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    Posted on 12 November 2011

    Dreams die in furnace of deceit and threat

    The proposed POSCO plant in Odisha has dealt a severe blow to farmers whose land was acquired in exchange for one-time compensation. With fake promises of jobs and ex gratia payment by the state government, the farmers have lost their sources of livelihood. Attacked by goons and ignored by the administration, anti-POSCO protesters have nowhere to go, says Pradeep Baisakh

    Villagers protesting establishment of the proposed POSCO plant have been attacked by goons

    Swapan Dhada is one of the several farmers deceived by the POSCO mirage of a better living and a bagging job with the South Korean iron and steel giant. Dhada voluntarily gave his agricultural land to the district administration for the POSCO (Pohang Iron and Steel Company) project after being promised a regular ex gratia, monthly payment of Rs 2,500 until he was employed by the company.

    One-and-a-half years later, Dhada feels cheated. The family of six meets its daily expenses from the compensation of Rs 2 lakh it received after selling his betel vine. “In six months, the remaining compensation amount will be exhausted. I don’t have any source of livelihood. With no state government help, as promised, I am not sure how will I survive,” he says. The land had sustained the family for more than twenty years with the annual income from one patch of betel vine totalling up to Rs 1 lakh-1.5 lakh, which included 50 per cent profit.

    In May 2005, POSCO signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Odisha government for establishing the steel-cum-captive power plant with an investment of $12 billion--supposed to be the single largest foreign direct investment in India. Nearly, one-and-a-half years after the expiry of the MoU (it was supposed to be renewed on 22 June, 2010) the fate of the project is in limbo due to the delay in renewal of the MoU and stiff public opposition.

    A visit to the proposed PSOCO area, which includes three gram panchayats (GPs) Dhinkia, Nuagaon, and Gadakunanga under Kujang Tahsil in Jagatsingpur district of Odisha, shows how a vibrant agrarian economy is being crushed for industrialisation.

    While most of Dhinkia is dead against land acquisition, many villagers from Nuagaon and Gadakujanga have already given their land to the district administration, which has handed them over to Odisha Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (IDCO). Most of the area is forest land where people’s main sources of livelihood are betel vine, fish and paddy. Besides, mango and cashew are other sources of income. Out of the total 4,004 acre required for the project, 2,900 acre is forest land and the rest private. POSCO recently scaled down its requirement to 3,700 acre. In addition to this, land for railways, road expansion and mine development has to be provided. “The project will displace 814 families,” informs district Land Acquisition Officer of the district Nrushinga Swain.

    6 lakh trees felled: In last six to seven months, the district administration and IDCO have acquired land on a massive scale after the project got clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forest on 2 May, 2011. So far, approximately 1,900 acre has been acquired, of which only 25 acre is private land and the rest forest. Private land acquisition has now been halted due to an interim stay order by the High following a PIL. Land has been acquired from Polang, Nolia Sahi, Bhuyan Pal and Bayamal Kanda in Gadakujanga and from Nuagaon village in Nuagaon. A total amount of Rs 11.5 crore has been paid to families as compensation due to loss in livelihood from the sale of land containing 643 betel vines, trees and prawn ponds.

    The acquisition of land has been followed by merciless tree felling by IDCO despite the resistance of the very people who had supported the project. According to Swain, 1.2 lakh non-fruit bearing trees and 4,500 fruit-bearing trees have been felled. However, a labour contractor involved in tree-cutting exercise says on condition of anonymity that 40 labourers are employed in cutting down 5,000 trees daily since the last four months—a total of 6 lakh trees of casuarina, cashew, coconut, mango etc. have been felled.

    A writ petition filed in the High Court quotes some government source saying that 5 lakh trees would be cut down for establishing the plant. But locals put the number at more than 10 lakh trees. An angry Litu Mohapatra, of Polang village, says, “As the MoU has not been renewed, what’s the reason for cutting our trees, which we have been protecting for generations? Ours is a cyclone-prone area. We survived the 1999 super cyclone due to the thick forest.”

    Destruction of livelihood sources: In Polang village, only about 20 families have been compensated for the sale of their betel vines. Around two years ago, approximately 400 out of total 500 hundred families had betel vines, according to locals. According to villagers, about two years ago, 230 youths, one from each affected family in the three Panchayats, were paid by the state government a monthly amount of Rs 6,000 for spreading awareness on the benefits of the POSCO project. With money coming in easily, people started ignoring their original sources of livelihood--betel vines, paddy cultivation and prawn farms. Eventually, when the government started compensating families against the sale of betel vines after the survey, barely 13 families were compensated. Early 2010, only six more families were compensated. The rest of the betel vines had been abandoned by their owners, who were promised jobs with the POSCO plant.

    Paddy cultivation suffered as well due to the hollow promises. Around four months ago, the government promised paddy cultivators regular employment with a construction company called BMC, which was awarded the contract for setting up a rehabilitation colony for the displaced. Consequently, the farmers preferred a regular job to paddy cultivation. But after working for a month, they were paid only Rs 3,000. The employees protested, and the project was shelved.

    With the vanishing forest, the betel vines, which border the project area, will also not survive. Villager Nityananda Behera fears the moment when betel vine cultivation will come to end. “Betel grows in a comparatively moderate temperature which the forest ensures. People also depend on the forest for materials required for the vines. With decreasing forest cover, temperature of the area has risen as well. In coming years, betel vine cultivation is likely to end.”

    Fish harvest has also been badly affected due to release of toxic waste by Paradip Phosphate Ltd and IFFCO into Jatadhari river.

    The loss of livelihood has forced massive exodus of youth from the village. The Sarpanch of Gadakujanga, Nakulananda Sahu, says, “About 200 youths are migrating daily to the nearest town, Paradip, for manual labour earning a meagre Rs 100 per day. The rate of migration has spiked.”

    Villagers from Polang village like Kanhu Nayak and Nrusinga Panda allege that leaders of the defunct United Action Committee (UAC), the pro-POSCO outfit that convinced people to support the PSOCO project, have immensely benefited from the company and ditched their supporters. UAC leader Anadi Rout, however, said, “I have not benefited at all from the administration or the company; rather, I have spent on garnering support for the project. But now the administration is ignoring us”.

    Common people, who have lost livelihood sources, have formed an outfit called Kunja Bihari Gramya Surakshya Manch demanding ex gratia payments and job. But the administration refuses to acknowledge its existence. Jagatsingpur District Collector Narayan Chandra Jena says “There is no such legal union of people in that area. With whom shall we negotiate? We have sent a list of labourers whose land was acquired to the respective Palli Sabhas for finalisation. We will provide them jobs. In any case, jobs under NREGA [National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme] are available for them.” Jena was non-committal on ex gratia payment though he agreed that the promised monthly amount should ideally be paid till employment was provided.

    Few months ago, pro-POSCO people who had turned against the project were beaten up by the police when they obstructed the entry of administration officials to the area. On 31 October, Deputy General Manager of POSCO India S N Singh and some officials of IDCO were roughed up by pro-POSCO people when they entered Nuagaon.

    Goons attack anti-POSCO protestors: Attempts are being made to breach the anti-POSCO bastion of Dhinkia. On 26 September, about 400 goons allegedly hired by Paradip Parivahan, the agency that has been assigned to build a road to connect Dhinkia with the seaside, attacked Govindpur village with iron rods, sticks and crude bombs. Thirty protesters, including six women, were injured with two people in critical condition. The leader of POSCO Pratorodha Sangram Samiti, Abhaya Sahoo, was also attacked. Television channels showed the villagers being chased by the goons. After the attack, when villager Anupama Sharma went to the Kujang Police Staion to file a complaint, Inspector-in-charge Gopteswar Bhoi allegedly misbehaved with her. Jena said that the allegation of misbehaviour was being probed.

    To suppress the anti-POSCO voice, the administration has registered 184 cases against 1,100 people, informs Sahoo. As many as 52 cases have been registered against him alone!

    The government planned to construct the road because the entry to the panchayat from the regular road has been blocked by the villagers for more than six months. The road on the sea coast from Paradip to the boarder area of Dhinkia is called IOCL road. The proposed road, which is being termed as ‘POSCO Road’, is an extension of the IOCL road. This will provide strategic advantage to the police to enter the village.

    NHRC visit: National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) special rapporteur Damodar Sarangi visited the area to enquire about the compensation given to Sabita Mandal, wife of Dula Mandal--an anti-POSCO activist who was killed during a clash between and pro and anti-project people last year. But Sarangi wanted concrete proof on the existence of tribals and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers in the area and whether they had been illegally evicted. Besides, Sarangi told the villagers that the NHRC would not go into any policy issue of desirability of starting the project in the area.

    (With inputs from Sandeep Patnaik, who is a research scholar)

    Pradeep Baisakh is a freelance journalist based in Odisha
    [email protected]

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    Posted on 12 November 2011



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