The 3-1 conclusion of the POSCO panel that all clearances to the Rs 50,000-crore project be scrapped should havent come as a surprise to at least one person: Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh. The panels report now wends its way through the Ministrys official expert committees.
For,Ramesh had handpicked these members and each of the three who opposed the project has,in the past,taken clearly stated positions on infrastructure projects,land,forests and industry in tune with their conclusions on Posco.
V Suresh and Urmila Pingle,for example,are long-time campaigners on tribal rights,forest laws and displacement caused by industrial and development projects. Devendra Pandey was also a member of the N C Saxena committee constituted jointly by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and the Environment Ministry that has already indicted the POSCO project.
So it was left only to Meena Gupta,former Environment Secretary,to say that the project shouldnt be stopped. Incidentally,it was during Guptas tenure which overlapped with the Prime Minister being in charge of the Ministry that some of these clearances were given.
Consider the profile of the four members:
An advocate at the Madras High Court,Suresh is the national secretary of the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). A PhD on caste violence between Dalits and non-Dalits,Suresh has,for nearly 10 years,worked among the Warli tribe in the Thane district of Maharashtra as a full-time activist with a grassroots organisation called Kashtakari Sangathan,raising issues of land and earning rights for indigenous communities. And matters related to environment and biodiversity protection. His firm has filed several cases related to alleged pollution of the Noyyal river by tanneries,damage to the environment in Cuddalore and the Nilgiris. Suresh has also campaigned against the death penalty. The Supreme Court-appointed advisor for Tamil Nadu on food security,he has also opposed privatisation of water resources. Within the committee,sources said,he played an important role in mobilising those opposed to POSCO. We (the committee) are now being portrayed as anti-development. We are not anti- anything. The issue is about implementing existing laws, he says.
An anthropologist and doctor by qualification,Pingle was chosen for her expertise on tribal issues. She has a record of campaigns against displacement of local communities by large developmental projects. She runs an NGO called Centre for Peoples Forestry whose stated objective is to help forest dwellers diversify skills and improve livelihood security.
It was on her recommendation that Andhra Pradeshs plans of erecting a memorial for former chief minister Y S Rajasekhara Reddy in the Nallamalla forests was dropped.
To say I am opposed to POSCO or any other development project is very unfair. The committee has brought out certain facts and these facts point out that some of the existing laws of the country are being violated, she says.
A 1975-batch officer of the Indian Forest Service,Pandey has twice been the head of Dehradun-based Forest Survey of India. He was the technical man on the committee,having expertise in both forest as well as CRZ issues.
An MSc in statistics and a PhD in forest resources,he helped frame the Coastal Regulation Zone guidelines in 1991,guidelines that have since been substantially revised.
Following retirement last year,Pandey was appointed on many committees,including the N C Saxena committee,constituted to study the implementation of Forest Rights Act,2006. It was on the recommendation of a sub-committee of this panel that POSCO was ordered to stop work at its proposed project site.Pandey is also the chairman of the committee that is assessing compliance of environmental laws at the Sardar Sarovar Project and also at the Omkareshwar dam. I had joined this committee with a very open mind. I was surprised to see the extent of violations, he says.
A 1971-batch IAS officer from Orissa cadre,Meena Guptas selection was a surprise to many since at least a part of the clearances to POSCO had come during her tenure as Environment Secretary.
In fact,Gupta had informed Ramesh that her appointment could be seen as a conflict of interest. Ramesh,however,insisted on her being on the panel not only because she was familiar with the entire case but also because she was the only former officer who had been a Secretary both in the Environment as well as in the Tribal Affairs Ministry. The panel did not have the mandate to give an opinion on whether clearances granted to the POSCO project were valid or not, she says.