Reiterates demand against diversion of forestland for industry, under amended Forest Rights Act rules
Dhinkia gram panchayat, the epicenter of protests against the POSCO steel project in Jagatsinghpur district of Odisha, has submitted a unanimous resolution, claiming its right to community forest resources. In a palli sabha (village assembly), called as mandated by a state government directive, the villagers made the claim on October 3, under the amended rules of the Forests Rights Act of 2006.
The new FRA rules, notified on September 6 this year, state that community forest rights have to be recognised in all villages with forest dwellers. Accordingly, Dhinkia panchayat took a resolution to form a village level forest rights committee (FRC). Without the approval of the committee, no industry or project can be established in the area. The villagers in the proposed POSCO site depend on the forests for their livelihood, which is based on betel vines, fruit trees and cashew plantations.
The village assembly also reiterated its stand against the diversion of forestland for the project. The POSCO project is to come up in forest and non-forest government and private land, falling under three gram panchayats—Dhinkia, Gobindapur and Gadakujang. In the face of opposition, the state government had earlier decided not to acquire private land in Dhinkia panchayat. The present resolution is against acquiring 138.4 hectares (ha) of forestland falling within Dhinkia.
“A similar set of resolutions was taken up for passing by Gobindapur panchayat a day later, but due to disturbance created by pro-POSCO elements, the palli sabha had to be cancelled. They snatched away the record book from the executive officer of the panchayat,” said Prashant Paikrey, spokesperson of the POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS), the local resistance group spearheading the agitation.
According to Shankar Gopalakrishnan of the non-profit Campaign for Survival and Dignity, “the last time the resolutions were passed, the Union environment ministry and Odisha government got around them with two falsehoods: by saying that only 64 people had signed and by declaring the palli sabha invalid. Both issues have now been addressed as this was a meeting called by the government and by the fact that more than 1,000 signatures are now in the official register, constituting well above the 50 per cent quorum required for a valid resolution under FRA.’
As per the 2005 MoU signed between POSCO and the Odisha government, the US $12 billion project has five components: steel plant, captive port, captive power plant, captive mines and a township. After the Union environment ministry gave a conditional forest clearance to the project on January 31, 2011, the Odisha government started the process of land acquisition amid protests by residents of Dhinkia and Gobindapur village. The state government later scaled down the land to be acquired for the plant site from 1,620.4 ha to 1,100.3 ha by leaving out the private land within Dhinkia gram panchayat.
“The present resolutions are binding on the government and makes a fit case for the Union tribal affairs minister to step-in, affirming the rights of the village assembly,” said Leo Saldanha of the non-profit Environment Support Group. “The same question of forest clearance is pending before the division bench of the Odisha High Court,” informed Saldanha.
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