INDIA: Odisha government must return the land acquired for POSCO to its original owners

In 2005, the South Korean-based Pohang Steel Company (POSCO) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the government of the state of Odisha. The MoU involved the building of a steel plant having 12 million tonne annual capacity, along with a captive port and an iron ore mine, for which POSCO required an estimated 4,000 acres of land, including in the agriculturally-important and ecologically sensitive area of Jatadhari Muhan. This land acquisition posed many problems for the residents of the area: firstly, it meant that a large number would be displaced from an area that their families had occupied for generations; secondly, many farmers would lose their only means of sustenance, since the land was also used to cultivate cashews, betel nut, and for fishing; and thirdly, it would disrupt the fragile ecosystem of the coastal state. In order to protest this project, the residents of the affected villages organized themselves under the POSCO Pratirodh Sanghrsa Samita (PPSS).

The government reportedly asked POSCO to clear its pending dues of about 82 crores, POSCO offered to withdraw from the project earlier this year, citing inordinate delay in beginning work. Subsequent to this announcement, the land allocation that had already been made was cancelled, and was returned to the land bank of the state government. As per S.101 of The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARR) of 2013 states that

“101. When any land acquired under this Act remains unutilised for a period of five years from the date of taking over the possession, the same shall be returned to the original owner or owners or their legal heirs, as the case may be, or to the Land Bank of the appropriate Government by reversion in the manner as may be prescribed by the appropriate Government.

Explanation.-For the purpose of this section, “Land Bank” means a governmental entity that focuses on the conversion of Government owned vacant, abandoned, unutilised acquired lands and tax-delinquent properties into productive use.”

However, the Odisha government has implemented a policy on land acquisition on 7th February 2015, of which Rule 43 prescribes that land which has been acquired but not utilized within five years from the date of possession shall revert to the State, and will be automatically deposited in the Land Bank. This provision is repugnant to S.101 of the LARR 2013 and since land acquisition is a subject of the Concurrent List, the Central legislation would naturally take precedence over the State rules, in accordance with Article 254(1) of the Constitution of India. In the case of Singur, the Supreme Court has also taken a similar stance to that espoused in LARR i.e. that unutilized land which has been forcefully acquired must revert to the original owners, particularly where such owners belong to impoverished agricultural communities for whom the land is the only means of sustenance. The PPSS has filed a challenge to this undemocratic policy of the State government at the Kolkata bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in July 2017.

Over 2700 acres of land have been transferred to the Land Bank of the state government. In June this year, it was reported that proposals from JSW, an Indian company and also a major rival of POSCO may be approved. According to reports, the company has requested about 4,500 acres of land from the government, considerably more than what was required by POSCO, and which is likely to impact the same communities which had protested against POSCO. The state-run Industrial Development Corporation of Odisha (IDCO), which was responsible for the land acquisition for POSCO, has also begun construction of an 18-kilometre long border wall costing Rs. 13 crore, which will cover the Nuagaon, Govindapur, Polanda, Gadakujanga, and Baynapala kondh villages, and eventually fence off the nearby Dhinkia and Gobindpur villages as well.

A number of forest dwellers and members of scheduled tribes have also claimedrights over the land in the aforementioned villages, under the provisions of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006, but these claims are yet to be settled. The Act also requires under Section 4(2) that the consent must be provided in writing by the local Gram Sabha in order for the land to be transferred to a third party. The construction of the border fence would infringe on this contested land over which claims are still being settled, and the actions of the government in this case are a blatant violation of the law. The State government has consistently shown disregard for the statutory rights of the concerned communities in its dealings with POSCO, as noted by the POSCO Enquiry Committee, the Forest Advisory Committee and the Saxena Committee. In light of these observations the State government must obtain the explicit consent of the relevant communities. The environmental impact of the POSCO project was also a major point of contention for the villagers. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) suspended the environmental clearance for the project, calling for a fresh review due to concerns over the original Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) conducted for the project, despite which about 200,000 trees were felled. Even the initial stages of the POSCO project have caused serious damage to the ecosystem in this manner, and it is essential that this is not repeated.

The State has used unlawful and oppressive measures to suppress dissenting voices in the POSCO project. It is reported that over 230 cases involving 2,000 protesters have been filed between the years 2006- 2012, most of which were against people partaking in peaceful protests. The President of PPSS, Abhaya Sahoo, has had at least 50 cases filed against him on false pretexts, while there are separate instances of protesters losing their government jobs for their part in the protests. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) had previously reported on the arbitrary use of force by police personnel against those villagers who were peacefully protesting the POSCO project, which is in complete violation of the fundamental rights to peacefully assemble and the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Part III of the Constitution.

The gross intimidation tactics used in the face of continued resistance had forced the PPSS to divert significant resources to provide those members who have been arrested – currently numbering around 400 persons – with adequate legal representation, to ensure that their liberty is not arbitrarily infringed. The protesters are human rights defenders, and therefore are entitled to additional protection from the State from arbitrary arrest under false charges, use of force, or deprivation of liberty, in accordance with the United Nation General Assembly’s Declaration on Human Rights Defenders in 1998, in whose favour India had voted unanimously with other nations.

The environmental clearances given to POSCO for their project were clearly given through a faulty process, and the legal rights of the affected communities were not respected. The collective action of the villagers was instrumental in delaying this unlawful and unwanted project. The stance of the villagers with respect to indiscriminate development in the area has not changed, and if the JSW project is approved, it will be a blow to their fight for environmental justice and their right to livelihood, and will foster further distrust of the State government.

The AHRC stands in solidarity with the affected people and their demands. Rule 43 must be amended, and the Odisha government must provide for unutilised land to be returned to its original owners. The government must immediately stop the construction of a boundary wall around the disputed land, and allow villagers to access the common lands on which they have traditionally depended for their livelihoods. The land acquired for the POSCO project must be returned to its original inhabitants, the fabricated cases against protesting villagers must be withdrawn, and the government must undertake to protect land rights activists in the area. Any further projects which are proposed in the area must undergo rigorous Environmental Impact Assessments and consider the best interests of the villagers, before proceeding. The AHRC congratulates the protesting villagers and the PPSS on their victories so far and stands in support with them as they continue the fight.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-153-2017
Countries : India,
Issues : Democracy, Impunity, Legislation, Rule of law,