanch of Dhinkia Panchayat Sisir Mohapatra for what it termed as ‘over-stepped his jurisdiction’. Legal expert Prasant Jena opines “Suspension of a democratically elected Sarpanch in such instance amounts to misuse of power by the state government”.

Irrespective of the technicalities involved, what is clearly visible here is the substantive aspect of the FRA has been relegated by the procedural aspects. The substance is that majority of people there opposed the diversion of forest land for the POSCO project. In fact the current acquisition of forest land by the state government for purpose of diversion has also not been backed by any Palli Sabha resolution which is mandatory under section 4 (5) of the law and the MoEF guideline dated 30 July 2009 . So it’s a legal violation which is now being contested in the High Court. The state government however is of the opinion that since there are no tribals and other traditional forest dwellers (OTFDs) (OTFDs are non-tribals dependent on forests), no such resolutions are needed!

Earlier in February 2010, Palli Sabhas in Dhinkia, Govindpur and Nuagaon villages were convened on the direction of the District Collector and passed resolution rejecting the forest diversion proposals for the project. All these resolutions however have been disrespected while final clearance was granted to the project by the Minister.

Claims under FRA not settled

The state government has been contending that there are no tribals and other traditional forest dwellers (OTFDs) in the area. This is factually incorrect. 2001 census itself shows there are 23 tribals in Polang village under Kujang Tehsil). Polang is one among the villages which is covered under the proposed project.

Under the definition, people living in the area and dependent on forest for three generations or 75 years prior to 13th December 2005 will be considered to be OTFDs. The state government claims that there was no forest in the area earlier. Only in October 1961 it was declared as forest under the Indian Forest Act. So the people living there could not have been dependent for 75 years on ‘Forest’. This negates the possibility of anyone falling under the category of OTFDs. Contrary to the government’s claim however, the map of Survey of India shows that as early as in 1928-29 the area was a forest land under Cuttack district (See Pic). (Jagatsingpur district was part of former undivided Cuttack district). Madhu Sarin, a renowned expert on forest issues, rubbishes the linkage of period of notification of forest to claims under FRA. She says “Under FRA the definition of forest includes all kinds of forest e.g. unclassified forests, reserved forests, existing or deemed forest, wild sanctuaries, national parks etc. It does not say that it should be notified in such and such year. If that has been the case then large parts of Odisha are not forest land as a large chunk of land in scheduled areas were notified as reserved and protected areas after independence.”

Records show existence of traditional forest dwellers

A record of rights of Giridhari Bardhan of Govindpur village is provided here collected from survey and settlement manual 1927 (See pic). In fact in his letter in August 2010, Dr N C Saxena, Chairperson of FRA monitoring committee constituted by MoEF and MoTA (Ministry of Tribal Affairs, GoI), has written to Jairam mentioning about ten documents providing the proof of existence of OTFDs in the area.

Saxena wrote in no uncertain terms that there was violation of Forest Rights Law in proposed POSCO area by the state government. Majority members of the POSCO review committee (Headed by Ms Meena Gupta) held that there was gross violation of environmental laws, fabrication of evidence, perpetuation of forest rights violations and suppressing facts relating to the Costal Regulation Zone (CRZ). They even recommended prosecution of the authorities who had violated the provisions of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and other environmental laws.

Ignoring all the evidence of violation of laws the Environment Minister gave approval to the project. Not surprisingly, just after four days of final approval to POSCO, the Minister said on record that he is forced to regularise illegalities many a times!

The ongoing period in the area is witnessing unprecedented stand off between the administration and the people with heavy deployment of police force on one and people sitting in Dharanas (protest demonstrations) on the other. While some of the lands have been acquired by administration after the approval from MoEF, it is facing stiff resistance from people in Dhinkia and Gobindpur villages.

Pradeep Baisakh is a freelance journalist based in Odisha (An Indian State) . He can be contacted through e mail: 2006pradeep@gmail.com

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