Freny Manecksha, Juen 22, TheHindu

  • STEELY DETERMINATION: A June 2011 picture of villagers protesting against the acquisition of their land for the proposed Posco steel plant, in Jagatsinghpur. Photo: AP
    STEELY DETERMINATION: A June 2011 picture of villagers protesting against the acquisition of their land for the proposed Posco steel plant, in Jagatsinghpur. Photo: AP

Today marks seven years of protests against the Posco project

June 22 marks the seventh year of the struggle against the Posco project in Odisha. It was on this day in 2005 that the Odisha government and the South Korean steel company signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for what was stated to be the single biggest case of foreign investment in the country. Though the government has acquired over 2,000 acres of land for the plant, and Posco has set up a small office at the site, the project itself has been unable to take off, stalled by people’s protests against the displacement from land and livelihoods that it will cause.

The Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS), which spearheads the struggle, will mark the anniversary with protest meetings in Jagastsinghpur district where the company plans to locate its $12 billion plant. The Samiti has appealed to “freedom lovers,” human rights groups, Dalits, fishing communities and indigenous people all across India to demonstrate their solidarity against the “corporate invasion” of their lands.

Cases filed against protesters

Over the last seven years, the protestors have had to pay a heavy price for their opposition to the project. Several leaders of the movement have been jailed.

The people of Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gadakujung — the three gram panchayats that have fiercely fought off efforts by the Odisha government and Posco project to acquire land for the project — say paid goons have unleashed a reign of terror. And hundreds of cases, most of them fabricated, according to villagers, have been filed against them.

From Abhay Sahoo and Narayan Reddy, the CPI leaders who headed the PPSS, to 65-year-old Satyabati Swain, mother of activist Ranjan Swain, there are not many who do not have a case against them.

The elderly Satyabati was in police custody for a day last September 27 on a pending charge of unlawful assembly dating back to 2008. Ironically, she had gone to the station to complain about an attack on her son a day earlier.

Abhay Sahoo has some 40 cases registered against him. He was first arrested in 2008 and then released on bail. But in 2011, a fresh charge — of destroying evidence in an alleged dowry death — was slapped against him. The People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) has condemned the manner in which fresh cases were brought against him.

Manorama, a young woman in Dhinkia who has participated in the protests, was ill with typhoid last January. But, she said, she did not dare step out of her village to seek medical attention. With as many as 48 cases lodged against her, she feared arrest.

Villagers say there is a definite pattern to the way police target activists. Ramesh Posayat, was arrested in 2009, when he took his young child to a doctor. He says he does not know the charges under which he was held.

Thirty-eight-year-old Prakash Jena, an articulate graduate who dared to question why the government wanted to set up a steel project in a place that has a well entrenched agro-based economy, had to spend eight months and 14 days in jail in 2009. As many as 28 cases are pending against him. He too does not know what the charges against him are about.

“But then whole village populations have been charged,” he adds with a shrug.

According to Jyotiranjan Mahapatra, son of the former sarpanch of Dhinkia village, some 1,400 people have cases against them; many face multiple cases.

For some the indignity of being held under false charges has been compounded by a loss of jobs. Kailash Chandra Biswas was arrested when he left the village to attend his father-in-law’s funeral and says he was falsely charged with arson, of hurling bombs and even rape. Employed as a peon in a school, he lost his job after he was released on bail.

Babaji Charan Samantara, who worked as postmaster in Dhinkia for 28 years, was arrested in 2007 and had 21 cases filed against him. Subsequently suspended from his post, he went to court to appeal for back wages and his right to pension. Despite a court ruling in his favour, he has not received any payments.

Ranjan Swain, who has 46 cases against him, says bitterly, “I wonder if this is my country. It would seem as if it belongs to the company (Posco) and the police works at its behest.” Another villager asked why she was being treated as a criminal when all she had done was to exercise her right to protect her land through peaceful protest.

Prafulla Samantara, who heads the Lokshakti Abhiyan, noted that Odisha, home to many tribal movements, was now witnessing a range of people’s movements against land displacement.

“In any democratic nation, such mandates of the people should be respected,” he said, but “what one is witnessing is development at gunpoint with no room for dissent or opposing the government’s notions of development.”

Labelled as Maoist

He pointed to the government’s strategy to label some of these people’s movements as Maoist, particularly in regions that have been declared Maoist belts.

At a special meeting on April 9 this year, of tribal populations who have been resisting attempts by Vedanta to mine for bauxite in the Niyamgiri hills, Dongria leader Dodhi Sikoka alleged that all those who had been fighting for their rights were being assaulted and imprisoned in the name of fighting Maoism.

“But our fight is for our people, our ancestral land, and for Niyamgiri,” he declared at the meeting which had been held on the eve of Vedanta’s final appeal in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has adjourned the hearing to a later date.

On January 1, 2011, five so-called Maoists were gunned down in Jajpur district. The victims included a 14-year-old girl of Baligotha village.

A fact-finding team of various organisations like Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee, Odisha Janwadi Lekhak Sangh and others who looked into the killings of alleged Maoists at Basangmali Hills, Koraput in Kashipur district on January 9, 2011, concluded that those killed were poor villagers who had been resisting mining operations.

The increasing trend towards criminalising dissent and accusing those who question the government and its model of development as anti-national, is alarming say human rights activists. This is happening not just in Odisha but other parts of the country too — Kudankulam is an example.

Of late, an impression is being created that the opposition to the Posco project has fizzled out. Clearly, that is wishful thinking on the part of those who want the project to go ahead, at any cost.

(The writer is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist who writes on development issues.)