Even as the government flexes muscle, villagers are refusing to give their land to the multinational steel giant
Satya Sivaraman Dhinkia, Jagatsinghpur (Orissa)
Hundreds of farmers, fisherfolk, agricultural workers and women of villages affected by the corporate invasion of coastal Orissa kicked off a historic seven-day long protest padayatra (march) on November 29 from Dhinkia, a village 68 km from Orissa's capital, Bhubaneswar.
For five full years now the villagers of Erasama block in Orissa's Jagatisinghpur district have battled State agencies, the police and hired goons to prevent the takeover of their land for the $12 billion project of the South Korean company POSCO, the fourth largest steel maker in the world. The project involves setting up an integrated steel and power plant, a private port and mining of over 600 million tonnes of Orissa's high grade iron ore. For the steel and power plants alone the project needs around 4004 acres, of which 3,566 acres is government land but 438 acres belong to local farmers who are refusing to part with it.
"This is a warning to the Orissa government and corporations not to underestimate our resolve to resist any attempt to grab local resources and displace villagers," said Abhay Sahu, leader of the POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS), inaugurating the long march, which will traverse 120 kms between Paradip and Puri parallel to the east coast. Despite strict non-violence of the movement, Sahu was put in prison for months by the state government, which, along with the Centre, is fully backing the project. The PPSS has been at the forefront of the resistance to the POSCO project, which, if implemented, will displace over 30,000 villagers in this rich agricultural and fishing belt.
Reacting to reports that South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak has been invited to be the chief guest at the upcoming Republic Day celebrations on January 26 in Delhi next year and might visit the site of the POSCO project, Abhay Sahu said that it would be better if he cancelled his trip.
The padyatra has been supported by almost all the major anti-mining, anti-displacement movements around Orissa and is the first instance in recent times that such a strong unity has been achieved cutting across ideological or identity barriers. Among the movements joining the padyatra are those opposing bauxite mining in the wildlife heritage spot of Niyamgiri, the UAIL plant at Kashipur, the Tata steel plant in Kalinganagar and those still fighting for rehabilitation, affected by the construction of the Hirakud dam.
"There is a new solidarity against forced displacement of people by corporate activity that is emerging in Orissa and this march will help consolidate this," said Prashant Paikray, another PPSS leader. It is planned to hold public meetings all along the route to mobilise local folk and raise awareness about the damage to livelihoods and ecology due to the various mega projects that are proposed along this stretch of Orissa's coast.
Among the organisations participating is the Vedanta Vishwavidhyala Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti, which is opposing the acquisition of 6,000 acres of land for purportedly building an 'international' university by Vedanta, a controversial UK-based company that is also involved in the bauxite mining project in Niyamgiri. This university is being 'offered' to them by the Naveen Patnaik-led state government in a precious, amazingly 'high value' location next to a pristine sea-coast and wildlife sanctuary between the world heritage site of sun temple Konarak and seaside town of Puri, thronged by thousands of tourists and pilgrims from India and all over the world everyday.
"What India needs today is a 'land satyagraha' on the lines of Gandhiji's famous salt satyagraha," said Vandana Shiva, well-known ecologist, addressing a public gathering at Erasama village. The march has attracted support from all over India and internationally also, with solidarity demonstrations being staged by various groups ranging from Indian students in the US to trade unions in South Korea. The proposed trip to the POSCO site area by the South Korean president will test the resolve of the state government to go ahead with the project as also the determination of villagers to defend their land - "if necessary with their own lives" as a betel-cultivator told Hardnews at Dhinkia, holding a placard, his eyes flashing.