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Ranjana Padhi

POSCO’s announcement of its withdrawal from Odisha is a major victory for the small farmers, forest dwellers and fisherfolk who have opposed the steel project since 2005. The victory celebrations of the local communities, however, have been muted because their struggle against corporate greed, and the destruction of land and habitats has left them with over 2,000 warrants for arrest, 400 police cases, lives lost, livelihoods disrupted, communities fractured, and the constant memory of violence and repression.

If the eastern coast of Odisha has not been marred by the construction of a mega steel plant, if the land and ecology have been preserved from further damage, if the coffers of global capital are a wee bit impoverished, and most significantly, if the local people continue to remain on the lands they belong to, it is largely due to the sustained resistance of the people’s movement in Jagatsinghpur district of Odisha.

In early 2015, an amendment to the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act (MMDRA), 1957 made it mandatory for the South Korean steel giant POSCO (formerly Pohang Iron and Steel Company) to participate in the auction for iron ore in the Kandahar mountains along with other bidders. POSCO thus forfeited the easy access to captive iron ore reserves it had been assured by the Odisha government until then. In addition, fluctuations in the demand for steel in the global market disrupted POSCO’s plans.

The exit of POSCO is a victory for the small farmers, forest dwellers and fisherfolk who have opposed the steel project since its inception in 2005. However, it has been a pyrrhic victory. Their battle over more than a decade has led to the economic ruin of local communities, fractures in community cohesion, incarceration, litigation, physical brutality by the state and hired goons and, above all, loss of life of their fellow activists. All this has left deep wounds that will take years to heal. Not surprisingly, then, when POSCO officially declared its withdrawal from the project in 2017, celebrations in the area were muted.

On 18 March 2017, Debi Prasad Mishra, Odisha’s Minister for Industry, announced the exit of POSCO at a press conference in Bhubaneswar:

The [state-owned] Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation had acquired 2,700 acres of land for the proposed POSCO project. The state government in a letter had asked POSCO to clear dues of ₹82 crore towards cess. In its reply, the company has said it is not interested in taking possession of the rest of the acquired land and paying the remaining amount. It has requested the government to take back the acquired land handed over to it.

However, the Odisha government has already hinted at fencing off the acquired area and keeping the land in a land bank. This is being proposed through a revision in the land acquisition policy in February 2015. In effect, the people who have suffered and shed their blood to keep POSCO off the land will not have access to it. Such a move by the government clearly indicates that land is no longer for the landless, but for corporate houses. The POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS), the organisation that spearheaded the anti-POSCO agitation, has already announced another movement to reclaim the land if it is not returned to the original cultivators in line with the Supreme Court’s verdict of 31 August 2016 on the Nano plant of Tata Motors in Singur, West Bengal.

The Great Steel Rush

Since the 1980s, and following on the Rourkela Steel Plant, there has been a strident demand from corporate Odisha for more steel plants in the state. In the 1990s, in keeping with an electoral promise, the late Biju Patnaik initiated several steel plants in the planned industrial township of Kalinganagar. With the deregulation of the Indian economy, many corporate giants were heading to the mineral-rich states of Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. Kalinganagar in Jajpur district of Odisha became the steel hub due to its proximity to iron ore mines in Sukinda–Keonjhar and Sundergarh, and connectivity to Paradip Port. With the advent of these mining corporations and the acquisition of land in the early 2000s, local Adivasis began to resist, and Kalinganagar became a virtual battleground. On 2 January 2006, 13 Adivasis were gunned down by Odisha police for opposing Tata Steel.

While all these developments were taking place in Kalinganagar, on 22 June 2005, the Government of Odisha signed a memorandum of understanding with POSCO for setting up a 12-million-tonne-per annum (mtpa) integrated steel plant with an investment of ₹52,000 crore. The project was expected to have a captive port at the mouth of the Jatadhari river and to source iron ore from the Kandahar mountains straddling the two adjoining districts of Sundergarh and Keonjhar. POSCO was hailed as the biggest foreign direct investment in India at the time. The state government was gung-ho about the project, declaring that it would “bring prosperity and well being to its people.” The National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) conjured up an estimated “8.7 lakh jobs for 30 years” as employment that the project would generate! However, the government’s ₹52,000-crore dream turned into a nightmare for nearly 22,000 people from the affected areas of Dhinkia, Gadakujanga and Nuagaon gram panchayats of Jagatsinghpur district when land acquisition for POSCO began. The land requirement of the project was 4,004 acres, of which 3,000 acres were classified as forestland. This rich alluvial land sustained the cultivation of paddy and all sorts of vegetables. People grew betel vines and cashew plants, collected firewood, mushrooms and saag (leafy vegetables) from the forested land. Thus, the land was integral to the economic life of the local people. They had depended on it for generations, whether or not they possessed any record of rights over the land. In addition, the Jatadhari river and its mouth sustained the livelihoods of fisherfolk from several affected villages, as well as 20,000–25,000 fisherfolk from neighbouring villages that fall outside the plant area. The battle was thus between the steel of POSCO and the dhaana, mina and paana(paddy, fish and betel) of the people.

Criminalising Peaceful Protests

The PPSS used peaceful means of protest such as dharnas, satyagrahas and padayatras, in which women, children and the elderly also participated. PPSS knocked on the doors of all those who mattered. They appealed to all the authorities to guarantee their constitutional rights and implement the laws of the land. They even requested the chief minister to visit their villages and talk to them directly. In short, they tried every avenue available to citizens of a democratic polity. Still, they were answered with the deployment of armed police, flag marches, lathi-charges, rubber pelets, criminal charges, arrests and jail terms.

One of the most brutal and bloody assaults on anti-POSCO agitators took place on 15 May 2010. An indefinite sit-in demanding the scrapping of the project had been ongoing for five months under a makeshift tent in Balithuta village, which guards the entry point to the area. Instead of entering into talks on their demands, the district administration sent in 40 platoons of police. On 14 May, the police conducted a flag march near the protest site to intimidate people. In defiance of the police, nearly 4,000 protestors collected at the site the next day. At around 2 pm, the police attacked them with lathis, rubber bullets and tear-gas shells. Over 200 people were injured. The tent of the protestors was burnt down. Small shops and nearby huts were also burnt and destroyed. With the village exits sealed by the police, no one could go out for medicine or treatment. People had rubber pellets stuck under their skin for days, with no idea how to remove them. Civic life was paralysed as the entire area remained under siege by the police.

In the summer of 2011, police platoons once again entered the area to occupy the land. Men, women and children lay prostrate on the burning sands to halt the police advance. Suddenly, everyone, from the government to media houses, became concerned about the rights of children, asserting that the protestors were using children as shields. Ironically, those concerned about child rights never bothered to enquire what compelled children to confront the gun-wielding police force, or what compelled parents to bring their children with them. In a swift move, the Odisha government ordered the minister for women and child development to conduct an inquiry into the fall in school attendance. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights that rushed to the spot to urge families to send children to school ended up urging the government to withdraw the police force from the schools as schools are for education, not to house the police.

Given the intense resistance, POSCO scaled down its production capacity from 12 mtpa to 8 mtpa in April 2013. The land requirement was also cut down to 2,700 acres, and tactically, Dhinkia gram panchayat was left out of the acquisition process. As Nuagaon had capitulated earlier, the people of Gobindpur village bore the brunt of the state repression alone. In early February 2013, 12 platoons of police descended upon Gobindpur for forcible land acquisition, and went around breaking betel vines. By June, the number of platoons had swelled to 29. With a police camp set up right in the middle of the village, there would be flag marches during the day and midnight raids to arrest protestors at night. On the record, however, people were shown voluntarily accepting compensation and dismantling their betel vines. The chief minister was parroting his pet line, “Our government believes in peaceful industrialisation.”

In the wake of POSCO’s withdrawal, this “peaceful industrialisation” has left the local people with over 2,000 warrants for arrest and 400 police cases registered at the police station in Kujanga. These will haunt them for several years, as has been the case in other struggle areas of Odisha. For example, people in Baliapal (who were protesting against a missile test range) have cases pending against them since the late 1980s. In Chilika and Gopalpur, where local communities resisted an integrated shrimp cultivation project and a steel plant, respectively, by the Tatas, cases have been pending since the early 1990s. In Kashipur and Niyamgiri, where there has been sustained resistance to alumina plants and bauxite mining, cases have been pending since the early 2000s. The criminalisation of dissent followed by repression has come in handy for the ruling order everywhere. Despite this, ordinary people, with their sacrifice, courage and determination, have managed to halt the march of the mightiest corporate houses.

A Muted Victory

The ordinary people of Odisha, comprising small farmers, fisherfolk and the landless, may have succeeded in opposing the Tatas in Gopalpur and Chilika, Bharat Aluminium Company (BALCO) in Gandhamardhan, and the National Missile Test Range in Baliapal, while the struggle of the Dongria Kondhs in Niyamgiri is continuing. However, each success has had sad and bewildering fallouts: feuds between and within villages, rifts in the protest movement, and an atmosphere of doubt and distrust amongst comrades. Often initiated and exacerbated by the concerned corporations and district administrations, these rifts within seem to be assuming a clear pattern in Odisha. In the POSCO agitation, by 2010, Nuagaon had left the struggle and been labelled pro-POSCO. Nuagaon’s people chose to take the compensation, though this decision did not by itself make them pro-POSCO. However, the dynamics change overnight for those who are in the middle of the tumult. For perhaps the first time, the people of Dhinkia did not rise against the severe repression unleashed in Gobindpur, leaving it completely isolated when land acquisition began there. These fractures in the movement in 2013 have still not healed, as people from both Dhinkia and Gobindpur told us in February 2017. Perhaps, anti-POSCO activist Debendra Swain’s sweeping victory in the Dhinkia gram panchayat election in February 2017 is an indication, however, that people have begun to look forward to rebuilding their lives and communities.

Residents of Patana village in Dhinkia panchayat, who had been relocated to the transit colony set up by POSCO, have returned to their village after more than 10 years. These 40 families were projected as victims of the anti-POSCO movement by the administration and mainstream media. After moving to the transit colony, they continued to expect assistance from the company or district administration, but in vain. They repeatedly approached the banks for loans. Their demand for some land for sharecropping went unheeded by POSCO and the administration. Instead, the company put up a tall wire fence around the camp, which was located on fertile agricultural land. The company feared that people would take over that space for their own survival needs. However, they continued to be paraded before the media as supporters of the project. As news of POSCO’s withdrawal began trickling in, these 40 families returned to their village to resume betel vine production. Who will pay for the hardships and trauma caused to them in these 10 years, and the disruptions in their lives?

Several traumatic events linked to the struggle against POSCO will linger in people’s memories. On 2 March 2013, a high-impact bomb explosion killed three people on the spot in Patana—Narahari Sahu, Manas Jena and Tarun Mandal. Laxman Pramanik was critically injured and hospitalised in Cuttack. The police arrived on the spot after 15 hours. Within two hours, however, the district administration had made a public statement that the deceased were killed while making bombs. There has been no judicial inquiry to date. In June 2008, Tarun Mandal’s brother Tapan Mandal had been killed by hired goons while returning with other members of the anti-POSCO movement after desilting the mouth of the Jatadhari. The ageing father of the two slain brothers consoles himself that his sons were martyred in the battle against a corporation and a militarised state, just as Subhash Chandra Bose or Khudiram Bose gave up their lives fighting the British.

In Gobindpur in February 2017, we found the people picking up the pieces of their lives, restoring betel vine plots destroyed by the police during the land acquisition process, and taking bank loans to resume their livelihoods. Meanwhile, some people from Nuagaon and Gobindpur who had given up their land have been going to the betel vineyards of Dhinkia to work on daily wages. However, there is possibly not a single family that does not regret the disruptions of livelihood and education, the childhoods lost, and the psychological stress of the last decade. This has been the price they have paid for protecting the land.

In 2010, an elderly member of the anti-POSCO movement, Jemma Kotokia, had said that political resistance is hard work, but it would fetch them results just as their labour yielded betel, paddy and fish. Holding up her hands, she had said, “These are not ordinary hands. Our hands can do magic. Where nothing could ever grow, we grew paddy and vegetables. Anything that we touch bears fruit. Therefore, we are bound to see victory even in opposing POSCO.”

These communities know the price of resistance. Even as they welcome their victory with mixed emotions, they know that theirs was a fight not only for their own lands and livelihoods but for all those who stand against the rapacious greed of corporations and the destruction of lives, land and habitat.

([email protected]) is a writer and editor based in Bhubaneswar. Nigam ([email protected]) is a freelance writer and translator based in Bhubaneswar.