How green was my valley

Vested interests in Orissa painted a spontaneous protest by dispossessed tribal people as an organised Maoist rebellion to make sure that their gravy train does not come to a halt

Sanjay Kapoor Kalinganagar

It is around noon. The February sun beats down mercilessly. The barren but bushy terrain and the red soil of the region make it appear hotter than it is. The usually bustling road to Paradeep Port is unusually calm because of the blockade imposed by protesting adivasis since early January 2006. They are demonstrating against the cold-blooded murder of 12 adivasis. The road has been barricaded at regular intervals by boulders, tree trunks, cots, chairs and anything that these people of meagre means could lay their hands on. That the protest was a spontaneous one was evident from the fact that even everyday — use implements were brought in to block the road.

On the side of this blocked road is a carelessly parked fleet of Chevrolet, Toyota and smaller cars. The owners are confident about leaving their vehicles where they please because of the absence of traffic on the road. Along the highway there is a kuccha road that leads to a little field where a shamiana (canopy) has been put up. Here the urns containing the ashes of those who were killed in police firing had been kept till they were finally immersed. The snazzy car owners descend on this spot to commiserate with the adivasis who had been on the vigil for the last many days.

Cell phone wielding khadi-clad Congress leaders, who emerge from their up-market vehicles, compete with each other to sit next to the visiting union minister. At the far end of the shamiana in a row sit tired-eyed indigenous people. Unshaven and in tattered clothes, they stare vacantly towards the minister, who speaks in an Oriya language that they seemingly cannot comprehend. This is the face of poverty that liberalised India has chosen to be amnesic about. Looking at their unwashed emaciated faces, it becomes clear that the twains of the two Indias, the glitzy
and prosperous India of the metros and the economically challenged country that
lives in poor states and urban slums, just cannot meet.

The adivasis have their representatives who sit alongside the minister and other Congress leaders. They blame the state government and the local Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) of the region, Prafulla Kumar Ghadei, who is also the state's Finance Minister. " He has not even chosen to visit us after the firing," complains a speaker who is one of the bigger landlords of this region whose land has been acquired by the government to be handed over to the private sector for setting up their steel plants. The tribal landowners, both medium and small, have been demanding higher compensation for their land in comparison to what they have got. The grouse of the speaker, angrily supported by the local Congress leaders, is that government is selling the same land acquired by them at a rate (Rs 3.7 lakhs/ acre) that is 10 times higher than what they got it for (Rs 37, 500/acre). The government claims that the higher amount that they charge from the private companies would be used for building roads and developing infrastructure. "Where are the roads that they are talking of?" wonders Kutiya, a Congress leader. "The government is exploiting the locals," he hisses.

Shortly thereafter, the Congress leaders and their supporters return to their air-conditioned cars and back to a different, but more comforting reality. The adivasis sitting under the shamiana do not stir and continue to stare vacantly into nothingness as though the political show did not register on them.

Are these unshaven, unwashed, hollow-eyed adivasis the dangerous Maoists the media and a section of the government have been trying to make them out to be? If this is how the Maoists look then surely each one of them who is fighting for his rights over his land is a revolutionary guerrilla. However, the truth is totally different. "These poor people have nothing to do with any ideology. They are a miserable lot who have been agitating for a better deal from the government for quite a while. But no one really listens," explains a government labour official.

After the January 2, 2006 incident where adivasis objected to the Tata Steel acquiring the land with the help of the state police, there is an attempt by a section of the government and political parties to show that the Maoists were behind the agitation. Over the last two months they have strenuously gathered evidence, anecdotal and otherwise, to present a case of high organisation and resistance, which they claim is the doing of the left radicals, in the struggle. The most vociferous in claiming that the Kalinganagar happenings are the doings of the Maoist rebels is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), followed by some local Congress leaders. This suits the ruling Biju Janata Dal, led by Chief Minister (CM) Navin Patnaik because it provides some cover for police excesses by cranking up the might of the opposition.

Fuelling the paranoia about the Maoists is a section of the industry facing the entry of foreign steel companies like South Korean steel giant, POSCO. Allegedly they have lent their resources and clout to augment the easily-spread belief that Orissa is in the grip of the Maoists and hence unsafe for any large investments.

Blaming some variant of terrorists still does not explain the continuing agitation. It has been over two months since the unfortunate events of January 2, and there is no let-up of the popular uproar in Kalinganagar. First the administration believed that the blockade of the road to Paradeep Port would only continue till the budget session of the Assembly and would cease after CM Patnaik makes the necessary announcements. The issue was debated in the assembly, but the opposition parties and the Kalinganagar demonstrators have refused to back off.

"The matter could be solved in a day if Navin babu decides to come to the site where the tribal people are maintaining a vigil and tells them that their interests would be looked after, but he has refused to do that till now, " observes a young journalist, Jena. There is also a demand for the sack of Finance Minister Ghadei, which the CM may not accede to immediately. The changes in the relief and rehabilitation package, which are long overdue, would happen after the budget session of the assembly ends in April.

Meanwhile the deadlock in Kalinganagar is threatening to undo the policy of liberalisation in the mining sector initiated by the Orissa government. There are misgivings in the steel sector whether the POSCO steel plant, which is in the eye of the storm for some months, would have an easy passage before it is completed in 2010. The South Korean officials are hoping that they would be able to complete major work before the Patnaik government, which got them to invest in Orissa, demits office in 2009.

Although the state government has been responsive to the opposition criticism about giving more mines to South Koreans than they had given to their Indian counterparts, the problem is surely somewhere else. Entry of POSCO and other steel companies in this area are threatening the mineral mafia that has been smuggling iron ore out of the state for many years last many years. Backed by number of state level politicians, this nexus of contractors and officials has been bleeding the state mining company, Orissa Mining Corporation (OMC). Before the present Principal Secretary of Steel and Mines and Chairman, Orissa Mining Corporation, Bhaskar Chatterji, increased vigilance in these mines, there was wanton plunder of precious minerals. And a lot of the raw material was sold to local private companies and then moved out of the country.

The 2004 government audit report unveils the manner in which the mines have been pillaged for many years. Surely, the Maoists are not doing this? The audit report showed that at the Daitari mines, the contractor mandated to raise the mineral and take it to the railway siding, displayed discrepancy in the number of trucks that left the mines and the ones that finally arrived. In just one mine, 412 trips were not reconciled. The scale boggles the mind.

There are other cases about the loss in transportation. Against the permissible loss of 0.5 per cent allowed by the purchase committee, the contractors have been showing losses ranging from 3 to 13 per cent. In real terms this means a huge amount of loss to the state exchequer, but so corrupt have been the government departments that they could not impose any penalty on them.

If one looks at any of the indicators in the audit report of 2004, the most striking aspect is its low level of performance. Reading between the lines would clearly show that its poor show  is due to the reckless loot by the dishonest nexus of contractors, officials and politicians. Everywhere the private contractors have either not met their targets for raising the iron ore or they have shanghaied part of the mineral on its onward journey to the railways. A careful study of the people who are given these contracts would show that many of them are either relatives of politicians or bureaucrats. If the state displays the development dilemma of being rich in resources with a large mass of people languishing in abysmal poverty, then the blame has to be put on the doorsteps of this corrupt nexus.

A liberalised mineral policy threatens the continuance of this lobby that has been getting wealthier in a non-regulated environment. Orissa, for many years, did not have a steel plant other than in Rourkela. All the other private sector companies were keen on mining leases and exporting the iron ore and manganese ore to countries like Japan, Korea and now China. "All the companies here are basically washing the minerals and exporting," alleges a Kalinganagar journalist. Tata Steel also has one of the biggest mining leases, and they have shown reluctance in the past to make steel. In fact the buzz in the steel circles is that the Indian steel major does not really want to build its plant. Local Tata officials hotly deny this and claim that they were committed to build a plant this time around.

Interestingly, in the last one year 43 companies have signed Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) with the Orissa government to set up steel plants. Some of them like Visa and Jindal have invested heavily and thus have a stake in their plans taking off. They believe that if the government continues to give them land as per the schedule, then they could keep getting the bankers interested in their project. Many of the companies are concerned about the slow pace of land acquisition and the failure of the administration to provide them roads, water and power.

There is an interesting contradiction in the perception of the industry and the government on the issue of Kalinganagar and its likely impact. Almost each person from the industry that this correspondent spoke to seemed gung-ho about the prospects in the state, whereas in the political circles and in the government there was despondency and fear that Orissa's flirtations with the state inviting foreign direct investment and big industries have come to a close.

"Kalinganagar has proved that the government would have to be sensitive to the demands of the locals. They just cannot bulldoze them as they were doing before," believes a senior official of Jindal Steel.  In one of the meetings with the government, a Tata Steel official in July 2005, fearing a backlash from adivasis indicated that the government agency (IDCO) mandated to acquire land had not enumerated the number of people who would be displaced by the project. Another company representative wanted to know whether the government had given the displaced persons the necessary compensation. "We have paid the government Rs 3.7 lakh per acre and we now want to satisfy the displaced persons and allow us to get on with the job," says a steel official impatiently.

The government is working on the revised rehabilitation and relief policy and should unveil it shortly. The steel sector is hoping that this would satisfy the agitating adivasis and allow them to move ahead with their plans. Companies like POSCO are treading carefully and working hard towards taking the local populace along. There is greater consciousness in these companies that they should employ locals and provide a better deal to them then it has been the case.

There is a belief that the state, which is bountiful in natural riches, could turn around if all these companies start making steel; it could become like Ruhr Valley of Germany. This impression is reinforced by the promises that the central and state governments have given to investing companies like POSCO that they would build a top-class physical infrastructure of roads, railway heads and so on. If that is allowed to happen then the state would have more jobs and the extent of dislocation of adivasis would be less drastic, assuming the bulk of them get employment and just compensation for their lost lands.

But all this can only be dreamt about after the mafia that has used political parties to paint the poor tribal as a lethal Maoist and raised the spectre of loss of sovereignty if the foreign investment comes to the state is neutralised.

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