EXPLOSION IN A TWILIGHT ZONE

Three dead in a bomb explosion. Early morning police raids, brutality and demolitions. In this war zone against unarmed peaceful villagers, a mighty multinational and a repressive State have yet again united 

Bibhuti Pati Jagatsinghpur (Odisha) 

The area mapped for realization of the integrated steel plant project by South Korean steel major POSCO has become a protracted war zone and an arena of relentless injustice. It is a brazenly unequal war: Ordinary unarmed villagers, often lying on the ground in a human chain for days, versus the might of a gigantic multinational, contingents of armed cops, miscellaneous musclemen and the Indian State. Recently, women from families affected by the big FDI project near Paradip in Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur were beaten up brutally when they attempted to register their protest by stripping  — “as a last resort against police repression in tandem with goons”. Earlier, three protesters were killed in a mysterious bomb explosion in Patana village in the project area.

The Odisha government restarted its land acquisition operations aggressively after the South Korean government expressed concern and categorically asked India to sort out the hurdles. On February 3, 2013, the government initiated a last-ditch effort to acquire land after a considerable lapse. In a pre-dawn operation, 12 platoons of armed policemen swooped at Gobindapur village, the last frontier in this long-drawn battle. Police lathicharged women and children. Hundreds were seriously injured.

Police entered the Gobindapur and Dhinkia villages at 4 am in the foggy hours, beat the people brutally, raided and ransacked their homes. In a move designed to send out a message that the Naveen Patnaik government means business, finally, the village of Gobindapur was brought under “control”. Soon after, demolition of betel vine holdings continued and the acquisition of land was put into play.

“This area turned into an armed police camp from February 3, 2013. Except pro-POSCO goons, no one could enter the village and no one could get out. Police patrolling continued for 24 hours. Then, there was a bomb attack on March 2, in the evening. Police were informed but did not respond for 15 hours. Then, within an hour, they informed the media that local bomb-makers among the protesters were involved. The Superintendent of Police, (SP) Satyabrata Bhoi, had no answers to many difficult questions even when three important leaders of the anti-POSCO agitation died on the spot,” said Sudhir Patnaik, editor of a fortnightly, Samadrusti.

While police claims, on the basis of gunpowder and razor blades recovered from the site, that the protesters died after bombs exploded, the latter, and the only surviving member, Laxman Parmanik of Gobindapur, say that the bombs targetted the leader of the movement, Abhay Sahu. “We were sitting there when two bombs dropped and exploded,” said Parmanik, who is under treatment at the SCB Medical College Hospital in Cuttack. “A day before, supporters of the project had threatened people with murder at the Gobindapur road construction site. Why did the police refuse to investigate this threat?” asked a local journalist.

‘The story manufactured by the SP is that anti-POSCO activists were making the bomb. These leaders didn’t even know how to handle a knife. They were in the forefront of a prolonged and peaceful agitation’

Santosh Mohanty from Kujanga said, “On March 5, platoons of armed police, led by the district collector and SP, forcibly entered Gobindapur village and destroyed 25 sites of betel vines. While the police has no time to investigate the truth behind the bomb explosion, it continues to destroy betel vines cultivated with months of hard labour. How more inhuman can it get? Now the armed police are providing complete protection to pro-POSCO individuals; they are moving around freely whereas any villager opposed to the project is being identified and hounded. This is the ground reality of rampant illegality. But no one is ready to speak the truth.”

Tukuna, a young activist added, “The story manufactured by the SP is that anti-POSCO activists were making the bomb. These leaders didn’t even know how to handle a knife. They were in the forefront of a prolonged and peaceful agitation. One of them lost his brother in the last bombing incident. They were on the hit-list of the police as they considered these people to be the real hurdles in the path of forcible land acquisition. For three days prior to their killing the police had launched a house-to-house search to locate them in Gobindapur. Finally, they were murdered.”

“A sinister plot was hatched. This created confusion among the people. So how did material for making a bomb reach the place when the entire area was surrounded by hundreds of armed police?  Even locals can’t escape security checks. Is bomb-making so simple that anyone in the village can do it without any expert help? What about the long history of peaceful struggles? How come this story was first circulated from the pro-POSCO and police camp while those directly affected were shocked and speechless?”

An old village woman, Dhuki, said that there seemed to be no regret on the part of the Jagatsinghpur SP and collector. “Around 1,000 anti-POSCO protestors led by women had earlier gone in a procession to the Armed Police Camp near Gobindapur to demand withdrawal of forces from the area. But the police had a different plan. They created a conflict with other locals. About 40 women sustained injuries.”

Locals allege that, in the past “the goons of POSCO” had attacked Dula Mandal, an activist of Gobindapur, and killed him. This indicates a criminal nexus. 

While the District Collector of Jagatsinghpur, Satya Kumar Mallick, repeatedly said that the acquisition of land is being pursued after the people’s consent as per the norms approved by the Rehabilitation and Periphery Development Advisory Committee (RPDAC), the reality on the ground yields a different picture. Take the case of Ranjan Parida of Gobindapur whose entire family is devastated since their betel vine farm was demolished and the land acquired. The compensation money is no more an allurement, nor a symbol of hope. Their lives are ruined.

Kamala Parida had gone to take a bath. When she came back, she found her farm demolished by the police while her grandson was left holding a cheque

Ranjan was terrified. He agreed to the demolition. “I had gone to my betel vine farm. They asked me to give the land. There was a huge number of policemen. I have never seen so many policemen with guns. I was stunned with fear. I couldn’t say anything. They uprooted my betel vines and pushed a cheque into my hand,” said Ranjan, tears flowing down his face. Sitting at the door of the house, Ranjan’s old mother, Kanduri Prida, said, “We have lost our last hope.”

It’s not only Ranjan and his family who have been pushed into despair since losing their ancestral vineyard; others like Kamala Parida, Bharat Bardhan, Ramesh Bardhan and Nimai Rout of Gobindapur are equally distraught after losing theirs. As the economy of this area is based on the betel leaf business, losing a vineyard means social and economic ruination.

Kamala Parida (67) had gone to take a bath, and her minor grandson was at the betel vine site. When she came back, she was shocked to find her farm demolished by the police while her grandson was left holding a cheque. “I have lost everything. Is this democracy? Why are the police and administration doing all this so brazenly and illegally? We have not given them our betel vines,” she said.

Durjadhana Parida, a retired headmaster, has lodged petitions in the Orissa High Court against the forcible acquisition of their betel vine holdings. “Keeping in view the economics of betel vine, no farmer would easily agree to hand over a betel vine site. Some handed over for demolition were not real sites; they were built overnight by cunning non-farmers to grab compensation money,” said Manorama Khatua, a leader of the agitation. “Fake acquisitions are being engineered by a nexus of corrupt officials in the district administration, POSCO officials and some misguided supporters.

When the administration submitted the betel vine compensation reports, what was the exact figure? How did the numbers increase within the span of a few months? Go and see the sites raised overnight; are they real? Let them disclose how they are distributing the compensation money.”

Explained activist Prafula Samantara, “The Odisha government is pushing forceful land acquisition, but POSCO does not have environmental clearance. The clearance given by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) on January 31, 2011, was suspended by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on March 30, 2012. POSCO does not even have a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the government. The one it had signed on July 22, 2005, lapsed on July 21, 2010, and no fresh MoU has been signed so far. Even in the palli sabha meeting of Gobindapur and the gram sabha meeting of Dhinkia panchayat on October 18, 2012, more than 2,000 residents unanimously voted against the diversion of land under provisions of the Forest Rights Act, 2006.”

‘I have never seen so many policemen with guns. I was stunned with fear. I couldn’t say anything. They uprooted my betel vines and pushed a cheque into my hand’

Without a legitimate MoU, the Odisha government has handed over 1,700 acres of land to POSCO out of which 400 acres are non-forest land and the rest de-reserved forest land. The company is in need of another 1,000 acres to start construction. But no work can start without a direction from the NGT.

Meanwhile, the controversy over land at Paradip is a raging issue between the state government and Paradip Port Trust. It has proved to be a major hindrance for big players in Paradip. Even the Paradip Municipality cannot function independently as it has no land of its own.

The government has provided 10 acre of valuable land to POSCO in Paradip. The state government had a 40-acre patch adjacent to the Paradip Port High School. This land has now been distributed among the Paradip Municipality (10 acres), the Paradip Development Authority (nine                acres), Odisha State Housing Board (five acres), Jagannath Temple (five acres) with POSCO getting a big plot of 10 acres. POSCO was given the land on a long-term lease with immediate effect and started its transit camp. The Paradip Municipality and Paradip Development Authority have not yet been allotted the land. The Paradip Port Trust is supplying water and electricity to POSCO. “The land has been given to POSCO by government undertakings. We have no role to play,” said Surjit Das, Additional Collector, Paradip.

 

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2013