Odisha government must not ignore forest rights claims on POSCO project site
Several human rights, tribal rights groups, which have struggled for the enactment of historic Forest Rights Act, 2006 in the country have, in a press release vehemently criticized Govt. of Odisha for forcibly raising boundary wall over forest land acquired for POSCO and demand recognition of forest rights over those land of the concern villages in Jagatsinghpur district.
Rights groups ate of the view that the withdrawal of the POSCO from the site is due to consistent resistance of the local people led by Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS) and after POSCO’s withdrawal due to the movement, the government of Odisha should respect the sentiments of the local people.
Emphasising the forest rights act, 2006, groups have asserted that FRA recognizes Gram Sabha as “Gram Sabha Sarkar” over the forest land and since all the 2700 acres of land Govt. of Odisha said to have been acquired for POSCO is revenue forest land falling within the revenue boundaries of 7/8 affected villages, it should be recognized as community forest resource(CFR) under FRA.”
Three different official committees i.e., the Saxena Committee, the POSCO Enquiry Committee and the FAC – found that the Forest Rights Act had been violated in the POSCO area. Besides, on several occasions in the past, the gram sabhas of the area have passed majority resolutions against any handover of their lands.
Commenting on the recent decision taken by Govt. of Odisha in High Level Clearance Authority (HLCA) meeting to hand over the 2700 acres land acquired through Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation of Odisha (Idco) for POSCO to JSW Steel Limited, CSD said “For ten years the people of the area have been struggling against the illegal seizure of their lands. If it hands these lands over to Jindal Steel instead of POSCO, the government will be committing a further criminal offence under the FRA, the IPC and the SC/ST Atrocities Act. Thus under the Forest Rights Act, this makes any handover illegal.
Questioning the claims of Govt. of Odisha CSD, Odisha Convenor, Gopinth Majhi said “The government keeps claiming that the people in these villages support these projects. If so, why has the government not recognized their rights and taken the consent of the affected gram sabhas, as required under the Forest Rights Act? Why has it ignored all the majority resolutions passed by gram sabhas against any handover of these lands?” “If this criminal course of action is pursued by the government, all those who believe in the rule of law and in the rights of the people of this country will oppose them”.
Taking serious note of the cyclone sensitivity in the area and felling of around 200,000 trees in the area by POSCO which was stopped after the intervention of NGT in May 2013, groups have petitioned the state government to restore the lost vegetation and biodiversity in the area through the concern Gram Sabhas, the authorized bodies under the historic FRA, 2006.
CSD have also called upon the community people of the affected 7 villages to get united against the unjust acts of Govt. of Odisha and to take over the forest land as per FRA.
To recall, POSCO had signed a MoU with the state government on 22 June, 2005 and intended to set up a 12 million tonne steel plant at a cost of 12 billion dollars. This required 4004 acres land for the project.
Thanks to the consistent agitation led by Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS) over land acquisition the project was delayed and as a result the company had later proposed to start work on at least 8 million tons steel capacity in the first phase. For this, the state-run Odisha Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (Idco) had acquired around 2700 acres of forest land for the proposed project. However when POSCO decided to withdraw from the project entirely in March 2017, that is, when Posco shelved entire the project, the State Government instead of returning the rich forest land acquired for the project has decided to preserve the acquired 2700 acres of land in the land bank for future industrial use. The boundary wall construction work was started in the site by Idco on May 18 has also been energetically protested by the locals.
Amnesty International has also brought out a detailed factsheet on the issue. Amesty says,
“The Government of Odisha must urgently process individual and community forest rights claims on land it had taken over for a POSCO project instead of transferring the land to a land bank, said Amnesty International India today. Authorities must also immediately stop the construction of a boundary wall around the land and allow communities to access common lands that they have traditionally depended on for their livelihoods.
“The land had been taken over for an integrated steel and captive power plant to be operated by South Korean steel giant POSCO (formerly Pohang Iron and Steel Company). After POSCO pulled out of the project earlier this year, Odisha’s Industry Minister announced that the land would be transferred to the Odisha Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (IDCO), a state agency. Authorities have begun constructing a boundary wall around the project site to prevent ‘illegal encroachments’.
“Much of the land taken over for the project between 2011 and 2013 was common land – village property which falls under the authority of local bodies, and was being cultivated by villagers. Activists say that state authorities have consistently failed to recognize local communities’ individual and community rights over forest lands under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act) Act (FRA). Many villagers said that they had submitted forest rights claims to local authorities, but these claims were not processed. In 2010, two committees constituted by the central government had recommended that authorities process the forest rights claims of communities before handing over the land to POSCO.
Under international human rights law, authorities are obligated to follow a genuinely consultative process with communities, and obtain the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples before taking over their land. The government is also obligated under Indian law to seek and secure the consent of the concerned gram sabhas (village assemblies) before diverting forest lands for industrial purposes. However gram sabha resolutions rejecting the project have been routinely ignored.
“The fencing of the land by IDCO is unwarranted and illegal, as the authorities have not settled forest rights claims over these lands. Villagers have engaged in betel vine cultivation for generations and passed gram sabha resolutions asserting their rights. They are determined to re-occupy these lands and reconstruct their vineyards”, said Prashant Paikrey, Spokesperson for the POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti, a local movement leading the protests against the project.
The failure to respect Indigenous peoples’ right to access and use their land violates not only international law, but also India’s domestic laws on land and forest rights. The Odisha government must recognize the forest rights of the communities who depend on these lands for their livelihoods, and seek the free, prior and informed consent of the concerned gram sabhas before taking any decision to put the land to industrial use.
1.Return Land to Villagers, Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti Demands
2.After defeating Posco, farmers turn to reclaim betel leaf economy
3. Victory of Anti-Posco Struggle