‘Whatever they do, project dead, we keep our land’

By Debabrata MohantyonMar. 10, 2015in Livelihoods

The roads leading to Dhinkia village in Jagatsinghpur are no longer barricaded. An outsider no longer arouses suspicion of being a “Posco agent” or “government man”, drums are no longer beaten, conches no longer blown, at the sight of “land acquisition agents”. There is in fact no graffiti exhorting Posco to leave the area.

This seaside village was once the epicentre of the agitation against South Korean steelmaker Posco’s proposed Rs 5,100-crore, 8-mn-tonne plant. Of the eight villages in Erasama block from where the government acquired 4,004 acres, Dhinkia accounted for 30 per cent.

Ten years after the 2005 MoU, all Posco managed to build was a 200-m brick-and-mortar boundary wall in Nuagaon village. Even that was demolished in 2013 by villagers said to be sympathetic to the project, as they were angry with the government for not consulting them about it.

“You can say the project is as good as dead. Ten years is too long for any business,” said Tamil Pradhan, who once spearheaded the group that supported the project. The first phase was to start in 2010, but protests over acquisition crippled its progress, though the government has managed to acquire 2,700 acres since 2012.

There is, therefore, hardly any awareness, leave alone worry, about the government’s move to do away with the consent clause and social impact assessment for a wider range of projects. Former sarpanch of Dhinkia gram panchayat Shishir Mohapatra says he is vaguely aware of the amendments but confident villagers will not allow land to be acquired. Mohapatra, at the forefront of the anti-Posco group, says acquisition can happen on paper but the government would find out how difficult it is to take possession.

“Have government officials forgotten it took them almost seven years to acquire 2,700 acres and that too by cheating? You can bring whatever amendment you want, but in the end you’ll run into the people,” he says.

Mohapatra has just returned from the betel vine where labourers are tending to creepers. “It’s the paan baraj that keeps us alive. It’s our fixed deposit. Even if we get a job in lieu of the land, which company would keep us after retirement age?” he says.

Fellow villager Suresh Kumar Das, who too took part in the anti-Posco agitation, says had it not been for his vines, he would have been forced to beg. “I built a seven-room house and married off my daughter. Last year, my paddy fields suffered saline inundation. I survived only due to the vines,” says Das, whose vines are actually on government land.

Technically, neither the 1894 Land Acquisition Act nor the revised version of the 2013 Act, waiting to clear Parliament, applies to much of Posco’s project area as roughly 3,000 acres of the 4,004 is forest land. The villagers, recognised as Other Traditional Forest Dwellers have been squatting on forest land (in reality sand dunes) for decades and were expecting their rights to be settled under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act. The Orissa government in 2011, however, said no such “OTFD or tribals” were in the project areas and thus no such settlement was necessary, an argument accepted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. While 500 acres is “other government land”, only 437.66 acres is private, which the government in 2012 stopped acquiring after an interim court order.

Incidentally, Indian Oil Corporation has set up a 15-million-tonne, 3,345-acre refinery next to the Posco project site.

Initially proposed on the Posco site, it was shifted because some villagers did not want to part with their land. “From Dhinkia alone, we lost 62 acres to the refinery. While the compensation ranged between Rs 80,000 to Rs 1.03 lakh per acre, villagers agreed to give land when they were promised jobs,” Mohapatra says. “Even those from local villages who lost their homestead land did not get permanent jobs in the refinery though promised. We thought if a public sector company can go back on its promise of jobs, how can we hope for jobs from a private company?”

Convinced that Posco will never make it, villagers are readying to put up betel vines on land the government had acquired two years ago. Bairagi Mohanty, who received Rs 5 lakh in lieu of demolition of his vine, said much of that money has been spent on the marriages of his children. “Once the company packs off, I will again put up a betel vine,” he says, confidently

First published in Indian Express

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