The law isn’t such an ass after all. It knows which side the bread is buttered and sucks up to the rich and powerful. Public policy, too, despite its pretensions to being compassionate, is generous with the rich, stingy with the poor. The first of these observations is proved by how the government has laboured to ease South Korean steel giant Posco’s path to clearance for a plant near the ecologically sensitive Orissa coast. The plant had been cleared by UPA-I, but that was deemed questionable in law. So the Union ministry of environment & forests of UPA-II, headed by Jairam Ramesh, set up a new committee to decide on the project. Three of the four members of the committee—tribal affairs expert Urmila Pingle, ex-DG of the Forest Survey of India Devendra Pandey and senior advocate and human rights activist V. Suresh—have recommended scrapping the clearance. The fourth member, Meena Gupta, a former environment secretary, differed: she opined that, instead of scrapping the clearance (given despite violations of the law by Posco), a few more conditions should be imposed. The ministry is yet to decide on the committee’s report. But considering how big corporates work their way around conditions, and considering how low the rate of enforcement of laws and rules is in India, should the clearance be upheld, Posco may well laugh its way to millions of more steel-billions.
Here are some of the serious lapses in the granting of clearance to Posco, as pointed out in the committee report:
- The Posco plant, to come up in Paradeep, is planned for a capacity of 12 million tonnes per year—equivalent to the combined capacity of existing plants in Bhilai, Bokaro, Durgapur, Rourkela, Burnpur and Salem. But clearance was given on the basis of a rapid environmental impact assessment (REIA) that took account only of a production level of 4 million tonnes, set only for the first phase.
- REIAs were done separately for the steel plant, its captive power plant and an associated port. Ideally, they should have been assessed together to estimate their full impact.
- The plant will affect eight villages and 1,620 hectares (of which 1,253 hectares is forest land). This, and the sheer size of the project, should have called for a comprehensive environment impact report (CEIR), but clearance was granted on the basis of a REIA conducted during a single season—that too monsoon. This is not legally permissible.
- Steel plants are not permitted in eco-sensitive areas categorised as Coastal Regulation Zones 1 and 3. A National Institute of Oceanography study, commissioned by Posco itself, had pointed out that the proposed plant falls within such zones. Despite that, the project was cleared.
- The Orissa government suppressed the fact that the area was home to some tribals, and, instead of certificates from gram sabhas, as required under the Forest Rights Act, clearance was granted on the basis of a certificate from the district magistrate of Jagatsinghpur.
- Rehabilitation of fisherfolk, tribals and other inhabitants likely to be uprooted has not even been considered.
- The environment impact assessment hearings were held far away and under heavy police bandobast, ensuring that few turned up. Copies of the report were not given to people, as required by law.
The second observation, about public policy bearing down on the needy, is borne out by the dithering—even by as high-minded a body as the National Advisory Council (NAC), headed by none other than Sonia Gandhi—in universalising the PDS and including aspects of nutrition in the proposed Food Security Bill. Jean Dreze, a well-known economist and NAC member, pointed this out in his dissenting note, saying the council had succumbed to constraints imposed by the government.
Instead of recommending universalisation of the PDS, the NCA has persisted with a targeted approach, replacing the old BPL and APL categories with the new ‘priority’ and ‘general’ categories. The ‘priority’ numbers will be disputed, as were the old poverty figures. Why, the Planning Commission itself has declared that 50 per cent of the names in the BPL list are undeserving. With this general mindset in the administration, the truly deprived will continue to remain so. And differential pricing of commodities for the two categories will ensure that massive corruption, too, continues.
Now for a fact to drive home the point about the state’s callousness: the government told the NAC it didn’t have Rs 1.80 lakh-crore to universalise the PDS, making dal and edible oil available; it didn’t blink while allowing tax concessions of Rs 5 lakh-crore to big corporations.
Of course, our resources are for the rich, not the poor.