Pohang Steel Company (POSCO), the steel major from South Korea, has finally communicated to the government of Odisha that it is withdrawing from the 12 million MT steel plant project. It is official now, as far as government of Odisha is concerned. Industries Minister of Odisha Debi Prasad Mishra informed the State Assembly on March 18 that POSCO-India has requested the Odisha government to take back the land transferred to it. This was no 'breaking news' at all as the
withdrawal of POSCO from Odisha was for sure.
POSCO had suspended the operations since 2015 and in 2016 it had declared that it is not going ahead with the project. But in the absence of an 'official' communication from the company the government of Odisha was hoping against hope that there still might be life in it and pretending ignorance about the withdrawal of POSCO. And it had written to POSCO demanding Rs 86 crores against the cess, land conversion charges and other expenses against the land transferred to it. Responding to this letter POSCO has communicated to the government of Odisha that it no more needs the land and it also can not pay the demanded amount. So the much hyped largest foreign direct investment of Rs 52,000 crore in India comes to an end. But all has not ended. Will the land, acquired for the Steel plant, be returned back to the original occupants? And the toughest of these questions is – will anybody really bother about these questions?
Victory of People's power
Who chased the POSCO away? It is a tricky question to answer. While some ascribe the slump in the international metal trade as a prime reason for withdrawal by the company, others blame the inability of the government to provide the iron ore mines and the land in time. And others allege that the legal web that it was caught in strangulated the steel giant. But every one agree that the dogged resistance by the local people, out to protect their land, age old livelihoods and the environment, that was sustained for more than a decade against the tyranny and machinations of the State and the goons hired by henchmen of the company took the pole position in chasing POSCO out.
Tamil Pradhan, a well known supporter of POSCO project, claims that it was the government apathy towards peoples lives and livelihood is what was responsible for such a situation. The governments at the Centre and the one at the State played games. The politicians played a dual role In the RPDAC meeting the collector was requested to protect the lives and livelihoods of affected people. The Company officials, district administration and IDCO all agreed to this and and promised, but none acted. This dissatisfaction facilitated snowballing of the resistance movement.
The president of Lokashakti Abhiyan Sangathan and the petitioner in the Green Tribunal against POSCO, Prafulla Samantara says, "I had warned, POSCO cannot stay put to exploit our natural resources as mines in Khandadhar would not be allowed by the tribal communities. This is exactly what happened. The company had ambitions to get iron ores at the cheapest rate like on lease royalty but could not. Still the tribal community like Paudi bhuinya, a primitive tribe, is struggling to protect Khandadhar hills which have a big water fall and many perennial streams.
The people of Dhinkia, Govindapur, Gadakujang and Nuagam struggled for 12 years to protect their land, coastal forest along with water bodies where they fish, and seashore, braving the state repression and criminal attack by goons hired by the company. Due to forced acquisition of 2700 acres of land, having beetle vines and paddy cultivation, by the state, thousands of villagers lost their daily livelihood and now they are starving with no means of earning. Environmental clearance was given illegally which was challenged by me in the National Green Tribunal and the company had to run away. Even it has informed its willingness to return back the acquired land. Showing POSCO the door is the victory of people's democratic struggle against corporate loot of Odisha's natural resources to protect right to life and livelihood."
Popular environmentalist Dr Biswajit Mohanty helps in having a much more nuanced understanding of the reasons for withdrawal of POSCO, "The fact that POSCO left Odisha reveals the strength of a strong local resistance movement by farmers and fishermen whose livelihoods were threatened by this mega steel company. Private land which would have granted access to the port could not be acquired by the Govt due to the High Court stay order as the acquisition was illegal. Secondly, POSCO was actually interested in captive mines which would have fetched it windfall profits. After the amendment of the MMDR Act, this became impossible, since mines would be auctioned only and not granted on a first-come-first-serve basis.
The Korean company realised that its plans to grab cheap Indian minerals had fallen apart and hence it beat a hasty retreat." The villagers who had waged a long drawn war against POSCO have reasons to celebrate. But now they still have many issues at hand to settle and if need be fight it out.
Mahila Morcha leader of POSCO Pratirodh Samiti, Manorama Mandal has the next agenda chalked out, "This is the victory day for anti-POSCO movement. But the struggle is not yet over. Hundreds of old men and women are still crying for the loss of their family members and their land. Two-month-old son of Manas Jena and one-and-half-year-old daughter of Bula Mandal are now in their early teens and have started asking questions: Why did my father die? The widows of these two shaheeds are now more helpless than before and waiting for the land to be returned to them. The struggle will go on till we get back our land, and all the false cases filed against us are withdrawn."
Land: Struggle is not yet over
Getting the land back is not going to be a easy task for the villagers. Government of Odisha had acquired 2700 acres of land for POSCO in the years 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2013. Most of the acquisitions were done forcibly by employing the police and overzealous officials of government of Odisha. 15,000 betel vines were razed to the ground. Betel vines, that give very good return to the farmers formed the core of people's resistance.
Now that POSCO has withdrawn, it is quite natural for the local people to think that the land will be returned back to them and they can continue with their old livelihood. From the day they learnt that POSCO is moving on, the locals have re-occupied more than 30 per cent of betel vines as per newspaper reports. But it seems that the government has other plans.
The locals who have re-occupied betel vines are being threatened by local officials that police cases will be filed against the encroachers. On the other hand, the Industries Minister has informed the house that the 2700 acres of land that has been acquired will be in the Landbank of IDCO (Industrial Development Corporation – an agency responsible for facilitating the industrial development of the state through the creation of infrastructure). That means that the land acquired for IDCO will be used for other industrial projects later. POSCO will be replaced by another name nullifying the long struggle of the villagers, their sufferings to safeguard their land and their livelihood.
Columnist Sudhir Pattnaik concurs, "POSCO's formal withdrawal from Odisha was a foregone conclusion and it is of no consequence to the locals since the land to the tune of 2700 acres will never be returned to them. In the past when Tata abandoned its project in Gopalpur, land remained with it for more than 12 years before it started using a very small part of it. Rest of the land didn't return to the original owners. For the state, they have to only choose between actors who will replace POSCO."
Prafulla Samataray is more optimistic, "Now the land should be returned back to the tillers, who were in struggle against POSCO, because the land is under forest category and the villagers are forest dwellers who are entitled to get record of right under the Forest Right Act 2006. The Mina Gupta Committee of the Govt of India had unanimously recommended to give record of right by the 'Gram Sabha' democratically, but it was not honoured. So now the land should be handed over to the people who were cultivating it since 100 years. Legally the forest land belongs to the villagers and there should not be any big industry which will destroy coastal forest and biodiversity."
While the state government is machinating to retain the land, to pave way for the subsequent industries who might turn up in this land, the 'by now seasoned warriors' are hell bent on getting back the land. Abhaya Sahu of POSCO Pratirodha Samiti has demanded, "We are opposing the unfortunate declaration by Nabin Patanaik government to put the land in the land bank to be used by the industries later. Now that POSCO project is over, government should return back the acquired land to people. If the government fails to do so, then the people of this area will launch another agitation to regain control over their land. And this will be more intense than the POSCO movement."
Chandan Mohanty belongs to the group of 52 families of Govindpur village who had given their land to POSCO voluntarily and cooperated in all possible manner for the Rs 52,000 crore project and in the process had invited the ire of the fellow villagers opposing the project. They were living in the transit camp of PSOCO. Chandan says, "We are cheated by the administration, the POSCO and the government. We had given our land in the first phase itself. We were living in the transit camp. But, despite this about five years back we were instructed by the then District Collector Satyabrat Mallick to vacate the transit camp as POSCO will no more set up the plant. If the government was aware of this, then why did the they retain the land for so long? The state government should return the land to us as soon as possible.
And it also should compensate the farmers for the loss of production for last 10-12 years. If the government fails to do so, then a violent struggle will start and the government will be solely responsible for the consequences."
Who will foot the bill for the lost trees? In the process of acquiring the land and establishing its hegemony, during 2012-13 the district administration and IDCO officials mowed down 8 lakh trees of various species from the forest area near the Paradip coast. Abhaya Sahu of POSCO Pratirodha Samiti says, "This particular area is prone to cyclones and the trees played the barrier during strong wind. Now that the trees have been felled the government has exposed a huge population to the cyclone and sea surge. The state government should plant trees on a war footing and the cost should be recovered from the company."
Posco still haunts the villagers
Villagers, irrespective of their gender, age, involvement with the incidents have been slapped with cases in liberal measures. Manoram Khatua (39 cases), 52 year old dalit women Santi Das (24 cases), 56 year old Sura Das (18 cases), old women Sanju Mantri (18 cases), Ananta Das (54 cases) are only a few examples to cite. About 700 women have been implicated in different cases. The villagers are now demanding for scrapping of these cases. At the same time they are scared of a vindictive government that has a burnt face now. But their fear does not stop them from seeking justice for Narayan Mandal who lost his two sons Dula Mandal (37 years, on 20th June 2008) and Bula Mandal (33 years who died in March 2014).
In the March 2014 incidence Narahair Sahu (52 years ) and Manas Jena also had lost their life, opposing POSCO. Who will give justice to these bereaved families? And will the government ever be able to repair the damage that it has wrought in the village life, by putting people against people." The villagers have a simple answer to it, "We will not stop here. We will continue to fight for our land, livelihoods, trees and justice for the bereaved families."
After twelve long years, the situation is back to square one. Government awaiting for an industrial house to be short listed for the project in the acquired land and the villagers determined to get back their land. This time they will have to fight with the State, which they were doing in the earlier case too. But the situation offers an opportunity for serious contemplation whether to go ahead with the industrial project against the wish of the public or listen to the voices from the ground.