Protestors May Have Stopped POSCO, But the Fight Isn't Over Yet

Despite the POSCO Pratirodha Sangram Samiti's successful agitation, the Odisha government has fenced off the land, with many villagers still displaced.

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A tribal woman at an anti-POSCO protest. Credit: Reuters/Files

In recent decades, citizens of developing nations who have been at the receiving end of a virtually unencumbered process of globalisation, have witnessed its nature as being both inclusive and exclusive – it includes that which has profit value and excludes everything else.

In India too, as in other parts of the world, there have been innumerable struggles by communities that have been pushed to the fringes of society in cultural, political and social terms. Few have been able to effectively resist the predatory advances of large corporations in partnership with state agencies or governments that systematically and summarily strip away or bypass laws meant for the protection of the rights of communities and the environment, creating violent ruptures in the local socio-economic fabric.

It is in this regard that the decade-long non-violent people’s agitation in Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur district against the South Korean steel giant Pohang Steel Company (POSCO) needs to be foregrounded. In 2005, when POSCO marched into Odisha bringing with it the might, and lure, of the single largest FDI ever and the backing of the state government, few, if any, foresaw the local villagers standing any chance against them. But perhaps inspired by the evergreen betel vine climber, which has provided the basis for a vibrant local economy, the villagers who were summarily evicted from their lands, organised themselves under the banner of POSCO Pratirodha Sangram Samiti (PPSS). They refused to give up their fight for their land and way of life. Last month, when POSCO announced that it was giving back the land to the Odisha government, the PPSS seemed to have achieved the impossible.

It is important to recall that struggle. On June 22, 2005, POSCO signed a MoU with the Odisha government, outlining a proposal to invest in the mining industry for the purpose of building a steel plant, a captive power station and port in the Erasama Block of Jagatsinghpur district. The project area was spread over the three panchayats of Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gadakujang.

POSCO India, a wholly owned subsidiary of POSCO, was slated to invest approximately $12 billion, the single largest FDI in India to date. The proposed project was to be built on 12,000 acres of land, which included approximately 4,000 acres for township and associated infrastructure and 6177 acres of the forest land of Khandahar hills, for mining iron ore. POSCO India mouthed its commitment to comply with relevant laws and provide for or cooperate in the remediation of any adverse impact from the project.

The ground reality was quite different. Occupying 75% of the land classified as forest land, the POSCO project actually violated the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006. Under that law no forest land could be taken away until the rights of the people in the designated area were recognised. More importantly, the land could only be taken for development if the communities consented to the project. Thus neither the central government nor the Odisha government had a legal right to hand over the land to POSCO.

That was not all. According to the 2005 MoU, the state government allowed the company to extract 600 million tonnes of iron ore over 30 years and take out of the country 30% of the ore so extracted. Even after accounting for the royalty paid to the state government for extraction and the operating costs, the huge margin between domestic and international steel prices would have made the steel behemoth laugh all the way to the bank.

There were other disturbing aspects to the project as well. The fact that the state government was obliged to provide POSCO with an estimated 12,000 crore litres of water from the Mahanadi River would have not only deprived the seaside farmers of water for irrigation but also led to severe water scarcity in Bhubaneswar and Cuttack affecting lakhs of residents.The project also threatened to disrupt a thriving local economy based on paddy and betel cultivation, fish farming and shrimp culture practiced by farmers and traditional fishermen. Since the project was scheduled to be constructed on the sea shore, the livelihoods of as many as 20,000-25000 local fishermen would have been affected. The 6,000 hectares of land falling within the Khandahar forest hills, where POSCO was being allotted the mines, would have severely impacted the adivasi communities as well as a wide variety of wildlife flora.

To silence any opposition POSCO India created a tribal fund. The company announced that the project would create 13,000 jobs for the local community. The fact that the project stood to displace more than 40,000 thousand people from the proposed plant and port sites, was not mentioned.

It was against this background that the PPSS was formed to resist the government-backed construction of the steel project. Comprising members of the local community, the PPSS stated that any attempt to displace the community and upset the ecology of the area in the name of development was unacceptable to them. Their democratic and human rights could not be made subservient to profit-making of this nature.

The PPSS struggle was truly democratic. Several key strategies of protest were evolved – sending memorandums to the authorities, holding rallies and demonstrations; gheraoing the local MLA and  blockading the affected area by picketing so as to prevent the entry of  government and POSCO officials.

Women were at the forefront of the struggle. School-going children left their classes and stood alongside their parents to non-violently confront the might of armed police in their struggle to prevent their betel vine orchards from being taken over. But the state police  forcibly took over the betel vine orchards on the pretext that it was forest land owned by the government. In the face of growing opposition to the project, the police resorted to strong-arm tactics, leading to large-scale injuries among protesting men and women, and made indiscriminate arrests.

Hundreds of false cases were filed and warrants issued against more than 1,000 individuals protesting the POSCO India project. An atmosphere of intimidation was created by private actors masquerading as local supporters of the project.

Although the project did not take off, the effects of eviction were all too real for the villagers of Jagatsinghpur district. They lost their dhana, pana and meena (paddy, betel, and fish) and became labourers, victims of ‘development’.

But the story did not end there. The fact that the PPSS succeeded in highlighting the exploitative terms on which the POSCO project had started, was borne out by a series of legal actions that were initiated against the company. Well-known activist Prafulla Samantara filed a PIL in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) challenging the large scale illegal chopping of an estimated two lakh trees by Jagatsinghpur district authorities and the Industrial Development Corporation of Odisha. Apart from betel vines that were destroyed, the decimated green cover included casuarina trees which played an important role in preventing soil erosion and acting as a barrier against the advance of sea water into villages during high tide. Fruit trees such as coconut, mango and jackfruit too were cut down. Subsequently, the NGT stayed further cutting of trees.

Following the NGT judgement, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change order that had initially given clearance for an 8 million tonne steel producing plant, was successfully challenged by the PPSS on April 8, 2016.

On March 24, 2017, the PPSS placed a set of demands before the state government. Their foremost demand is that the state government must hand over the land occupied by POSCO to the villagers, recognising it as their land as per the FRA 2006. Withdrawal of fabricated criminal charges against the villagers is another significant demand for the simple reason that they cannot seek medical assistance or be hospitalised due to fear of arrests. A core demand of the PPSS is that the government must replant trees in place of those which were indiscriminately cut down, an act that deprived them of their livelihoods and left them vulnerable to the elements. Lastly, the PPSS has demanded adequate compensation from the state government for the men, women and children for the violence inflicted on them during the protests.

However, the Odisha government, along with the Odisha Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation, has started operations to fence off the land. It indicates that there is a long struggle ahead for the PPSS.

The PPSS agitation is testimony to the fact that even though the PPSS succeeded in turning away POSCO, they continue to be displaced. The struggle to make the state apparatus sensitive to their plight must go on. It is not just a question of getting back their land or compensation; it is a question of asserting their democratic rights as citizens with a voice, and of the state recognising their right to do so with dignity.

The PPSS stands out as a non-party formation that has highlighted the nature of development-induced displacement of vulnerable communities in the age of globalisation. By employing non-violent means to highlight the assault on their socio-economic and cultural fabric, the ‘ordinary’ villagers of Jagatsinghpur have set an extraordinary example.

 Jayabrata Sarkar is an associate professor at the department of political science, Deshbandhu College, University of Delhi.

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