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Grievances of Local Communities be Heard for JSW Group's Dhinkia Steel Project: Supreme Court

Many villages of Jagatsinghpur have opposed the project on the grounds of forest land diversion.


Photo: Twitter/@MishraKedar1

New Delhi: The Supreme Court of India has ruled that local communities will have a say in the re-examination of potential environmental impacts of the Dhinkia steel project in the Jagatsinghpur district of Odisha. 

Reassessment of environmental clearances of the Rs 55,000-crore project, proposed by billionaire businessman Sajjan Jindal's JSW Group, began in the last week of April with the constitution of a five-member working group.

The working group formed by the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change ("the ministry") was not mandated to undertake consultations with local communities while re-examining the environmental clearances. These clearances have been suspended for three months by the eastern zone bench of the National Green Tribunal based on allegations that the concerns of local communities were not adequately addressed while granting approvals.

On May 15, a division bench of the apex court asked local communities in Jagatsinghpur to "ventilate their grievances" with the EAC, which will take a final decision on whether to proceed with the project after the reassessment of the clearances.

"… the appellants are aggrieved by the fact that the appellants would stand denied the benefit of a public hearing. The concerns of the appellants may go unaddressed by following the directions issued by the NGT … We direct that after the appellants ventilate their grievances by raising complaints in the representation before the EAC within a period of three weeks from today, the EAC, when it passes an order which is a reasoned order as directed by the NGT, the same will be taken into consideration," the bench comprising Justice KM Joseph and Justice BV Nagarathna stated in its order.

The working group, constituted on April 17, does not have representatives of the Odisha government or local communities of Jagatsinghpur. It comprises four members of the EAC and one representative of the ministry, as per documents published on the latter's website on April 25.

Further, the EAC has asked the working group to examine representations of JSW Utkal Steel and investigate reports, documents and issues related to environmental clearances. But consultations, the working group was not asked to undertake consultations with local communities in the mandate handed out to it. This concern was raised in the apex court through a civil appeal.

The greenfield project comprises a 13.2 million tons per annum (MTPA) crude steel plant, a 10 MTPA cement grinding unit and a 900 Mega Watt captive power plant. An all-weather, multi-cargo, greenfield captive jetty with a handling capacity of 52 MTPA has also been proposed by JSW Utkal Steel at Jatadhari Muhan River in Jagatsinghpur. Modi government had granted environmental clearances for both projects on two consecutive days, that is, on April 11 and April 12 last year.

The green tribunal issued the suspension orders on March 20, 2023, based on petitions filed by Odisha-based noted environmental activist Prafulla Samantara and other affected people. Several local activists, other than Samantara, have regularly accused the Odisha government of police highhandedness in acquiring land and eviction of households for the project.

"To date, police repression is continuing unabated in Dhinkia. Every now and then, the police arrest activists and villagers opposed to the project on flimsy grounds. Many villagers are still languishing in jail even as the government is paving the way out for the project proponent to construct the steel plant by allowing a review of the faulty environmental clearances," Samantara told this correspondent.

While suspending the clearances, the tribunal pointed out many lapses in the manner in which the environmental impact assessment reports were compiled. A report on the cumulative environmental impact assessment of the project, which is being established in an industrial area with a high level of pollution, was finalised only after the completion of the public hearing. 

The tribunal pointed out that a social impact assessment of the project was also conducted after the completion of the public hearing. The tribunal further questioned the sagacity of the idea to construct a greenfield jetty within 500 meters from the existing Paradeep seaport in Jagatsinghpur.

However, the tribunal refused to stall the project despite the environmental violations on the grounds of sustainable development.

"We are conscious that the project involves huge investment. At the same time, the principle of sustainable development cannot be ignored. Apart from the significant issue of a public hearing, the important issue of the location of the project close to a polluted area, the jetty being unnecessarily close to an established port, the huge amount of water being taken from the river, which may affect drinking water needs and flow of the river, are important issues which need express consideration," stated the bench headed by the tribunal's Chairperson Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel.

Notably, the South Korean steel major, POSCO, had to pull out of a project in Jagatsinghpur in 2017 following protracted struggles by local communities over land acquisition. Local communities have alleged that forest land being acquired for the project by the Odisha government has been traditionally used for betel leaf cultivation. 

It was further alleged that the Odisha government resorted to tree-felling and forcible dismantling of betel vineyards without first settling the rights of traditional forest dwellers guaranteed under the Scheduled Tribes & Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (known popularly as the Forest Rights Act, 2006).

On March 24, 2023, barely four days after environmental clearances of the project were suspended, the Odisha High Court ordered a stay on the diversion of land for the project until rights granted to local communities under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, were settled. In a petition in the high court, they alleged that the Odisha government had commenced the process of land alienation without settling the rights of traditional forest dwellers. 

The bench comprising Justice Arindam Sinha and Justice SK Mishra had taken no cognisance of the Odisha government's claims that the forest land that was earmarked for JSW Group's steel project had been retained by the industries department in the form of a "land bank" after POSCO withdrew from Jagatsinghpur.

The petitioners, in this case, were traditional forest dwellers living at the project site, which is known popularly in Jagatsinghpur as Dhinkia Chaaridesh and comprises eight villages in all. It was alleged that the Odisha government was forcibly dismantling betel vines, illegally occupying agricultural forest land, and setting local vegetation and forests on fire.

"Till compliance of the requirements, including recognition of traditional forest dwellers, is complete as filed in the lease cases, they will remain stayed," the bench ordered.

In the latest hearing of the case on Tuesday, the Odisha government appealed for lifting the stay on the diversion of forestland because it has complied with directions issued upon it by the high court in its earlier order. Odisha government has told the court that in the past, the central government had cleared a proposal to divert 1,253.225 hectares of forestland in favour of POSCO to establish a steel project in the area. The central government subsequently approved the diversion of 1,083.69 hectares of forest land from this "land bank" in favour of JSW Steel.

"If the rights of other traditional forest dwellers in the area have been settled as per the state government's claims, it should have conducted Gram Sabhas to obtain consent before the diversion of forest land for the project. We are examining the documents and will submit our objections to these claims soon," said counsel for the petitioners, Kshirod Rout.

Calls and text messages by this correspondent to Parul Patawari, the collector of Jagatsinghpur, in order to seek details on the settlement of rights of other traditional forest dwellers in the district did not elicit any response.

The writer is an independent journalist.

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