In June 2005, the Orissa government signed the country’s biggest foreign direct investment deal yet with the South Korean steel manufacturer Posco for a $12 billion (around Rs.65,856 crore) plant near Paradip in the mineral-rich state. Livelihoods in eight existing agricultural and fishing villages were to give way for the project that was intended to be spread over 4,004 acres, of which 2,958 acres are forest land. The steel mill would be accompanied by a captive port, power plant, and township.
Nearly eight years on, the plan continues to spark pitched battles between authorities and villagers, and divide communities on the ground.
The village of Dhinkia remains the heart of the anti-Posco agitation. It has held out a steadfast non-violent resistance, refusing to have its profitable betel vines, paddy farms, community forest lands and homesteads jettisoned. Residents have dug in their heels, barricaded the village, petitioned courts on the project’s numerous violations, and made desperate pleas to be allowed to determine their future.
State authorities have often resorted to brute force, destroying betel vines and taking over lands in neighbouring villages in intermittent police operations, including a particularly violent one in February-March. Over the years, they have also filed criminal cases—including charges of sedition and obscenity—against hundreds of villagers in a bid to end the opposition. An analysis put out in February by a lawyers’ collective, the Alternative Law Forum, put the number of cases against villagers at 230. The lawyer who represents many of the villagers said in March that this number had gone up in the last two months.
Posco India’s external relations officer Ansuman Pattnayak said his company is not involved in any of the strife on the ground. “It is the state government which is clearing land for the project...villagers are in favour of it,” he said. He also confirmed that in light of the strong protests in Dhinkia, the company would begin work on the plant when half of the required 4,000 acres is acquired, and eventually expand to its original plan, spanning land in all eight villages.
But the villagers of Dhinkia—especially its women—say they are not giving up.
u Biranchi Samantray: Village priest Samantray takes a walk in his homestead with granddaughter Haripriya. In March 2012, the National Green Tribunal suspended the 2011 environmental clearance given by the government to Posco, and ordered a review by the ministry of environment and forests, whose findings are still not out. “That suspension finally gave us some happiness,” says Samantray. “But our hopes were clearly misplaced, given the ferocity with which the authorities are now back to acquiring land for the project, even when it lacks green clearance and has no clear provisions of where it will source its iron ore and water from.”
u Hemlata Sahu: Sahu shows the voter-ID card of her son Narhari Sahu, 52, who was killed along with two other protesters in a bomb blast in the village on 2 March. Hemlata alleges that her son was attacked because he was at the forefront of the protest movement, and the matter is not being investigated fairly by the local authorities. “Despite numerous calls, the police did not arrive at the scene till the next morning. When my daughter-in-law went to register a first information report (FIR), the police station turned us away and refused to file our complaint. They have not even bothered to take the statement of the sole survivor of the blast (he was in a hospital recovering from injuries). My son has paid the price for opposing the project with death.”
u Manorama Khatua: The former schoolteacher, 29, heads the women’s wing of the anti-Posco protest movement. Her lawyer says she has had 27 criminal cases registered against her. Khatua says she has not left Dhinkia in six years, fearing arrest and imprisonment by the police. “When I close my eyes I relive the scenes of police lathis on our bodies and chilli smoke (tear gas) in our eyes. But our resolve is unbroken...”
u Lata Parida: This unlettered, feisty grandmother and betel-leaf cultivator has a dozen criminal cases filed against her, according to her lawyer. Most recently, the police have charged her with obscenity, alleging that she resorted to a semi-nude protest during a march against land acquisition on 7 March. Showing bruised limbs, Parida, 52, says: “We are now reaching breaking point. Either the company goes or we die. Have you seen a country where a people are protesting since seven years, living under the constant fear of arrest, violence and dispossession, but have got no relief?”
u Shanti Das: She has more than 30 cases registered against her, according to her lawyer, and sports a broken little finger from injuries sustained during a lathi charge. Das says she feels humiliated by the government’s attempts to carry out land acquisition despite intense opposition from the village. “Can we just stand and watch while our vines are broken and our sources of income destroyed?”
u Ahilya Behera: She echoes the views of many betel-vine owners and cultivators in the village when she says the residents are attached to the agrarian economy because it ensures them livelihood security and self-employment, while the surrounding landscape meets their food and fuel needs. “This sandy soil is critical to our betel vineyards. If we have to move elsewhere, how will we grow this? The vineyards are giving us sustenance now and they will do the same for future generations in the village. We are farmers—we cannot get engineering jobs in a company like Posco. We will be reduced to low-paid casual labour or get a one-time monetary compensation. And then what?” asks Behera.
Photographs by Chitrangada Choudhury