Villagers against POSCO fear police excesses. They do not want to part with land but don’t know how long they will be able to hold on
Pradeep Baisakh | February 22, 2013
People in Dhinkia, Gobindpur and Patana villages, where Pohang Iron & Steel Company (POSCO) proposes to set up its steel plant, were still asleep when the police entered the area around 4 am on February 3 to acquire land for the project.
As the message spread, the unarmed villagers rushed to the strategic entry point to three villages - Balitikira - and attempted to prevent the police from entering. But the mighty 400-strong police force beat up the women and children away who were first to reach the spot. TV cameras captured how women and children were manhandled in the wee hours and one Debandra Swain was pulled by the police and arrested. As many as 25 people received minor injuries, claims the anti-POSCO organisation, POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS). Eight-year-old Jagannath Dash was also hurt in the police lathicharge. Even the old people were not spared.
The district administration and officials of the Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (IDCO) of Odisha started dismantling the betel vines of people and acquiring land for the steel and power project by the South Korean giant. District collector Satya Kumar Mallick said that all happened “with the consent of people”. POSCO officials, part of the team formed by the collector to acquire land, were present on the spot. In the three-day operation, the administration dismantled betel vines of 51 families and gave them a sum of Rs 1.2 crore as compensation after acquiring 250 acres of land, says the collector.
And people who ‘acquiesced’ for giving their land did so out of fear. “I had gone to my betel vine. They asked me time and again if I agreed to give my land for the project. I had never seen so many police in my life. I nodded my head out of fear,” says a grieving Ranjan Parida. “How will we live now,” asks her mother Kanduri.
The proposal for the steel and power plant, tipped to be the biggest FDI in India, was inked in June 2005. The company required 4,004 acres of land from the panchayats of Dhinkia, Gada Kujang and Nuagaon gram panchayats of Kujang tehsil under Jagatsingpur district. The project has not seen the light of the day to date due to the fierce opposition from the locals.
There have been instances of bloodbath between the police and the people on many occasions. But neither the government nor the people relented. In a typical state-corporate nexus, false cases were clamped against the protesting individuals and were indiscriminately arrested. PPSS leader Abhay Sahoo was arrested twice and jailed for nearly two years. Various criminal cases have been clamped by the police against 1,500 villagers of Dhinkia panchayat.
With prime minister Manmohan Singh’s blessings, the Naveen Patnaik government of Odisha has stretched itself too far to grab land for the foreign company. Pressure is also mounting from the South Korean government. During the recent visit of South Korean knowledge and economy minister Sukwoo Hong, commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma assured him saying that “the PM was monitoring the project.”
Odisha health minister Damodar Rout says, “It is the government land and government is taking it. People are encroachers. We are giving adequate compensation to them.”
Whose land is it?
For its 12 million tonne per annum (mtpa) plant POSCO needed 4,004 acres of land, of which 2,900 acres is forest land and the rest is private land. However, it has later scaled down its demand to 2,700 acres and capacity to 8 mtpa. As many as 2,000 acres have been already acquired by the state from Nuagaon and Gada Kujang panchayats. For the rest, 700 acres, they are eying Gobindpur village.
Under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, no diversion of land use can take place till the process of providing individual and community claims are settled. The law also says favourable palli sabha (village assemblies) and gram sabha resolutions are needed to divert forest land. The government claimed that there are no tribals in the area. But Census 2001 shows the presence of 23 tribals in Polang village under Gada Kujang Panchayat. Later, though the government admitted the presence of tribals in the area owing to the findings of the Meena Gupta committee, it hoodwinked saying “there are no tribals in the proposed project sites.”
The government does not consider anyone staying there as ‘other traditional forest dwellers’ (OTFDs) under the law. OTFDs are those who have been living in forest for three generations or approximately 75 years. But the government argues that the area was declared as forest in 1961 and so there is no question of presence of any OTFDs. Therefore, forest rights settlement is not needed, and all land belongs to the government.
A Survey of India map of 1928 suggests the existence of betel vines there. Legal opinion does not buy the government’s argument. The palli sabhas of Dhinkia and Gobindpur have passed resolution thrice in last three years opposing forest land diversion. Yet, the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) accorded the final forest clearance to the project in May 2011. It was contested in the Odisha high court, but it denied staying the process of acquisition of forest land, though it stayed acquiring the private land. “However both the NC Saxena and Meena Gupta committees which were asked to examine various aspects of legality of the project acknowledged that the due process under the FRA was not complete,” says environmentalist and forest rights expert Sweta Mishra.
Governance process affected
People have paid the price for their protests. Postal service has been discontinued in Dhinkia panchayat for the last five years as the then post master Babaji Samantray was suspended for his involvement in anti-POSCO movement. People are forced to go to the Kujang post office to get their letters, including UID cards. However, government programmes like PDS, aanganwadis and schools function as usual, says Arun Parida, a local journalist. Sarpanch Sisir Mohapatra was suspended as he convened the gram sabha that passed resolution opposing the project. The panchayat is now run by the naib sarpanch. “But in case of any injury or ailment we are unable to go out of the panchayat to the nearest hospital as the police would arrest us. Babuli Rout was arrested before two months when he had gone to market,” says Manorama Khatua of Dhinkia.
There was hue and cry by all political parties except the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) against the police operation. Leaders of the Congress, BJP, CPI, CPM, Forward Block, SP, RJD and Aam Admi Party supported the protesters in the demonstrations against the government.
Despite suspension of the project’s environment clearance by the National Green Tribunal and non-renewal of the MoU, the government continues to acquire land intimidating people, alleged international human rights bodies in letters to the PM and the CM. Even though the process is currently halted owing to widespread opposition, about 15-20 police official are camping in the Gobindpur village.
“As a result, the villagers against whom false cases are pending can’t stay in the village for fear of getting arrested,” alleges Prashant Paikray of the anti-POSCO outfit. As the state assembly session is on, the administration maintains a low profile in the area. “But the land acquisition will resume soon,” maintains Vishal Dev, chairman and managing director of IDCO.
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