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Posco project: A village under siege
Latha Jishnu
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February 09, 2008

The village has a fence and gates, gates that are manned by a handful of men who scrutinise all visitors. They are not intimidating, just cautious. There is more security inside: a makeshift checkpost of a bamboo pole weighed down with a stone.

It helps if you know someone in the village or come with an introduction; otherwise you need to prove that you haven't been sent by the sarkar or the "company" before you are allowed inside.

This is Dhinkia, a small coastal village, about 12 km from Paradeep Port in Orissa's Ersama block, and it is set on keeping its little patch of real estate to itself.

One of six villages facing displacement by the biggest foreign direct investment in the country, Dhinkia has held out for two long years. It will not move, it will not negotiate with the "company" or even let government officials in for a socio-economic survey. Like Nandigram in West Bengal, it has dug its heels in.

The "company" in question is Posco, the South Korean steel giant, which wants their land for a 12-million-tonne plant, and there are neat little signboards everywhere in Dhinkia proclaiming its rebellion: Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS).

The PPSS is one of three groups opposed to the Posco project, and Dhinkia, a cluster of 600 families, is the heart of the resistance to the incursion of industry into their pastoral paradise. That's the reason for the gates and fences, which are unusual in the countryside.

Dhinkia clearly is under siege. Not so much by the 18 platoons of armed police that have been posted in the area since November last year as by its fear of the future.

The $12 billion integrated steel complex that will come up in three stages along the coast of Jagatsinghpur district is expected to change the face of the Indian steel industry with its superior technology and high levels of efficiency.

It is also promising to bring new skills and jobs to the local people and is offering scholarships to bright youngsters from the three gram panchayats affected by the project. The villagers, however, are suspicious. They fear the project will change forever a way of life they have known for generations without offering a true and lasting recompense.

To the urban eye, it may not seem such an idyllic life. Few of the houses are pucca structures, the roads are barely discernible and the state is missing in action: there is no electricity or even a primary health centre in the vicinity. But to make up for all this, nature is more than bountiful.

Here, life revolves around the heart-shaped paan leaf that most of India chews. The lush green betel vines that dot the area provide cultivators with incomes ranging from Rs 70,000-1 lakh annually per acre. It all depends on how many vines you own or cultivate.

The betel leaves, packed in their thousands in reed baskets (a steady source of ancillary employment), are sent across the country and to markets abroad. Being a labour-intensive crop, it means there is plenty of work for the landless, too.

Abhay Sahoo, who is spearheading the PPSS campaign, waxes lyrical about the copious benefits of the betel vine.

"Workers get Rs 100 as daily wage, plus a meal. There is work for everyone, from the 70-year-olds to the children. Can Posco employ an old man or a child?" he demands.

A member of the CPI state secretariat, he has been camping in Dhinkia for the last two years, pushing the agenda of the PPSS and making certain the village holds together. 

There is much else that the land supports because of abundant groundwater and the special soil.  Although close to the coast, the soil is not saline and the locals call it the land of sweet sand. Cashew is a rich second crop for most cultivators. Lush paddies carpet the area, intersected by fish ponds.

Pisiculture, in fact, is even more rewarding. Bhaskar Swain, the well-to-do sarpanch of Nuagoan, says he makes as much as Rs 7 lakh every three months from prawn and fish culture. "Our water, our land, is unique. It gives us all that we need, and more."

Not surprisingly, activists and voluntary organisations have tended to portray a romanticised view of the local economy. "Paan, dhan, machchi (betel, paddy, fish) is the essence of their life," extols B D Sharma, former commissioner for scheduled castes and tribes.

Sharma is one of the petitioners before the Human Rights Commission for the repression unleashed by the state against villagers protesting against Posco. In the classic battle between agriculture and industry for land, the people are voting with their feet for retaining the former because they enjoy secure livelihoods in a thriving rural economy.

The well-respected social activist Prafulla Samantara, national convenor of the National Alliance of People's Movements, believes such societies should be left alone.

"In the name of development, why destroy an entire ecology and people?" he asks. He is convinced that despite Posco's promise  to rehabilitate the landowners (with new betel vine farms) and the landless with jobs, the local people will never be absorbed fully by a sophisticated steel mill: "With this kind of development, we are creating new poverty. What right does the government have to do this?"

However, the villagers -- and the activists -- are on shaky ground on one aspect: ownership of the land. Most of this fertile belt actually belongs to the government and although families have been cultivating the land for generations, they have not been granted any rights to the land, which is under the jurisdiction of the forest department.

Interestingly, the land was transferred to the forest department after a local struggle in the 1960s to salvage the area. Led by Loknath Chaudhury, a CPI member of Parliament, they got the department to undertake afforestation to protect the villages against the severe cyclones that lash the area and to provide fuel and raw material for the betel vines. For decades it was categorised as village commons.

The crux of the dispute in the Orissa government's efforts to acquire 4,004 acres for the Posco complex (steel mill, captive port and power station) is that the government says only 438 acres are private land, the rest being its property. But the fact is the 1,253 hectares of forest land that has been put up for clearance is under betel vine, cashew and other crops.

According to Manshi Asher, who spent several months in the area for a study conducted for the National Centre of Advocacy Studies, Pune, the cultivators have rights to this land and have some records to prove it.

She thinks the affected people can move the courts and that they cannot be removed until the settlement of rights is over. "Once granted, these rights are inalienable," declares Asher. "No one can buy off the land." 

But it does not preclude the use of eminent domain by the state to acquire the land under the Land Acquisition Act of 1984. If the amendments to the Act (introduced in the Lok Sabha in December 2007) are passed then Posco cannot rely on the state to do its acquisition. It would have to buy 70 per cent of the land on its own.

A legal reprieve is a long way off and some villagers have reluctantly begun to examine the R&R package that Posco is offering.

The Orissa government's nodal officer for getting the Posco project underway, Priyabrata Patnaik, principal secretary in the commerce department, points out that the South Koreans are offering very generous terms that will set the benchmark for future displacement packages.

He claims the villagers have realised this and are ready to negotiate. At least one of the groups, the United Action Committee -- a 52-member body representing Gada-kunjag panchayat (three villages) and Nuagoan (one village) -- under the leadership of Damodar Raut, the legislator of the ruling Bjiu Janata Dal party, has made the first tentative move by agreeing to let the socio-economic survey start.

Two other groups, the Rashtriya Yuva Sangthan and the Nab Nirman Samiti, along with the PPSS, have rejected the Posco offer. But the state's strategy is to isolate Dhinkia and let Posco start work on April 1.

For the first phase of the project, Posco can afford to leave out Dhinkia. But can Dhinkia afford to be left out? As the "company" offers more and more sops -- a technical training institute, scholarships for school and college students --   the resistance is expected to peter out.

The village idyll is already a fading charm for someone like Ashutosh Das, an unemployed graduate in Gobindpur. "The land is very little and we will suffer. We need Posco to include us in their plans," he says.

But what of Mali, the smiling 70-year-old, who spends her days meticulously packing betel leaves into baskets and enjoys a life that is rich in its bucolic simplicity? She would wither and shrivel up in alien soil.

Dhinkia willy-nilly will have to rethink its siege. Time and tide appear to be against it.

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