Open Letter to Mr. Jairam Ramesh on POSCO Order, Jan 31, 2011

February 2, 2011

Mr. Jairam Ramesh
Hon’ble Minister of Environment & Forests
Paryavaran Bhavan
CGO Complex
Lodhi Road,New Delhi– 110 003

Dear Shri Ramesh:

We are writing to publicly challenge your shocking decision to grant a “conditional” and yet also “final” approval to the POSCO project, and to give a go-ahead to the same Orissa government and POSCO Corporation whose violations of due process have been well documented. Objections to the project have been raised not only by the project-affected people, and by environmental and social justice groups, but also by three different expert committees appointed by your own ministry. Your action exhibits profound disrespect for democratic norms, and comes as a stab in the back of the people who will be displaced and whose livelihoods will be destroyed, people who have been peacefully opposing this project for their very survival for over five years. Your action is also a slap in the face of everyone—ranging from ordinary citizens to public intellectuals to experts, including three committees that you appointed—who have been struggling to inject a modicum of transparency and democratic process into the governance of the country.

The MoEF committees, which investigated the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (“FRA”) in the three project-affected Gram Panchayats, found that the Orissa government had subverted the FRA by withholding relevant information and documents regarding other traditional forest dwellers in the region. Given this, your decision to approve diversion of forest land based solely on a “categorical assurance” by the Orissa government that all legally tenable FRA claims have been processed is confounding. We cannot understand why you would privilege the claims of the Orissa government over those of the people whose lives would be destroyed, especially when the same Orissa government has consistently shown utter contempt for the law, and disregard for its own citizens as is evident from its attempts to ruthlessly suppress peaceful protests against the project.

While the open invitation that you have effectively issued to the Orissa government to violate the FRA and forcibly remove people from their traditional lands is at the heart of what is wrong with your decision, there are other aspects that underscore your apparent capitulation to vested interests that are working against the welfare of the nation. We remind you that your own ministry’s expert committees have unambiguously pointed out the following:

  • possible submergence of the thriving Paradeep port by POSCO’s proposed captive port
  • exacerbation of the existing water crises in theMahanadidelta and in Keonjhar
  • grossly undemocratic public hearings characterized by threats and intimidation
  • the inadequacy of the rapid environmental impact assessment studies

Given that your decision fails to address the above issues, issues that have been repeatedly placed before you by different parties, we are forced to conclude that the “additional conditions” your letter purports to impose while granting the “final” environmental clearance for the project are but a pretense. Instead of restoring democratic control over the process, you seek a post-clearance environmental risk assessment study to be undertaken by POSCO or by the Orissa government and report that to your ministry. What, Mr. Ramesh, do you expect the foxes to report to you? That the chickens are healthy and fine and clucking contentedly? In hindsight, maybe the error is entirely ours – that we expected democratic behavior from you given that through the entire period while you convened expert committees and MoEF panels, your government was working hard, even before statutory requirements had been met, to assure POSCO and South Korean government officials, including President Lee Myung-Bak, that the project will be approved. There have been reports of the “[t]he Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), the External Affairs ministry and the Steel ministry hav[ing] thrown their might behind the project …” and “[g]overnment channels working overtime to clear hurdles faced by the steel giant.”  Was the process you set into motion with the Saxena committee merely eyewash? Or did the “strategic” considerations you mention in your decision get imposed on you at a later stage? (There are certainly no defensible “economic” considerations that would justify the project.) The people of Orissa and ofIndiaat least deserve to know the truth of what precipitated your apparent flip-flop.

You assert that “projects such as that of POSCO have considerable economic, technological, and strategic significance for the country.”  We would like to remind you, as a matter of record, that the “economic significance” of this project is severely contested, and is dubious at best. In our research report—Iron and Steal; The POSCO India Story—we demonstrated that the NCAER (National Council for Applied Economic Research) study on which all of Orissa government’s assessments of the economic benefits of the project are based, is deeply compromised. As we noted, an analysis of the NCAER report reveals that the project is indeed hugely beneficial, but only for POSCO and its investors. Indeed, the captive iron ore mines promised to POSCO in the MoU would help it recoup, in just the first 8 years, the entire sum of $12 billion which POSCO claims it will invest over a period of 30 years. If ever there was a textbook case of the country’s resources being given away, this is it.

In contrast, about 22,000 people who currently support themselves by the area’s thriving agricultural economy will be displaced and be rendered ‘unskilled’ and ‘useless’ by the new steel plant and port. An additional 20,000-25,000 people from approximately 30 neighboring gram panchayats and in the Keonjhar mining area would suffer near total loss of their livelihoods. The NCAER claims, through a maze of statistical lies that benefit its paymaster POSCO, that 8.7 lakh direct and indirect jobs will be created by the project. However, our analysis demonstrates that a maximum of 17,000 direct and indirect jobs, spread over the next 5-10 years, is all that the POSCO project will ever produce. The people affected by the project have been acutely aware of its meager benefits and high costs, and evidently do not share your view of its “considerable economic” significance.

Based upon published reports, it appears that much of the official decision-making on POSCO has been influenced by your government’s efforts to “send the right signals to the international investor community.”  Must we remind you that the “international community” does not comprise just investors, nor is it safe to assume that all investors will turn a blind eye to democratic process and violations of human rights or environmental rights. Plus, there is a much larger international community that is concerned about economic and environmental justice, about human rights and self-determination, about labour standards and sustainable development, about the very survival of the much larger groups of people on whose backs rides a globalized elite that is blinded with greed. Your decision today has only helped to strengthen our resolve that we must continue to bring into focus for this much larger international community this resplendent example of the failure of Indian democracy.

These are times when ordinary people anywhere have learnt that their voices will not be heard by their own governments who are beholden to other forces, and hence think of other ways to make their all-too-reasonable anguish and needs seen and heard by those who are prepared to listen. In this context, the MoEF approval of the POSCO project sadly continues the degradation of Indian democratic institutions, a process that has already reached disastrous proportions with recent abuse of sedition laws that criminalize “disaffection” with government, and sets the stage for a bloodbath, based on what happened after the December 2009 approval and the current spate of “encounter” killings in Orissa. The world waits and watches out for that kind of an Indian democracy which would inspire confidence and send the right signals to those who matter more than anyone else – the people in whose names democratic governance exists.

Respectfully Submitted,
Mining Zone People’s Solidarity Group
Murli Natrajan
Anu Mandavilli

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Open Letter to Mr. Jairam Ramesh on POSCO Order, Jan 31, 2011 — 1 Comment

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