The Orissa government, backed by the Centre, brutally unleashes the police on its own people to keep its promise to Posco. Will the people overcome the challenge and save their life, land and livelihood from absolute ruin?
Bibhuti Pati Jagatsinghpur (Orissa)
When South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was in New Delhi to attend the Republic Day celebrations, Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik reportedly received an unexpected telephone call from the prime minister's office. Patnaik rushed to Delhi and, at a programme hosted by President Pratibha Patil at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, assured the South Korean president that all "hurdles" to the proposed Posco steel factory in Jagatsinghpur would soon be overcome. Three-and-a-half months later, a cold-blooded Patnaik was trying his best to keep his word. June was reportedly the deadline he had set before Myung-bak to ensure land for Posco's Rs 52,000 crore project, billed as the single biggest FDI in Indian history.
The state government has started showing an urgency it had rarely demonstrated since the mega hype it generated by signing the MoU with the steel giant on June 22, 2005, for building a 12-million-tonne-per-annum integrated steel mill at Kujanga in Jagatsinghpur district.
The way the armed police went berserk to evict non-violent protesters on May 15 from Balitutha, a junction connecting three gram panchayats - Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gadakujanga - as well as the administration's bid to bulldoze resisting villages in the Kalinganagar steel hub, clearly show the government's mood: it's either now or never.
Indeed, in his third term as chief minister, Patnaik wants to be seen as acting seriously to deliver on his promises. He has long been talking of the imperative to industrialise poverty-stricken Orissa, whose largely agrarian-based economy suffers from severe unemployment and underemployment, with all hope of self-reliant industrial development pre-empted by the extremely low purchasing power of the impoverished populace.
Instead of exploring ways to break out of this vicious circle by addressing the unfinished agenda of agrarian reform, Patnaik and his ilk have been gunning for export-oriented and foreign-investment-led industrial projects - no problems if tens of thousands of indigenous people are uprooted from their traditional livelihood systems and ancient land holdings, and even if the ecology is brutally ravaged, with rivers, streams and waterbodies poisoned and killed, mountains dynamited, and forests destroyed.
Civil society groups and local people's movements have been opposing the state government's unilateral acquisition of land for private companies at the cost of displacing thousands of families and ruining the livelihoods of many more. They have also questioned the rationale behind leasing out Sundargarh's Khandadhar iron ore reserves to Posco and diverting water from the Mahanadi and Brahmani rivers for the proposed steel plant. Also facing flak are Posco's plans to set up a port at Jatadhari, close to the existing port at Paradeep, and to export high-alumina-content iron ore in exchange for importing an equal quantity of low-alumina-content iron ore.
"It's a complete sell-out to Posco. The state government is working as an agent of the company. The 4,004 acres of land earmarked for the project, including 3,500 acres of government land, is very fertile with farmers growing paddy and betel vine on it. Why should fertile land be handed over to an industrial project?" asks Abhaya Sahoo of the CPI, leader of the Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS), which is leading the movement against the steel giant.
BJP leader Bijay Mohapatra says, "In monetary terms, the value of the 600 million tonnes of iron ore the government has committed to Posco far exceeds the perceived benefits to the state and the country from the project, which has been allowed all kinds of tax exemptions and SEZ status. If the government decides to sell this ore in the open market, it would generate much more revenue. Diverting water meant for irrigation to Posco will ruin agriculture in the region, while the proposed Jatadhari port will cause serious ecological damage and hit the fortunes of the government-run Paradeep port. Also, more than four lakh fishermen in the undivided Cuttack district will lose their livelihood."
After the nasty and massive police action against protestors on May 15 at Balitutha, leaving several injured, the PPSS decided to organise a mass rally at the same place on May 19 to assert their refusal to be cowed down by such display of "brute force and state terrorism".
The ambience this time was different, with the burnt-out houses and shops - reminders of that black day - forming the backdrop to the venue. And there was palpable anger at the way the government was trying to push the project down people's throats, with the choicest of epithets reserved for the chief minister, the ruling BJD and the South Korean company.
The people's message to the government was clear: the greater the force used against the villagers to vacate the area, the stronger would be their non-violent resolve to resist. "Come what may, we won't give up even an inch of land to Posco. This is not a small movement and we are ready to face the consequences. After all, it involves the livelihood of thousands of families and their future. There is no question of giving up the agitation," said Rupa Sahu, an old lady.
Another villager, Rangnath Das, said, "We stand by our four demands: one, shift the Posco site to where there would be no displacement; two, do not allow the company to build an exclusive port for itself; three, do not let the company use water from the Mahanadi; and, four, do not lease out any mines to the company." With the state government deciding to leave out private land at Dhinkia for the project, following widespread condemnation of the May 15 atrocities, the villagers have demanded the exclusion of the entire Dhinkia panchayat, including Gobindapur village.
Incidentally, out of 437 acres of private land required for the project, 284 acres comes under Dhinkia village while 67 acres was to be acquired at Gobindapur village. "Excluding Dhinkia from the project would be impossible because most of the private land needed for the project comes under Dhinkia panchayat," said a revenue official on condition of anonymity. Abhaya Sahoo said, "The state government should clarify its position on the exclusion of private land at Dhinkia for the Posco project."
"The villagers earn their livelihood by cultivating betel vines and cashew, and farming fish, not only on 300 acres of private land but also on thousands of acres of government land. The government cannot allow Posco to set up its project on forestland which sustains the livelihood of the locals," said Sisir Mohapatra, sarpanch of Dhinkia. He said villagers in the entire panchayat are determined not to allow the project that would ruin their livelihoods based on meena (fish), pana (betel) and dhana (paddy).