Hundreds of villagers and protesters from across India gathered in a small village in the eastern state of Orissa this week to oppose plans for the world’s largest greenfield steel plant which activists say threatens the homes of 20,000 farmers and fisherman.
Opponents of the $12 billion project, which is being undertaken by South Korean steelmaker Posco, painted three red lines on the road leading to the proposed 4,000-acre site as a symbolic warning to the government, saying there would be “dire consequences” if anyone tried to cross them.
“If they come, we will resist. They haven’t seen anything yet,” said protest leader Abhaya Sahoo, state secretary for the Communist Party of India. “We don’t believe in compensation. We believe in our livelihoods.”
The activists who gathered in the Jagatsinghpur district on Thursday say Posco’s plan to flood large portions of the area will destroy highly fertile cashew, mango and beetlenut crops, as well as the tidal pools which fishermen use for prawn-farming.
Having already delayed the project for five years, they threaten to become an international embarrassment for the Indian government. During a visit to New Delhi in January, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak sought direct assurances that issues of land acquisition would be resolved. At the time, India’s Minister for Steel Virbhadra Singh vowed that the matter would be “signed, sealed and delivered to Posco in the next four to five months.”
But the locals gathered in the village of Balitutha show no sign of abandoning their position. Since President Lee’s visit, a small group has held an indefinite sit-in, housed in a make-shift bamboo hut on the edge of the site.
Mr Sahoo say protesters have faced strong harassment from the authorities: “They have filed 132 false cases against us for terrible crimes – attempted murder, rape, extortion – none of which are true. I was detained for 10 months and 14 days and was only released on bail. They say they will take me to trial but of course there is no evidence.
“They held panchayat [district-level] elections while we were in jail, but the anti-Posco group still won. One young man was elected while still in his jail cell.”
Some villagers have already accepted compensation packages, which include being moved to new, concrete houses along with offers of employment if the steel plant is built. But the vast majority remain opposed.
“My land has been farmed by my family for over 100 years,” says Sukradev Das, from nearby Nava Ratnatur village, one of the 15 affected. “It is very good farmland, we do not want it destroyed.”
Roughly three quarters of the 4,000 acre site is government-owned, but under the Forest Rights Act 2009, farmers who depend on a particular area for their livelihoods are entitled to apply for ownership. Locals say their applications are being ignored.
“If we got the rights to our land, we would not have to fight the government. It would be good for us,” said Mr Das. “But we apply and they ignore us. They are violating the law of the land.”
While a group of villagers proudly say they have faced down the police in the past and will do so again, the leader of the protest is not so sure.
“The government have no option left but to bring in the police,” said Mr Sahoo. “They have already started building barracks for 25 platoons. We fear they will resort to violence with the deadline getting near.”
As if to underline the point, on the same day as the Posco protest reports emerged of police attacks at Tata Steel’s Kalinganagar site, another controversial industrial project in Orissa.
According to a group of journalists and human rights workers led by a retired High Court judge, police in Kalinganagar opened fire with rubber bullets against villagers protesting their displacement for a new highway leading to the site. Justice Chaudhry Pratap Mishra wrote in the report that “about 30-40 tribals have sustained bullet injuries in the firing and 25 were treated by the doctor accompanying the committee.” He added that there have been “no efforts by the administration to treat the injured. People don’t wish to go out for treatment for fear of torture and arrest.”
Orissa is becoming a test case in the battle to protect forests and villages from the encroachment of large-scale corporations. As well as the Posco and Tata projects, Orissa is also home to the controversial bauxite refinery owned by UK-listed Vedanta Resources, whose plans to mine in the Niyamgiri Hills have drawn international attention because of resistance from the local Kondh tribe, for whom the hills are home to their deity.
For the government, however, such projects are central to India’s economic growth, which is expected to reach 8.5% in the coming year and continue rising to double figures after that. Since April 2000, India has promoted the establishment of tax-free Special Economic Zones (SEZs), including one at the Posco site, to attract foreign and domestic industrial investment. The government argues they help develop impoverished areas and that the boost to foreign currency reserves makes up for the huge losses in tax revenue. There are currently 578 SEZs in operation across India.
The SEZs are strongly opposed by left-wing movements who say they run rough-shod over the rights of local people.
“In these SEZs, local government is disbanded and the people have no say in the matter,” said Vilas Sonawane, who travelled to the Posco protest from his home state of Maharashtra where he led a successful movement to block an SEZ at Raijab. “The government gives these companies a free hand in grabbing all sorts of natural resources – water, minerals, agricultural land. If you take these things from people, they become slaves.”
On its website, Posco India, which could not be reached for comment, says that only 500 villagers will be affected and that Orissa’s Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy is a leader in its field, making “all possible efforts to provide the locals who are directly and indirectly affected by the project a better life for tomorrow.”
It says it has adjusted its plant layout over 60 times to minimize displacement and that all issues and concerns will be addressed through an appropriate grievance redressal mechanism.