Damra Port project in Orissa escaped action as environment minister Jairam Ramesh took a lenient view despite his officials pointing out flaws in the clearance granted in 2000.
The project is a joint venture between Tata Steel and L&T.
“Had the construction (of the port) not commenced, we could have taken a decision unequivocally not to let the project proceed at the site whose forest status is disputed,” Ramesh said in a file noting in September 2010, overruling the view that action should be initiated against the project proponents.
The Damra project got environmental clearance in 2000 from the surface transport ministry, which then had powers to clear minor projects.
The Tata Group said they have nothing to do with the clearance, as it was taken by then project proponent International Sea Port Ltd, which later withdrew. Tata Steel entered the picture only in 2004 when it signed an agreement with L&T.
S. Mahapatra of Damra Port said: “As the matter is in court, I will not like to comment. For us, it is not forest land.”
In January 2010, several groups lodged a complaint with the environment ministry saying the project was being developed on land for which no clearance had been taken. Ramesh then ordered an inquiry.
The ministry’s regional office at Bhubaneshwar found that the land was “unsurveyed, unclassified and undemarcated” and as per records, it should have been classified as forest land. The Orissa government strongly refuted the claim of it being forest land, but admitted it was unsurveyed and unclassified.
Accepting the report, Ramesh overruled action on two grounds: First, the port was near completion and second, the goodwill of Tata Group of Companies in corporate social responsibility.
The file noting of September 2010 was the basis of the ministry’s affidavit in Supreme Court — which was already hearing a petition filed by environmental groups in Orissa — for not initiating action.
Convinced there was ambiguity over status of land, Ramesh, however, refrained from blaming his officials. If the project would have come for approval now, the minister made it clear that forest clearance would have been required.
Finally, Ramesh said it was not open and shut case, which has been made worse by the incontrovertible fact that the land used is unsurveyed, unclassified and undemarcated.