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Ground Zero at the Anti-POSCO Struggle

Dilip Bisoi

From Bhubaneswar, it takes us five hours to reach Patna village, at the heart of Posco-India's planned 12-million tonne steel plant. We find children playing with pebbles, but they aren't at an innocuous game-they arrange tiny stones across the road when they see an approaching vehicle, imitating elders who routinely put up road blockades or gates to prevent entry of unknown vehicles. Patna falls within the core area of the proposed 4,004 acre plant site, and villagers, who are against the project, keep round-the-clock vigil on the movement of outsiders.

Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik may have assured South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak that the land acquisition process for the $12-billion plant in Orissa's Jagatsinghpur district will be speeded up, but at Ground Zero, things don't look so easy. Posco-India still doesn't have an inch of land, though the final forest clearance camethrough in December, on the eve of Lee's visit to India as chief guest for Republic Day. Of the 4,004 acres identified for the project, 2,958.79 acres is forestland.

He was keen to visit the Posco site, but was told the ground situation wasn't conducive. There's stiff resistance to the project from locals, but Posco-India and the Orissa government is hoping to win over the opposition with the promise of a better rehabilitation and resettlement policy.

"The resettlement and rehabilitation package of Posco-India for the plant at Jagatsinghpur is in line with the Orissa government's R&R Rules 2006, which is regarded as one of the best R&R policies in the country," says Posco-India General Manager (external relations) Simanta Mohanty. "We are confident that everybody in our project area will be at an advantage with our package. Our package is specially oriented towards landless labour and we have made special provisions for employment of those needing jobs. We are compensating those who have planted betel vines on government land and we are sure they willsee that we are giving them a fair deal," he adds. Over the past three months, the Patnaik government, too, has given a push to the land acquisition process, but villagers will need a lot of convincing before they give up their land.

In neighbouring Govindpur, children play cricket, imagining the ball to be Posco-India. Every time a batsman hits the ball hard, a cheer goes up. The villagers of Govindpur are quite militant in their opposition to the project, considered to be the country's largest FDI.

Four years of agitation have changed the lives of villagers living in Posco's proposed site. For villagers, guarding the gates has become a daily chore. All their discussions revolve around the Posco project. Womenfolk do their household work, but with an eye on the main street for Posco executives or government officials. Posco officials are often detained for a few hours by villagers.

The two villages of Govindpur and Dhinkia are at the heart of the site and this is where the dictates of the Posco Pratirodha Sangaram Samiti (PPSS), the organisation that is spearheading the anti-project movement, runs. PPSS has virtually converted the 4,004 acres into a fort, with 17 gates plugging all the roads to the core area. No gates open without the permission of PPSS. The PPSS chief, Abhaya Sahoo, guards the main gate at Balitutha, the entry point to the Posco site. The PPSS network is quite strong. When government officials or Posco company executives start from Bhubaneswar for Jagatsinghpur, Sahoo gets the information, and villagers are alerted immediately.

With the forest clearance coming through, and Lee's visit putting the project onto the fast track, the Jagatsinghpur Collector has put out ads asking betel vine owners to claim compensation and give up the land. Interestingly, the 4,004 acres is part of a vast stretch of land that was added to the mainland when the sea receded, so the landscape is dotted with huge sand mounds. The government says the reclaimed land is government land but people have lived here for generations.

Over the years, the forests too have disappeared-first the mangroves and then the casuarina plantations, destroyed by a super cyclone. Now, villagers grow betel vines and cashew on the high lands and have converted the low laying areas to paddy fields. "The paddy field gives us rice for the whole year and the betel vines the cash to buy other items," says Ramesh Mohanty. "We will not allow the Posco project to come up on this site," says PPSS chief Abhaya Sahoo. "No rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) policy is acceptable to us," he points out.

When you argue that Posco-India has promised to give a better package than the R&R package announced by the state government, Dhinkia sarpanch Sisira Mohapatra, who is also the general secretary of PPSS, shows you the R&R package of Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) for the oustees of Paradip Refinery project. A vacant plot of seven acres, earmarked with concrete pillars outside village Dhinka, is the so-called rehabilitation colony. The abandoned, dilapidated facility centre (hospitals, schools and temples) isn't assuring villagers.

"We have seen the R&R package of a public sector company. How do we trust a foreign private company?" Mohapatra shoots back. The stories of promises not kept and the success of people's movements like the anti-missile test range agitation of Baliapal have kept the resistance against Posco alive. But the Orissa government too has made a heap of promises to Posco-India which it will find very difficult to walk away from.

(Financial Express, February 07, 2010)