In August 2010, when India’s National Environmental Appellate Authority overturned a proposal by Lafarge, one of the world’s largest cement companies, to mine for limestone over hills native communities in Himachal Pradesh hold sacred, I rejoiced.

A Google Earth image of the proposed POSCO site

However, my Indian partners and I knew that India had a larger test coming: what to do about a proposal from Korea’s giant steel company (POSCO) to locate a port and steel manufacturing facility in the district of Jagatsinghpur.  Like Lafarge’s proposal, POSCO’s proposal would result in deforestation and the forced relocation of communities from land they have lived on for decades.  However, POSCO’s proposal would involve an investment of $12 billion, the single largest foreign direct investment ever proposed in India.  POSCO’s proposal also involved discussions between high ranking members of the governments of India and Korea.

Could India turn down, on environmental grounds, a proposal involving such large amounts of money and political power?

At first, the answer seemed discouraging.  In 2010, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) appointed a four-person committee to investigate whether POSCO’s proposed steel manufacturing project was consistent with Indian environmental laws.  In October 2010, three of the committee members issued a strong report recommending rejection of the proposal.  One of the committee members, a government official from Orissa, issued a minority report recommending approval of the proposal.  In January 2011, the MoEF, following the recommendations of the single-member minority of the committee, approved the project, allowing it to go forward.

Attention then turned to India’s new National Green Tribunal (NGT), which has been functioning less than a year. The local communities appealed the MoEF’s clearance of the POSCO project to the NGT.

To my delight – and after nearly a decade of struggle – on March 30th the NGT, in suspending MoEF’s clearance for the project, is telling the world that in India, no amount of money or political power can shield a project from the necessity of complying with environmental standards and the rights of communities.  Congratulations are in order for ELAW partners Ritwick Dutta and Rahul Choudhary, who argued the case before the NGT.

It is a heartening victory, but the struggle is not quite over.  POSCO is expected to appeal NGT’s judgment to the Supreme Court of India or start over from square one with a fresh application for the project, which the NGT’s order allows.  ELAW will continue to support our partners in this long struggle.

Mark Chernaik
Staff Scientist