The Orissa high court has stayed the process of land alienation for steel major Jindal Steel Works (JSW) Ltd’s ₹65,000 crore greenfield steel project in Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur district till the provisions under the Schedule Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 are complied with.
“For purpose of alienation of lands pending with the office of Tahsildar, Erasama, there must first be compliance with requisites made in circular dated August 2009 issued by Government of India,” said a division bench comprising justices Arindam Sinha and S K Mishra, disposing of a petition by 24 people living in the project area seeking quashing of diversion of forest land by the local revenue authorities without complying with the Act.
In August 2009, when the same area was in the process of being diverted for Korean steelmaker Posco’s greenfield steel plant on the same site, the Ministry of Environment and Forests had issued a circular stating that no application for forest diversion can be made without certificates from Gram Sabhas of the affected area stressing that the process of implementation of the Forest Rights Act should be complete and all rights should be recognised.
Of the 3,160 acres of land that JSW needs for the project, only 259 acres have been handed over to it so far.
The 24 petitioners belong to villages of Dhinkia, Mahala and Gobindpur of Dhinkia Gram Panchayat in Erasama block. They challenged the destruction of their betel vines asserting that it violated of the provisions of the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.
Identifying themselves as Other Traditional Forest-Dwelling communities, they argued in their petition that they have been living on the project site (recorded as forest land in government record) for generations but were often denied recognition of their rights, leading to their marginalisation, eviction, and denial of livelihoods.
The petitioners said they have been living in the same villages for multiple generations and many inhabitants of these villages also have been reliant on various forest produces from the forests for more than a hundred years. They said their claim is substantiated by the Survey of India map from 1928-1929, which depicted these villages as being situated adjacent to a “dense miscellaneous jungle” with cultivated plots and betel vine sheds scattered throughout the forested area.
A JSW spokesperson said the company officials were studying the orders and would be able to comment on it immediately. The district collector of Jagatsinghpur did not comment on the court order.
Last week, a four-member bench of the National Green Tribunal, headed by its chairperson justice Adarsh Kumar Goel, suspended the environmental clearance (EC) granted to the project on the grounds of it being granted without considering the cumulative environment impact assessment, evaluation of permissibility of sourcing water from Mahanadi river and social impact assessment after public hearing among other issues.
The NGT asked the Ministry of Environments and Forests to do a fresh appraisal in next three months pending which the EC will remain suspended.