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Illegal Clearing of Forest for POSCO Project

By D Raja

27 May, 2010
Countercurrents.org

D. RAJA

MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT

(RAJYA SABHA)

National Secretary

Communist Party of India

309-310 VP HOUSE

RAFI MARG

NEW DELHI -110 001

e-mail: rajacpi@yahoo.co.in

23.05.2010

Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

Sub:- Apparent collusion between Orissa government, Environment Ministry and POSCO-India Corporation; Collector apparently suppressing documents in order to justify illegal forest clearance; genuine documents show clearly that clearance is illegal

On May 16 th , I had written to you in connection with the illegal forest clearance granted to POSCO-India for its steel plant in Jagatsinghpur, Orissa. From press reports (for instance see the Times of India on May 20th), the Environment Ministry's own documents and the records of the gram Ssabhas in the area, there are now disturbing signs that:

1. The Orissa government (and in particular the Jagatsinghpur District Collector) has violated the law and required procedures, while suppressing important facts, in order to secure forest clearance for this project;

2. The Environment Ministry has supported this collusion and also violated the law, while turning a blind eye to clear omissions and flaws in the documents submitted by the Orissa government.

As discussed in my previous letter, the Environment Ministry illegally granted final forest clearance to the POSCO project on December 29, 2009, even though its own circular of August 3 rd , 2009 stated that “no final approval” can be given until the gram sabhas of the area certify that implementation of the Forest Rights Act is complete and that the gram sabhas consent to the project. This illegal clearance was sought to be covered up by a “clarification” on January 8 th that the clearance was “conditional.” However, a conditional final clearance is still a violation of the order and the law, which clearly provide that no final clearance can be given in the absence of these requirements. Indeed, section 4(5) of the Act is categorical – no forest dweller can be removed from forest land until the process of recognition is complete.

In response to the “clarification” letter, on February 23rd, 2010, the Jagatsinghpur District Collector wrote a letter to the Orissa government certifying that:

1. the process of the Forest Rights Act was complete in all three gram panchayats and in particular in the villages of Dhinkia, Govindpur, Polanga, Nuagaon, Bayanalkandha, Bhuyanpal, Noliasahi and Jatadhar,

2. that gram sabhas have been held in all three panchayats and the Act “explained in vernacular” at these meetings;

3. that there are no tribals or other forest dwellers in the area; and

4. that no claims had been received from any tribal or forest dweller in the area. He has attached certain documents, which appear to be reports of gram sabha meetings, as proof of these claims.

The Environment Ministry responded a month later, raising no queries except for a request for translation of the Oriya documents into English.

Every single one of the Collector's claims is demonstrably false. In 2005, after the protests began, the gram panchayats of Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gadkujang were sealed off from all entry by government officials by the protesters. In November 2007 the protesters were pushed out of Nuagaon and Gadkujang by the police and hired goondas, but till date the village of Dhinkia has remained out of bounds. This is the very justification for the current police atrocities in the area. How can the Collector claim that he has completed the process of implementation of the Forest Rights Act, and that officials have held a gram sabha and explained the Act in vernacular, in a gram panchayat where no official has been able to enter since 2005?

Moreover, the documents which the Collector has attached in support of his contentions are clearly not gram sabha resolutions but typed and cyclostyled formats, signed by government officials and one or two others. These are in fact reports of the gram panchayat secretary, not resolutions of the gram sabha, and they have no validity under the Forest Rights Act. Even if one accepts the absurd notion that the Environment Ministry has no Oriya-literate officers, it is clear that these are not sufficient evidence. What is important under the statute are the resolutions of the gram sabhas, which are statutory authorities under the law.

Indeed, regarding the Collector's claims 3 and 4, the reality is that – as repeatedly mentioned in my letters to you on this issue – the gram sabha of Dhinkia met, without any official present, on March 23 rd , 2008. This was the date announced by the Orissa government and publicised over the radio and TV for gram sabhas to be held under the Forest Rights Act. The said gram sabha meeting passed a resolution clearly stating that there are other forest dwellers in the area, denying consent to any diversion, and asserting that community rights over the forest exist. This was sent to the Collector among other officials by registered post A/D; copies of the receipts are with me. Once a gram sabha resolution has been passed that asserts the existence of eligible persons and community rights, under the law, clearly the full process under the Forest Rights Act is required for recognition of rights thereafter. The Collector's declaration that no one is eligible is in excess of his powers – he has no authority under the Act to make such declarations. These declarations are hence illegal and in violation of the Act.

Furthermore, on December 19 th , 2009, the Collector himself wrote to the Block Development Officer, Erasama, stating that “the said proposal [for forest land diversion] is to be approved in the palli sabha of the concerned G.P.s. On the basis thereof the Collector and District Magistrate has to give a certificate as per the provisions of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006.” Enclosed with this was a letter of the Chief Secretary of Orissa, dated 24.10.2009, in this regard, which in turn clearly states that a resolution of the gram sabha is required stating that the process is complete under the Act and giving consent to the diversion. The letter requested the BDO to take steps for holding of the gram sabhas.

On January 19 th , 2010, the BDO Erasama wrote to the sarpanches of Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gadkujang, requesting them to hold gram sabhas for this purpose. On February 5 th , 2010, the Dhinkia gram sabha again passed a resolution stating that there are other forest dwellers in the area, specifically rejecting the proposed diversion and asserting community and individual rights. On February 6 th , 2010, the gram sabha of Govindpur village passed a similar resolution. A third such resolution had reportedly been passed in the Nuagaon gram sabha on February 4th. Yet the Collector makes no mention of any of these resolutions in his “report” - when they were passed in response to his own letter. Indeed, he does not mention the letter itself. The Environment Ministry has further taken no action to request these resolutions, even though the same were repeatedly cited by the POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti and by myself in letters to you and to the Environment Ministry, and moreover were required as per its own orders.

In sum, this gives rise to some basic questions regarding the role of the Environment Ministry:

· Why did the Environment Ministry issue final clearance for the POSCO project on December 29, 2009, in violation of their own order of August 3rd, which specifically said no final clearance would be given until the gram sabhas of the area certify that the Act process is complete and they consent to the diversion?

· When the illegality was pointed out, why did the Environment Ministry apply "conditions" - which it cannot evaluate, since the clearance process is over - instead of simply withdrawing the illegal final clearance?

· When the District Collector claimed to have “explained the Act” and completed the process in a gram panchayat where no official has been able to enter since 2005, and when he attached what are clearly not gram sabha resolutions to his report as “proof”, why did the Environment Ministry not raise any questions in this regard? Particularly when they were fully aware of the ground situation in the area, as the forest survey was also not conducted due to the agitation.

· Why did the Ministry never ask for copies of the actual gram sabha resolutions of the area, particularly when the same were repeatedly referred to in letters to the Ministry from myself and from the POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti, and were required by its own orders? Why is it taking refuge behind the absurd excuse that the documents are in Oriya – when it is obvious even to the naked eye that these are incomplete and do not contain the key information, i.e. the gram sabha resolutions?

· Together, the clearly false claims of the Collector and the apparent suppression of evidence on his part should have led the Ministry to cancel the illegal clearance a long time ago. Why did it not do so?

· When the real gram sabha resolutions clearly assert the existence of forest rights and deny consent, is the Environment Ministry at least now going to cancel the illegal clearance?

Regarding the role of the administration in the area:

· Why did the District Collector suppress the resolutions of the gram sabha of Dhinkia of 23.3.2008 and 05.02.2010, that of the gram sabha of Govindpur on 06.02.2010, as well as the reported resolution of the gram sabha of Nuagaon of 04.02.2010, all of which clearly assert rights and deny consent for the project?

· Why did the District Collector issue a letter on December 19, 2009, which was forwarded by the BDO to the sarpanches on January 19, 2009, asking for the gram sabhas' opinion on the project, and then ignore their resolutions when sending his report to the Ministry?

Copies of all the documents referred to above - the genuine gram sabha resolutions of Dhinkia and Govindpur, the letters of the officials, etc. - are in my possession, excepting the resolution reportedly passed by the Nuagaon gram sabha on 04.02.2010. I will be happy to supply these copies to you.

It is clear from the above that the Collector has engaged in suppression of evidence, and that he has done so while performing his quasi-judicial duties under the Forest Rights Act. The Environment Ministry has both abetted this by failing to raise any objections and has, moreover, itself violated the law by issuing the December 29 th final clearance in the first place.

 

I therefore call upon you to immediately:

1. instruct the Environment Ministry to withdraw the illegal forest clearance granted for this project;

2. Initiate an inquiry regarding the actions of the officials of the Environment Ministry;

3. Request the Government of Orissa to initiate disciplinary proceedings against the Jagatsinghpur District Collector as well as under the applicable provisions of the Forest Rights Act and the Indian Penal Code.

Failure to take these steps would mean the central government is actively colluding with violations of the law by POSCO corporation and the Orissa government.

Sincerely,

(D. RAJA)