Victims of ‘development’

Print edition : August 05, 2016

Debaranjan Swain, an anti-POSCO activist, poses for photograph at a betel plantation on POSCO land in Odisha's Jagatsinghpur district.

THE proposed mega steel plant project of POSCO near Paradip is a classic case of an initiative for industrial development that did not materialise, but it snatched away the livelihoods of hundreds of villagers in Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur district.

The South Korean company signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the State government on June 22, 2005, to site a plant with a capacity of 12 million tonnes per annum (MTPA), in what was then considered the largest foreign direct investment in India. The project did not proceed in the initial years as the villagers whose land was slated to be acquired for it resisted. They demanded that the project be shifted.

The Biju Janata Dal government did not concede the demand. Instead it forcibly acquired land, claiming that the Rs.51,000-crore project would contribute 11.5 per cent to the State’s gross domestic product in terms of value addition.

By the time the government completed the acquisition of 2,700 acres (1,080 hectares) in 2013, POSCO was apparently not eager to implement the project. On record, only 1,700 acres (680 hectares) was transferred to POSCO; the rest is still with the State government.

In fact, the company scaled down its land requirement from 4,004 acres (1,601.2 hectares) for the 12 MTPA plant proposed initially to 2,700 acres for an 8 MTPA plant in the first phase as the Dhinkia gram panchayat continued to resist land acquisition under the banner of the Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti.

Although the project did not take off, the damage had already been done. Hundreds of people belonging to Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gadakujang under Kujang block of Jagatsinghpur district became victims of so-called development in the era of liberalisation and globalisation. They lost their livelihood sources —dhana, pana and meena (paddy, betel and fish)—and became labourers. The MoU, which expired in 2010, has not been renewed. POSCO has halted the project and scaled down the number of its employees from 100 to five in its lone office in Bhubaneswar. The State government has started looking for other companies to whom to hand over the acquired land for any project when POSCO finally quits Odisha. POSCO had little chance of being granted a captive mining lease for the Khandadhar iron ore reserve on which it had set its sights. As mining laws were amended, the company had no other option but to follow the auction route to get the mining lease.

Little hope of getting land back

The villagers have little hope of getting their land back. They are fighting court cases registered against them for resisting the government’s land acquisition for the POSCO project. Many of them do not come out of their village fearing arrest.

About 350 cases against the villagers were filed between 2005 and 2013, during their resistance to land acquisition; many others were registered in 2014 and 2015 when some of the villagers occupied portions of the acquired land to resume betel cultivation.

After living in uncertainty for over a decade, the residents of the coastal villages are planning a fresh round of agitation to demand the return of the land that was taken away from them and the grant of individual and community rights under the provisions of the Forest Rights Act. Several affected villagers have filed individual cases in the High Court seeking patta (ownership rights) according to the provisions of the Forest Act.

During the land acquisition process, thousands of trees were felled and hundreds of betel vines were pulled down in the presence of the police. The villagers are now demanding that they be allowed to plant saplings to revive the mangrove forests that had acted as a barrier against sea erosion and high tides.

Prafulla Das

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