On January 31, 2011, the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) gave its final approval for the construction of a steel plant and captive port of the South Korean company, Posco. The companys investments in India have been highlighted as the largest FDI at 2005 prices of Rs 51,000 crore or $12 billion capital cost. This seems to be a reality that has significantly influenced the decision of a ministry with the primary mandate of upholding environmental considerations. The final words of the ministers note on Poscos projects in Jagatsinghpur district of Odisha have regarded them with undoubtedly considerable economic, technological and strategic significance.
In October 2010, the report of a four-member committee set up by the MoEF to specifically look at the environment, forest rights, rehabilitation and related issues thrown up by Poscos project proposals had concluded that there had been shortcomings in the manner in which approvals had been granted to the company in 2007 and 2009. The chairperson of the committee had recommended that a comprehensive Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) for the project be carried out based on which additional conditions could be imposed. The three other members of the committee had categorically stated that the existing environment and forest clearances of the two projects be revoked as there had been serious flaws in the manner in which the permissions had been granted. Poscos approval comes without any comprehensive assessment of the irreparable ecological and livelihood impacts of the project; with only a listing of additional conditions, which, in MoEFs definitions, implies upholding environmental laws.
This decision has come soon after the MoEF has publicly released its justification for the approval of the Jaitapur nuclear power plant in the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra. In its balancing act, the ministry acknowledged that there are huge issues with respect to the impact of marine biodiversity of the area as pointed out correctly by submissions and assessments. But for Jaitapur, MoEF had upheld the weighty economic and strategic reasons, which favoured the grant of environment clearance to the project. The approval of the Navi Mumbai airport with permanent loss of mangroves and hill areas was similarly based on the growing aviation requirements of the country.
Whether it is Posco, Navi Mumbai, Jaitapur or many other projects being reviewed by the MoEF, it is not the facts around environmental impacts that seem to be leading the ministry to take decisions. Then, why do we indulge ourselves in practices such as setting up expert committees, investing and carrying out extensive environmental data collection in the form of impact assessments and conduct environmental public hearings? If the information is not decisive, should we not all be discussing the matters that are? Why is the shifting of goalposts from environmental to other concerns the prerogative of the ministry only at the final step of decision making when all along participatory processes focus on environmental impacts?
In Poscos case, the facts of the faulty EIAs, irregularities in approvals including the ministry going against its own circular to ascertain forest rights prior to the grant of clearance remain. Yet the same set of facts lead the ministry to different decisions at different points in time, in 2007 when the environment clearance was granted, in 2009 when forest clearance was issued, in 2010 when MoEF set up a committee to review all this and more. What was ascertained by the ministrys own committee in October were realities that were known and articulated many times over. The committee members had the opportunity to build upon, dig deeper and find related lacunae which were articulated upfront.
Only, all that does not matter any more. With decisions like the Posco one, environmental decision-making has come apart. Cases like Posco are instances that reiterate to the environmental optimist that decision making based on environmental parameters does not exist.
The authors are members of Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group