Nuagaon/Gobindpur: The story of Posco’s controversial $12 billion, 12-million tonne steel plant in Orissa is the story of two women.
One is Bachana Mohanty, 36, of Gobindpur village, who claims she was hit by a rubber bullet fired by a policeman when she was preventing an attempt by officials to clear land meant for the factory.
“If I don’t go for the protest, my land, my children, my life will be lost,” she says.
The other will remain unnamed for reasons related to her safety. She is 38 years old, a resident of Nuagaon and the beneficiary of a six-month training course in tailoring conducted by the Korean steel company. She also received a sewing machine. Both gifts date back to 2005, a year after the plant was announced. “If the plant comes, my brother will get a job,” says the lady. “Job, money, a house—what else do we need?”
Impending development: On the land that has already been acquired by the state government, villagers and workers show the drain and a boundary wall being built at Polang for the Posco Steel project
The six-year-old saga of what was once touted as the single biggest foreign investment in India isn’t a black and white story of a state government keen to industrialize a backward state and ensure mineral resources found in the region are processed locally, on one side, and local land-owners keen to continue with their way of life, on another. Instead, it’s a tangled tale of women like Mohanty and the lady from Nuagaon. And it’s one that’s made even more complex by the government’s claim, repeated by the state’s steel minister Raghunath Mohanty in an interview that some of the land at the heart of the protest, in Gobindpur, for instance, belongs to the government.
An anti-Posco group protest at Nuagaon village in Jagatsinghpur, Orissa
That’s a plausible claim; across India, governments turn a blind eye to the use of what is called revenue land for low-intensity agriculture and grazing.
Posco’s transit camp with leaky roofs at Badagabapur where 52 families from Patna village, Orissa, have been living since 2007
The land meant for the plant spans several villages and 4,004 acres in Orissa’s Jagatsinghpur district. Around 2,000 acres of this has already been acquired by the state government (which will hand over the land to the Korean company after it acquires all that is required for the plant). The relief package includes a compensation of Rs 17 lakh per acre of land owned, a job for one member of the family, and a house. And while the lady from Nuagaon may think that fair, others do not.
“We do not want Posco. We have betel, coconut, jackfruit, cashew, fish...,” says Ramesh Chandra Raut, 45, at Nuagaon village, where a group of women sit on the side of the road with handmade banners denouncing Posco. “The government wants to take away our productive land.”
Abhay Sahu, the chairman of the Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS) and a member of the Orissa secretariat of the Communist Party of India, which is fundamentally opposed to all forms of large enterprise, says protests against the plant will continue and that there is no question of asking for a better deal from the company.
Children from Gobindpur village who participated in the anti-Posco campaigns
“We are not ready to sacrifice the vibrant, agrarian economy of this place for foreign direct investment or domestic investment,” says Sahu, who has been spearheading the protest since the project was announced. “Not an inch of cultivable land in India must be sacrificed for industrialization.”
Interestingly, much of that agrarian economy involves growing betel, a crop that doesn’t require much attention and pretty much grows itself.
Sahu himself admits that betel cultivation is so remunerative and involves so little labour,that villagers are not interested in giving it up to seek otheremployment. The leaves of the betel plant and areca nuts are popular as post-meal digestives and mild intoxicants across the country.
Even some young people are opposed to the plant. “We will not give up our land,” says Mohanty’s son Bishwambar, 14. He too was part of the protest during which his mother was hurt. “That was the first time children participated in the protest,” says Sahu.
A board marking the entry into Posco’s steel plant project site at Balitutha, Orissa.
“Children told the National Commission that they have seen their fathers and mothers injured in police action. So this time, they wanted to participate in the dharna,” Sahu says. “They have said they can’t be considered separate from their families.”
On 2 May, the ministry of environment and forests gave a so-called forest clearance to the project; activists see this as the final nod for the project under pressure from the Central government, which is eager to show the country that it has not faltered on its foreign direct investment policy. Posco still has to wait for a Supreme Court decision over its iron-ore mining lease and settle the contentious issue of iron-ore exports in a renewed agreement with the state government.
On 18 May, the state government started its land clearance drive. The protests started almost simultaneously. PPSS’ contention is that much of the land sought by Posco, falls under forest land where villagers are governed by the Forest Rights Act under which the land they live and farm in, is deemed as their own.
And some work began at Polang—a boundary wall for the plant and a drain. Early July saw around 50 people from another village, Gadkujang, working on the two, alongside giant earth movers. This is land that has already been acquired by the state. No one here is sure the plant will be constructed, “but if it comes, at least, there will be work”, says one worker in his 30s who does not want to be identified for fear of losing his job (on one side) and being attacked by anti-plant groups (on the other).
PPSS isn’t the only activist group at work in the region. There’s also United Action Committee (UAC), a pro-Posco group that believes a steel plant will benefit people. “Because it is a one-time payment for our land, we have demanded that it should be higher,” says Tamil Pradhan, spokesman of the UAC. “We have also demanded that landless labourers working at betel farms get an opportunity to work in the company.”
At times, pro- and anti-Posco groups clash. “In this village even if someone wants Posco, they will never tell,” says a man in Gobindpur, where the heart of the protest lies, speaking on condition of anonymity.
And somewhere in between the pro- and the anti-Posco groups are 52 families from Patna village that have been living in a leaky transit camp since 2007. They were driven out of their village by PPSS for owing allegiance to the state’s ruling party, the Biju Janata Dal, and for being in favour of the Posco plant.
The government has been supporting them with an allowance of Rs 20 a day for each person, but life isn’t good for these people who live in small, dingy rooms, their cattle by the door.
“No one listens,” says Nirmala Sahu, 45, part of a family of five. “We want to go back to our old home.”
Photos by Javeed Shah/Mint
This is the first part of a series that examines the issues arising from the acquisition of land for Posco’s $12 billion project in Orissa. Next: An analysis of Tata Steel’s and Posco’s projects.