Gobindpur: Abhay Sahoo, chairman of the Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS) and secretariat member of the Communist Party of India in Orissa, has consistently campaigned against South Korean steel maker Posco’s proposed plant in Jagatsinghpur.
Sahoo’s resolve to fight against the project has not been weakened by the environmental clearance and land acquisition drive by the company. Protesters are ready to face bullets, he says.
In Orissa, Sahoo is a controversial figure with several criminal cases against him. His methods, which include encouraging children to protest, have drawn criticism. In the highly fragmented district, where people are divided cross political lines, his is the loudest voice of protest. Excerpts from an interview:
There are people in this area who say they want Posco’s plant but are afraid to speak their mind. Is your protest not stifling their voice?
There are people but they are just a handful who speak for the company. In the pali sabha and gram sabha (civic group meetings), the Posco resolution has been cancelled by unanimous vote. In Dhinkia, Gobindpur and even in in Nuagaon, it has been cancelled unanimously.
There are some individuals who want the plant and they are from the pro-Posco group. They get the support of the government and the district administrators and the company give them money, so they are active.
But this is not the mindset of the (majority of the) people. If what you are saying is true, the government is invited to go for a pali sabha, and if it passes the plan of the company, I will withdraw myself from the agitation.
Have the earlier gram sabhas rejected it?
Yes. Let there be a referendum, let there be village meetings, even door-to-door campaigns -- try to get the proposal approved in the village meetings.
In places governed by the Forest Rights Acts, the pali sabha and gram sabha need two-third majority to pass the proposal for diversion of forest lands (for a plant).
I think it will be unanimously against Posco.
We have shown documentary evidence showing people have been living here in Gobindpur and Dhinkia since 1928-29.
How many people does the Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti speak for?
We are fighting for the entire 4,004 acres.
So all the people in these 4,004 acres are with you?
Yes. The people who have the opposing opinion belong to the UAC (United Action Committee), a committee created by the company and the administration.
People in these 4,004 acres are divided. What do you think the future will be?
The resistance here for 50% of the land is very strong. The administration cannot come inside. Nothing is going to happen. In the part that they have already taken, the people have started dharnas. They have started in Nuagaon also.
They will again rise in revolt against this construction work. They cannot maintain this atmosphere for a long time. Though they are giving some contract or temporary jobs for one month or two months to try to woo the youth wings in the villages, I don’t think they will be successful.
This is the last battle. Even if if they open fire on our people, they won’t turn back.
This whole land for Posco is estimated to have around 22,000 people. How many do you represent?
I represent more than 20,000 people. The opposition is not even 1,000 people. But in the other part (of the area) some ruling party (Biju Janata Dal, BJD) leaders are leading the UAC. So they have been able to suppress the people’s thoughts by applying force. One year ago they beat up anti-Posco people in Nuagaon. They create an atmosphere of panic.
What would Posco have to do to change your resolve?
Who is Posco? They are just a third party. This is a fight between the people and the government.
There was a direct dialogue between the chief minister and the PPSS last year that couldn’t result in a positive direction because the CM promised to come here but didn’t keep his promise.
So there was a deadlock. The movement then went on its own path and the CM is reacting in his own way.
What is the exact reason you don’t want to give up your land?
The exact reason, in one sentence: We are opposing industrialization at the cost of a guaranteed agricultural living. We are not in a mind to sacrifice this vibrant, agrarian economy for whatsoever -- foreign direct investment or domestic investment.
And also in general we would like to draw the attention of the country and the farmers and tell them that nowhere an inch of cultivable land should be sacrificed for industrialization.
Industries have to come up for the growth of economy, and industrial products are different from agricultural products. But agriculture has to be there and has to be protected. This (place) is a guaranteed agricultural economy, having a multi-crop land. Why should a farmer sacrifice it for a 30-year project? Here people are very protective about their agriculture
How would you react if the government and Posco make the package more attractive?
That is no good. This land should not be industrialized.
Have you suggested an alternate site where Posco can build its plant?
That is for them to see. We are not against industrialization. But plants should come up in barren land.
People in Posco’s transit camp, where 52 families are living, have said you chased them out of Patna village as they owed their allegiance to BJD and were pro-P osco. People in this region fear clashes. Is your protest not peaceful?
The transit camp was set up in connivance with the company. They wanted to show good rehabilitation. It was company sponsored rehabilitation.
People who have fear must be afraid of the Maoists.
Why are children participating in the protests?
Children have said they have seen their mothers and fathers injured by police firing. So this time they decided to take part to face armed police and to secure their livelihood.
They said that they could not be considered separate from their families. You cannot separate a child from its mother.
If the children hadn’t been there, they (police) would have fired at us (in protests last month). They said that the police need to be withdrawn and then they would return to their school. They are against forcible land acquisition.
In this entire village, what class do children study until? Do they go for higher education? And what kind of employment do they get?
Till the 10th. We are not bringing the 10th standard students.
Almost all go for higher education.
No one takes employment after higher education because they are engaged in betel vines. That is an employment generator, and they get a handsome income from the betel vines. With minimum labour they can get maximum income.
So no one is interested in these government and company jobs.