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media | politics | dissent Home About An open letter to Tarun Tejpal: Hartman de Souza

4 nov. 2011

by Nivedita Menon

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is writing to express its concern to your government, regarding the Orissa State Government’s decision to resume construction and land acquisition for the Pohang Steel Company (POSCO) project. We request you to review the decision for the reasons stated hereunder.

The AHRC is monitoring human rights violations, and the legal procedures adopted concerning the POSCO project. We are informed through respectable sources that at present, the villagers affected by the POSCO project are opposed to it, suggesting that the government and POSCO have failed to convince communities of the project’s benefits.

Despite reports pointing to a series of human rights violations as well as adverse environmental impact by all government-sponsored committees that have studied the project, the Ministry of Environment and Forests cleared the project in January 2011, subject to 28 conditions. We are also aware of the state government’s unwarranted and illegal use of brute force by the state police against those protesting against the implementation of the project, the latest of which that has been reported to us happened in June 2011. We are aware that on this occasion also the police attacked the villages while they were peacefully protesting against the project. We are aware that the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), made adverse observations about the manner in which the state police behaved to the villagers, including the occupying of schools, that prompted the Commission to direct your government the immediate withdrawal of police force from the schools.

The AHRC is aware that the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the state government and POSCO expired in June 2011 and is yet to be renewed. While the MoU is being examined by the Law Department, your government has announced that it would hand over 2000 acres of cleared land to POSCO when the MoU is renewed. In this backdrop, we wish to recall your attention to the fact that the government going ahead with any project related land work without a renewed MoU would be legally untenable and thus challengeable in a court of law. Further, the people of the state, in particular those who are directly affected by the implementation of the project, and not just the state’s bureaucrats, the state cabinet and the POSCO, has a right to know the terms of the MoU, should it be renewed.

The 2000 acres being handed over in the name of ‘public interest’ are claimed as government land, acquired by the Industrial Development Corporation of India (IDCO). To this end, 60,000 trees on this land have already been cut, and an estimated ten times more trees will be cut in total. Deforestation may only benefit the POSCO and indirectly the government from the revenue generated from the project. The environmental impact caused by the massive deforestation is no ‘public interest’, nor is it ‘public responsibility’ to bear the long-term consequences of deforestation. The bureaucratic notion and reasoning that there is public interest for the land to be cleared for the POSCO project has no factual basis. The decision is legally challengeable and would not even stand the basic test of reasonableness and proportionality in a court of law. The AHRC is certain that your government has sought and obtained appropriate legal advice on this matter.

The government has in fact been misusing the term ‘public’. Forestland claimed as government land is actually public land, which forest dwellers, farmers and adivasis have been depending on for generations. Just like the air, sea, or river, those who depend on the forest for their survival, have so far shared it. They have their own rules for its use, protection and conservation, set over generations. The AHRC is certain that your government is aware of the reports made by the Committees who have studied the project. It is disheartening to learn that the government choose to ignore the claims under the Forest (Right) Act 2006 of the forest dwellers upon the land now proposed to be used for the project, on the guise that there were no such claims. This issue has not been properly reviewed so far. If the government insists that the project is for ‘public interest’, it should give priority to the real public – people living and depending upon the forest. In that case, the people can decide upon their ‘public interest’, and take responsibility for it.

The conversion of public land to government land, for private interest supported by the government, without considering the potential of the brunt it will definitely cause upon the livelihood of the people who depends on the land, and its impact upon the environment appears to be ignored by the government. For instance, the Casuarina tree, known as a cyclone protector in the area, is being cut down. Regardless of their opinions about the POSCO project, all the villagers are concerned about their protection from natural disasters in the future. This act alone depicts how contrasting is the alleged cause ‘public interest’ and the mode of implementation of the project.

The AHRC has reported the government’s failure to protect villagers from criminals hired by construction company, who attacked the villagers while they were peacefully protesting in September 2011 against the road construction related to the project. To our information, your government has failed to investigate the matter or punish those responsible for committing crimes. Further, it is shocking to know that the company has already started taking law into their own hands, that too by employing criminals to silence opposition, which no government worthy of its constitutional mandate to the people should have allowed to happen. The fact that there has been no action against this by the government reiterates the villagers and general suspicion that the government favours POSCO as against the people. We are concerned that the recent decision to resume construction and forest clearance for the POSCO project will lead to further human rights violence against the villagers.

In light of the above, the AHRC requests your government:

1. The government should respect the right of all villagers affected by the POSCO project to participate in decision-making and obtain their informed consent before going ahead with the project, as well as respecting their right to land and food;
2. The government should respect public opinion concerning the POSCO project, particularly of those directly affected by the project;
3. The government should not allow any project related land work to be undertaken by POSCO or do similar work on behalf of POSCO before the MoU is renewed;
4. Finally, the government should stop the road construction, land acquisition and cutting of trees until informed consent from the people directly affected by such activities are obtained.

Sincerely,

Wong Kai Shing
Executive Director
Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong

November 3, 2011