Large projects and spaces of slippage

I’ve heard several reasons trotted out by businesses and various lobbies as to why large projects (many with components such as ore and fuel concessions, ports) get delayed or face hurdles. They blame villagers at project sites. They blame the greens. If they can, they blame Maoists. Some blame Aruna Roy for pushing the Right to Information campaign. Others blame Arundhati Roy for righteous indignation.

But they rarely blame themselves although the way they conduct business is the primary cause why projects generate both bad blood—literally, when reluctant landowners and residents in intended project areas are threatened, beaten, shot and sometimes, killed—and bad press, in these days of robust multimedia.

State governments and the central government tend to be equally blissed out in denial of complicity in the process of presumptuous project planning and arrogant execution.

Whatever the merits of the project, the ongoing Posco saga belongs to this category. (Indeed, the Posco deal has the added complication of being honeyed along using the cause of bilateral relations between India and Pohang Iron and Steel Co.’s home country, South Korea.)

At the root of the problem is not the litany of protests by locals and activists against the proposed $12 billion project that envisages a mammoth 12 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) steel plant in eastern Orissa, a private port, large township and captive iron ore mines in the north of the state. Or the negation this past week of the environmental clearance given to the project by the National Green Tribunal, which feels the project should be gauged in its entirety, overriding earlier clearances procured for the initial phase by Posco and its sponsor, the government of Orissa.

That the tribunal passed judgement only days after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh assured President Lee Myung-bak and investors in Seoul that his government is “keen to move forward” with the project seven years in the making, and spoke of India’s “rule of law” that sometimes hinders “progress”, only served to underscore the manner in which projects are hustled in the first place.

I would put the practice of scoring MoU points by various state governments as the first brick in the wall. Memoranda of understanding are signed by businesses with governments at private meetings and investment jamborees without ground-level scan of a potential project site. The state’s assurance is seen as being enough.

The second oversized brick arrives when consultancy “suits” parachute in to gauge project viability without factoring in local sentiments and livelihoods. The third, fourth and fifth bricks are cemented by corporate social responsibility professionals, government officials and suspect environment assessment agencies that work to acquire land, even misrepresent patterns of land use and habitation to ensure that acquisition; and tell the world that a few primary schools, primary healthcare centres, a sports scholarship or two, and state-mandated land prices should entirely mitigate local livelihood issues and concerns. And, of course, that some trees would be planted to offset loss of foliage, water bodies and water supply.

Other bricks are provided when the state uses its strong arms—bureaucracy, police and, famously in the case of West Bengal this past decade, the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s political machinery—to coerce land acquisition, and intimidate local populations to agree to pricing and rehabilitation and resettlement packages. Fast and loose clearances have been known to be provided by various ministers of environment and forests, finance, mining, coal, in New Delhi and state capitals.

When locals, investor watchdogs, public interest professionals, activists and media take a battering ram to this wall built on weak foundations, the blame accrues to them. When an environment minister like Jairam Ramesh does the job his predecessors and colleagues in other ministries ought to have done, he is soon pressured and posted out. And business celebrates its liberation from the clutches of reason, transparency and due process, freed from rightful compliance to pursue pliant “stakeholders”. If an entity extricates itself from the self-inflicted nightmare of loss of face and opportunity on account of wilfully permitting strong-arm land acquisition for its intended project, the blame is passed on to the state’s presumption and arrogance, not its own.

Watch such spaces of slippage. That’s where several corporate histories are truly written.

Sudeep Chakravarti writes on issues of conflict in South Asia. He is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and the soon-to-be-published Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.

[Source – Livemint]

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