AT 4 AM on Sunday, 3 February, nearly 400 policemen surrounded the entry points to the villages of Gobindpur and Dhinkia in the Jagatsingpur district of Odisha. The two villages are among the last hurdles to the steel major POSCO’S $12 billion project in the state. As dawn broke, the police lathicharged the villagers who had gathered at the spot, injuring over 25, mostly women and children. However, the land acquisition was stalled on 7 February, following mounting criticism of the police action.
This was the latest in the Odisha government’s attempts to restart work on the mega steel project that has met stiff public opposition in the state, since its inception in 2005. The government’s move came less than a week after South Korean Minister of Knowledge Economy Hong Suk-woo ‘categorically’ asked India to sort out the hurdles in the way of the project.
After initial obstacles in the land acquisition process, POSCO had scaled down its demand from 4,000 acres to 2,700 acres. The government acquired 2,000 acres between 2005 and 2011. The remaining 700 acres have to be acquired from Gobindpur and Dhinkia villages — mostly forested areas. Despite the village councils passing resolutions under the Forest Rights Act to not hand over any land for industrial purposes, the villagers allege that the government has been attempting to take the land by force. Soon after the district administration declared it would acquire the remaining 700 acres, the residents of the two villages started protesting on 14 January.
“Children were kicked around like footballs by the police and some even got hit by lathis,” says Prashant Paikray, spokesperson for an anti-POSCO outfit. Although the government claimed that the land acquisition, which started earlier this month, was peaceful, television footage showed state officials, including Land Acquisition Officer Sangram Mohapatra, hitting protesters with lathis.
The police action came as a surprise early on 3 February, though tension had been prevailing in the area for the past 20 days when about 200 policemen, later increased to 400, were stationed near the POSCO transit camp, 2 km away from Gobindpur village.
After dispersing the protesters, the police entered Gobindpur village and started destroying the betel vines, before going on a manhunt for anti-POSCO leaders like Abhaya Sahu and Manorama Khatua of the POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS).
According to SK Mallick, the district magistrate, “The land acquisition is continuing peacefully. The allegation of use of force is false. We just made our way to the villages to clear the betel vines of the people who are willing to leave the encroached government land and take compensation.” In three days, the government has cleared 40 betel vines and given a compensation of Rs 89 lakh.
Contrary to the government’s claim, Sabita Bardhan of Gobindpur village says, “They dismantled my betel vine against my wishes. I have not received any compensation and I will not accept it, even if they offer me any.” Dillip Parida, who received a compensation of Rs 2.27 lakh, says, “We have no options. In any case, they would have dismantled our vines. It is better that we take compensation and give away our land.”
An atmosphere of fear has been created by heavy deployment of police force.
Even though Bibhu Prasad Tarai, MP of Jagatsingpur, was present at the protest site on 3 February, and got a promise from the district magistrate for withdrawal of forces, the acquisition continued the following day under police watch. With no political leader seen in the village at the time of the alleged ‘forced-acquisition’, villagers claim they saw no option but to accept the inevitable. And an unrelenting DM claimed, “We have identified 400 betel vines to be cleared.”
Meanwhile, Ho Chan Ryu, Deputy Managing Director of POSCO-India says, “Our principles do not allow us to acquire land against the wishes of the people. To my knowledge, the people are willingly giving their land.”
Indeed, some people from Gobindpur did willingly give away their land and took compensation, though they are clueless about their future livelihood. Their hopes are pinned on the promise of jobs in the POSCO plant. The government has also promised to give Rs 2,250 every month as a stipend to the families until POSCO gives them a job. But the prospect seems unlikely, considering similar promises never materialised for the people in Gadakujang and Nuagaon panchayats who had earlier surrendered their land for the project.
While the people from Gadakujang and Nuagaon have given away their land and recieved compensation, the people from Gobindpur and Dhinkia villages have thwarted the administration’s attempt to acquire land. In May 2011, the locals resisted attempts to take over land with heavy deployment of police force by forming a human barricade, with children forming the front row lying down on the sand, followed by women, the elderly and men.
While the latest assault has been condemned by political parties in the state, Damodar Rout, minister for health and family welfare, says, “The POSCO project is for the benefit of the people. People want it. But some political parties with vested interests are opposed to it. After all, this is government land that the people have encroached upon. The government is taking its own land and yet giving compensation to the people. There is nothing unlawful about it.”
The use of force against unarmed people for land acquisition was condemned by the Opposition, including the Congress, BJP, CPI, SP, Forward Bloc, RJD and other parties. Jual Oram of the BJP says, “We condemn the use of force on people and the illegal land acquisition process.” Prasad Harichandan, senior leader and chief whip of the Congress party in the state, says, “The police atrocities on the women and children are uncalled for. The state administration must reach out to the people and resolve the issues.”
AS THE fate of the project hangs in uncertainty with the environmental clearance suspended by the National Green Tribual in March 2012, the MoU signed between the state and POSCO, which expired in June 2011 is yet to be renewed.
Following the South Korean minister’s remarks, Union Commerce Minister Anand Sharma had informed the Koreans that the prime minister was personally monitoring the project. With pressure mounting on the state, the government was forced to send the police force to the area.
Basudev Mahapatra, a local journalist, says, “The CPI, which has provided leadership to the anti-POSCO movement, could have salvaged the situation. Even though it is an ally of the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD), in a similar situation in May 2011, it had threatened to sever its ties with the BJD, and the government relented. But recently, the party declared its intention to contest the 2014 election as BJD’s ally. That could be the reason why the government dared to use force against people in Dhinkia.”
Abhaya Sahu says, “The government’s claim that the people are willingly giving land is false. I have signatures of 400 families from Gobindpur village who are not willing to cede their land.”
The leadership of the PPSS has decided that people will go in large numbers to the spot where betel vines are being destroyed and sit in protest. With things hotting up in the area, the road for confrontation between the protesters and the government seems to be opening wide.