Mahtab Alam for BeyondHeadlines
The proposed mega POSCO Steel project and the anti-POSCO movement are once again back in news as violence returned at the proposed site last week. According to reports received by this writer, eight platoons of police attacked and lathi-charged peaceful protesters in the village of Nuagaon, Jagatsinghpur District, Odisha on July 16, 2011. The protesters, despite comprising mostly of females, were attacked by an entirely male police force, resulting in causalities to several and serious injuries to one woman, who was later hospitalized. These protesters were seeking to protect their forests and trees from being cleared by police as part of the government’s land grab for the POSCO project. After the lathi charge, the entire village joined the protests, eventually driving the police back and forcing them to retreat.
But this is not the first time that the people in the area, resisting the proposed project, had borne the brunt of police violence. In May last year, about 100 villagers were injured, 5 of whom got seriously injured. 18 persons, including 5 women, were arrested by the Police. Last month, at least 26 platoons of riot police (over 1,000 police personnel) had been deployed to ruthlessly beat down women, children and the aged. On June 3, 17 people, including five children, were arrested and beaten by the police because they refused to allow the destruction of their farms. Over the years, it has become a routine for the State authorities to use violence against the villagers opposing the Project. However, what should be noted is that this time, the violence was unleashed after repeated assurance by state authorities, for non-violent, unforceful and peaceful acquisition of the land required for the proposed project.
POSCO India is a private limited company, essentially a subsidiary of the Korean Company POSCO, which is the world’s fourth largest steel producer. POSCO signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the government of Odisha to set-up a 12 Million Tonne per annum (MTPA) steel plant in Jagatsinghpur, at an estimated investment of US $ 12 billion (around 54 thousand crores in Indian rupees). This project is considered as India’s largest Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).
The project would also include three mines in Keonjhar and Sundargah districts of the state, for which separate MoUs would be signed, even to the extent of permitting the Company to export iron ore. POSCO had initially requested 2,025 ha of land to build the steel plant and a captive port, 10 km north of the port of Paradip. It subsequently settled for 1,620 ha to reduce potential displacement. Of this revised area, 1439 ha is government land, while the rest is private. Initially, state officials assumed that 341 ha of forest land would go for the company. But they soon realised that more ha of forests would have to be razed to make way for the proposed plant.
And this led to a tussle between the state revenue and forestry departments. However, on May 2, 2011, then Union Minister of Environment and Forest Jairam Ramesh gave a final clearance to the project ignoring recorded evidences of malafide by state government in furnishing false information, particularly on settlement of Forest Rights Claims in the area, to the central government. It should also be noted that the MoU signed on June 22, 2005 is no more valid as it was singed for an initial period of five years, which stands expired now. Renewal of MoU is yet to be signed as both the parties are in the final stage of negotiation on settling out the necessities for the MoU.
According to estimates, the proposed plant would displace nearly 22,000 people of 3,700 families residing in Dhinkia, Nuagaon, and Gadakuganj grampanchayats. Most of the people living in this area, especially those from Gobindpur and Dhinkia,are opposed to the project as the government land promised to the company is highly fertile land and used by 10,000 vine betel vine owners to grow betel; the crop fetches up to Rs. 50 crore annually. The betel crop ensures that no one is unemployed in the area, that no one dies out of hunger and starvation, which is a serious problem faced by the state.
During my visit last month to the POSCO area, I was told by dozens of villagers that the land was their livelihood and no compensation could substitute that. Even landless villagers were opposed to the proposed project as they earned higher wages here despite being non-skilled. Reports suggest that the daily wage rate is Rs.200 or more, along with a good meal. And it’s the highest in the State’s agrarian sector, in fact, higher than what construction labourers get in the state capital, Bhubaneswar and close to twice of what is paid under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) rate. Senior Journalist P. Sainathsays told me, “It can go up to Rs.450 plus a meal for specific tasks in the vineyards. A tiny vineyard on a tenth of an acre can produce 540 labour days or more in a year. That’s apart from 600 days of family labour. Some landless workers earn even more by being fishermen as well. That source of income collapses if POSCO’s captive port comes up at Jatadhari.”
Contrary to the claims and promises by the government of creating thousands of jobs, locals mock the claim of projects bringing jobs, pointing to labour shortages and no major demand for employment.And I see a reason in that as most of the promises made both by government as well as the POSCO have proved to be nothing but false and misleading. During my visit at Badgappur Erasama Transit camp run by POSCO India, which is a house to 53 families of displaced from Nuagaon, I found that there were no basic amenities. Since the past five years, they have been forced to live in sub-human conditions. There is only one tube-well for the 53 families comprising of around 260 people, while all the toilets are non-functional. In the name of compensation, they have been getting only Rs.20 a day, and that too is not paid on a regular basis. Most of the youngsters and aged people are unemployed. I have been told that the nearest Public Health Centre is 11 km away and the situation there in the transit camp is also not very hygienic.
They are still waiting for the compensation of the land given for the project. So in this situation, who would want to give their land for the project? And why should they, when it is clear that nothing but their livelihood is going to be ruined. Yes, there are some ‘people’ who are pro-POSCO, but who exactly are they? They mostly comprise local contractors and real estate developers, who are eyeing major construction contracts and some of the landless villagers who have been influenced by the former.
According to reports, they are now not as pleased as the contract was handed over to a builder from outside. Moreover, the anti-POSCO movement and the people who comprise it are not going to withdraw their struggle. They are ready to give their lives but not their land for the project.
Hence, given the circumstances, it would be in the interests of both the government and the people to either relocate the site of the project as suggested by the agitators or scrap the project altogether. The agitators have proposed two alternative sites, Ambili village and Budha Garia. In case the government chooses not to opt for the above, it would only further the perception of the locals that the government has some vested interests in the project. So it is high time for the government to rethink about its plan for land acquisition for the project before it is too late.
(Mahtab Alam is a Delhi based Civil Rights’ Activist and Independent Journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A different version of this article has first appeared in The Financial World. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect BH’s editorial policy.)