Forest Advisory Committee says Union Environment Ministry will seek legal opinion on the issue
The Odisha government has asked the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) — the apex body under the Ministry of Environment and Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) for approving forest land diversion in the country — to transfer the forest clearance (FC) granted to POSCO-India Pvt Ltd to JSW Utkal Steel Ltd in Kujang Tehsil of Jagatsinghpur district.
The issue was taken up in the February 21, 2019 meeting of FAC. The committee recognised that the FC was granted to POSCO on May 4, 2011. “It is clear that MoEF&CC in 2011 had granted the approval to POSCO India Pvt Ltd for 30 years. It is also reported that the new user agency (JSW Utkal Steel Ltd) is also going to establish the integrated steel plant, captive power plant and captive jetty at the same area which had been diverted to POSCO India Pvt ltd,” according to the minutes of the FAC meeting.
“It is also understood that the state government had submitted a proposal for transfer to forest clearance under the provisions of FCA guideline 2.8, which actually deals with ‘lease transfer’, whereas the instant proposal is for the ‘transfer of FC approval’ from one user agency to another user agency. The issue needs legal interpretation,” it adds.
The FAC has said that the MoEF&CC will seek legal opinion on the issue of transfer of FC from one user agency to another. It has also asked the Odisha government to submit the shapefile of the area diverted to POSCO India Pvt ltd and area requested by M/S JSW Utkal Steel Ltd, along with a comparative statement of the components which were allowed for POSCO India Pvt Ltd and those proposed for M/S JSW Utkal Steel Ltd.
After the Odisha government scrapped the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with POSCO in 2017, it transferred the 2,700 acre land to the Odisha Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation. This land was then given to JSW Utkal Steel Ltd in September 2018.
“Since POSCO India has not been progressing with its proposed project, the government has decided to allot the land to JSW Steel which is interested in setting up a mega steel plant,” Odisha Industries Minister Ananta Das was quoted as saying in media reports.
While the land has been transferred for the project to take off, it will require environment and forest clearances, hence, the request to FAC.
The POSCO project was marred in controversy after it was touted as the “largest foreign investment” in India. The Odisha government and POSCO India signed an MoU on June 22, 2005, for setting up an integrated steel plant with the total capacity of 12 million tonnes per annum (with 4 million tonnes in the first phase) at Paradip in Jagatsinghpur district.
The integrated steel plant includes a captive power plant and a captive minor port. The entire project complex requires about 1,621 hectares of land, of which about 1,253 hectares is forest land.
Timeline of POSCO project
On September 28, 2008, Stage-I clearance for diversion of forest land was granted by the MoEF&CC. Final clearance for diversion of forest land was granted by the ministry on December 29, 2009.
On January 8, 2010, MoEF&CC clarified to the government of Odisha that the final approval of diversion of forest land in favour of POSCO is conditional to the Settlement of rights under the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 — also known as Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006.
On March 16, 2010, the Odisha forest and environment department of wrote to MoEF&CC conveying that there are no tribal people or traditional forest dwellers residing in the forest area being acquired by POSCO.
On April 13, 2010, the MoEF&CC and Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) jointly constituted a committee, under the chairmanship of NC Saxena and Devendra Pandey, to study the implementation of the FRA, particularly from the point of view of sustainable forest management.
On August 4, 2010, a report was submitted to the MoEF&CC, which said that there was non-compliance of the required processes under the FRA. On August 5, the MoEF&CC asked the state government to stop transferring forest land till all the processes under the FRA were satisfactorily completed.
In a communication to the MoTA, on August 24, 2010, the SC&ST development department of the Orissa government stated that there are no tribals or other traditional forest dwellers in the POSCO project area.
In this communication, the state government also stated that some claims submitted by the POSCO Prathirodha Sangram Samiti on June 1, 2010 were forged.
The MOEF on February 10, 2011, asked Odisha government to give an assurance that there were no forest dwellers in the project area. In a letter sent on March 12, 2011, the Union Minister of Environment also asked the Orissa Chief Minister about the resolutions passed by Dhinkia and Gobindpur villages of Dhinkia Gram Panchayat about their opposition to setting up of the steel plant in their area.
The ST & SC Development Department of Odisha on March 31, 2011 reiterated that no forest dweller was residing in the area. This was accepted by the MoEF&CC on May 2, 2011 and on May 4, granted final FC to POSCO for the diversion of 1,253.225 hectares of forest land.
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