The story of Posco’s proposed steel project in Orissa continues to be complex, karmic, violent and disturbing. Events, particularly since 3 February, have again roiled the “greater good” debate of big projects versus people’s rights—of even a relatively small cluster of people. It also mirrors the role of businesses that fire over the shoulder of others to claim distance and legal immunity.
In late 2011, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, a major global platform for information and dialogue, published a clarification by Posco. It was in defence against accusations of complicity with the governments of Orissa and India for procedural illegalities, and human rights violations, to acquire land for its integrated steel project in Orissa.
Among other things, the rebuttal accused “illegal occupants” of land being acquired for it by government of Orissa. It trashed groups backing the protests. “One such group opposed Narmada Dam in Madhya Pradesh when Gujarat State was without water and barren and today whole of Gujarat is green.” It punched the “whole of Gujarat” half-truth with: “So much for their pure intentions and concerns for community.”
The company also distanced itself from strong-arming of those resisting acquisition of their lands and livelihoods, mainly in three holdout villages in this patch of coastal Jagatsinghpur district that lives on farming. “It is the prerogative of administration to use police based on threat perception,” read Posco’s rebuttal. “Private companies like Posco would have no role in this.” In spite of well-documented and publicized intimidation since the end of the previous decade by local administration and police against residents and protesters—overwhelmingly the same—the rebuttal dead-panned: “But as far as we know, there has been no use of force by government anywhere during land the acquisition process.”
And so, it is probably not a cheap shot to mention Sangram Mohapatra, now something of a media star.
Alongside local police, on 3 February, the officer of Infrastructure Development Corporation of Orissa (IDCO), was videographed taking a baton to those resisting acquisition of land in Gobindpur, among three villages—the others are Dhinkia and Nuagaon—the collective eye of resistance against selling 700 acres of land to IDCO. If this process goes through, it would complete the acreage for the South Korean metal behemoth’s showcase 12 million tonne per annum (mtpa) project in India.
The charge by police and administration, in a well-planned operation that began before dawn, led to injury to and scattering of protesters when they resisted the entry of police and other officials. Women and children, for long an integral part of protests here, were roughed up.
That day and after, amid claims by district administration officials who said things were “proceeding peacefully,” vast acreage of betel vines were torn down using earth-moving equipment and compensation given—a take-it-or-else exercise without residents’ consent. (A gram sabha meeting of Dhinkia panchayat—of which Gobindpur is a part—on 18 October, 2012, several thousand residents unanimously voted against diversion of land for Posco’s project under provisions of the Forest Rights Act.) On 5 February, villagers resisted again when several hundred police along with personnel of IDCO and the state administration conducted a flag march in the area.
The latest flare-up yet again provides incontrovertible evidence that the state government is acting directly on behalf of Posco. This truth cannot be diluted by any other truth, even by $12 billion worth of proposed investment—quite besides the corollary that this sum will not entirely accrue to India’s economy but will be shared with a global band of equipment and expertise suppliers; a point usually, and euphorically, glossed over by public relations spin.
Here, a statement attributed to a senior Posco official published by Mint on 31 January is revealing. It was in an article discussing the corporation’s successful downstream moves to establish bases for specialized steel products in Maharashtra and elsewhere, even as the upstream Orissa project remains a work in riotous progress. “We moved silently here and it worked,” the official confided. “In Orissa, we moved noisily and it is stuck.”
Another half-truth. This isn’t about silence and noise. This is about good corporate practice versus a questionable one; displayed in the same country by the same company.
Consent is an integral part of human rights, declared corporate ethics, and India’s constitutional guarantees. Another truth: negotiation beats intimidation. And here’s a third: behind the sound of protest in Orissa, there is cascading fury.
Heads-up: A Posco “victory” in Orissa may yet prove pyrrhic for the company and the state.
Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.