POSCO unplugged

Sayantan Bera travels to Jagatsinghpur in Odisha to find that villagers labeled ‘pro’ POSCO do not have a choice otherwise

By Sayantan Bera
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Sayantan BeraJanuary 31, 2011, Dhinkia village, Jagatsinghpur district, Odisha: I am at the epicentre of a six-year long movement against a project claiming to bring the largest foreign investment to the country. But can see no visible signs of protest. I almost draw out my camera at the sight of red and yellow banners fluttering and a podium being set up at a corner of a field. But soon discover the activity is for a volleyball tournament in the evening.

A few years ago, the world’s third largest steel maker, Pohang Iron and Steel Company (POSCO), announced its intention to set up a 12 million tonne steel plant and a captive port at Jagatsinghpur. The 22,000 people from Dhinkia and three adjoining gram panchayats did not want the project. They did not want to lose their ‘paano dhano meeno', (betel leaves, rice and fish). They cared little that their sustenance had no place in the books of those talking about growth and high GDPs.

After two committees sent by the Union environment ministry pointed to forest rights violations, it was upon the minister himself to take a decision.

Sitting cross legged on the sand, Abhay Sahoo, the leader of POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS), told me, “Jairam Ramesh will allow the project with conditions- that’s my information.” I nodded in agreement. It was only yesterday that the Reserve Bank of India lamented how the so-called “green” policies were making the country lose precious FDI. POSCO was threatening to move to Karnataka. The South Korean President was speaking to the Indian Prime Minister. The build up was near perfect.

sand laden I resumed work. A tired Dhruvacharan Swain repeated what he had told scores of reporters, activists and government officials. There was a minor fortune he was being asked to forsake: betel vines earning over hundred thousand rupees every year, cashew plantations adding another 20 thousand, an acre of land producing enough rice to feed his family of 10—a minor fortune. “We have lived off these lands for more than four generations and I don’t want my son to labour in a steel factory.”

I decided to walk up to where river Jatadhari meets the ocean, the site for POSCO’s captive port. But people from Dhinkia refused to accompany me. There were criminal cases against them and they do not venture outside the village for the fear of being arrested. I pestered a diabetic Toofan Swain to walk the four kilometres up and down. Toofan, a farmer turned trade union leader from Paradip had excitedly joined me when I told him about a visit to the POSCO sites. With an if-you-say-so-what-can-I-do look, he started walking with me.

After crossing the village we entered an expansive sandy landscape dotted with scrubs, numerous upturned rectangular boxes, betel vines, cashew plantations and patches of green surrounding ponds. The January sun scorched our senses and sand dunes as high as 40 feet blocked our view.

The dry sand dragged our shoes down and we walked at a snail's pace. An hour and a half later, from atop the hills, I saw the river Jatadhari with cows grazing and a handful of boats lined up along its banks.

Dhruvacharan SwainI realised the significance of this topography after a conversation with Madhumita Ray from Action Aid. She came to Jagatsinghpur in 1999 to rehabilitate victims of the super cyclone. “The toll was substantially low in villages like Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gobindapur, although they were in the direct pathway of the cyclone. What protected them were the massive sand dunes and mangrove forests bordering the villages.” The mangrove forests were the “coastal border soldier”, Madhumita told me, “and building a port here tantamounts to getting the ocean right at your door.” The same sand dunes act as giant filters, stripping away salt from seawater, as a result of which the ponds brim with sweet water. The “sweet sand” is a perfect habitat for the betel vines which gives employment to local people round the year.

What about the forests? I wondered. Madhumita handed me an excellent piece of research into the history of the region, prepared by Leo Saldanha and Bhargavi Rao from Environment Support Group, Bengaluru—Tearing through the water landscape. A 1961 forest department notification, I read, designated the forests and wastelands of the area as protected and acknowledged rights of individuals and communities. The sarpanch of the Dhinkia panchayat, Sisir Mahapatra, had papers dating back to 1931 relating to cooperatives for sharing the forest produce. When he submitted those documents to the Odisha government, it claimed they were forged. The possibility of a legal challenge was nullified when the administration slapped more than 600 criminal cases on villagers in Dhinkia.

Sumonto BeheraI and Toofan dragged ourselves through the sand and reached Dhinkia. By then news had filtered in that the environment ministry had given its nod to the POSCO steel plant and port, with a sprinkling of conditions. The state government had certified that there were no traditional forest dwellers in the area, and the Centre claimed to have gone by the state's report. Seemed somewhat absurd since the Centre’s own committees had rubbished such claims and had said there were a few scheduled tribes and a number of other forest dwellers in the area.

As evening descended over Nolia Sahi (nolia means fishermen in Oriya), I could see fishing boats crawling the horizon of Jatadhar Mohan, the creek where river Jatadhari meets the ocean—the site of POSCO’s captive port. Toofan chose not to join me this time and stayed for the volleyball match.

Rini MudaliSoon, women got busy sorting the day's catch. Although the environment ministry order has asked POSCO to build a fishing jetty for 153 affected families in the village, a calm Sumonto Behera told me he has to go deeper and far away into the sea to fish. “My new village will no longer be next to the sea,” he rued before being interrupted by scrawny teenagers hopeful of a prospective job. The catch is on the decline, anyways, they said. I called it a day.

February 1, 2011: “What is there to be happy about this manjoori (clearance)? I have been living here in a 15 feet by 15 feet room for the past three years. The government gives me Rs 20 a day to feed my family of four. I have sold my ornaments to make ends meet. My husband can’t even find work as a daily wager, my children have stopped going to school. And we left our betel vines, paddy fields, cattle, everything for POSCO. It’s better to have died in my own village than be here.”

POSCOI am at the POSCO transit camp in Badagabapur, 10 km from Dhinkia, literally in the middle of nowhere. Thirty-five-year old Rini Mudali's voice is thick with the pain of forced exile as she talks. Rini, along with 78 other families, came to the transit camp in 2007 after the anti-POSCO movement turned violent. The administration pitted villagers from Dhinkia, Nuagaon, Gobindapur and Nolia Sahi against each other and politicians deepened the divide. Now, a villager from Dhinkia cannot dare step inside neighbouring Nuagaon. The battle lines are drawn by labeling ordinary villagers as either ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ POSCO. In the states’ version, for instance, Mudali would fall into the ‘pro’ category.

Baino Mohanty, another villager at the transit camp told me, “the productivity of the betel vines declined sharply with rapid industrialisation in the neighboring Paradip. Steel and fertiliser factories and oil refineries have mushroomed in the past 20 years close to where we stay. Farming has no future here, it's wise to accept POSCO and bargain for a better compensation package and jobs.”

A bunch of teenagers arrived with posters to celebrate the Union ministry’s approval to the project. They asked me to take a photograph. I obliged with a smile. The poster read: WE WANT PEACE, WE WANT POSCO.

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  • How many times will India

    How many times will India trade its people for a few decimals up its GDP? We urgently need a rehabilitation & resettlement bill in place that will hold POSCO accountable for every life and livelihood it displaces.
    Fantastic reporters diary. It reads better than the story itself. I look forward to more from Sayantan Bera.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Some heady cocktail of

    Some heady cocktail of literature, figurative expressions and submisions of down to earth practical compulsions must say...
    As for the resettlement & rehabilitations policy..well the sooner we have that in place the less we shalt feel the agony of imperialism. Sense of imperialism almost similar to what was stated in the pages of our 8th-9th grade modern history books.
    great work Sayantan n best feeling i have is, to have you safe enough to look back at the experience and being alive enough to be able to write about..n for couple of punctuations that got missed or washed away..we can always discuss..tc!! all the best!!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Yet another account of

    Yet another account of "state" and "people" which stirs my soul but without a silver lining!

    On the policy front, we seriously lack a discourse clarifying rehabilitation and livelihood issues. As it is increasingly evident from such repetitive incidents what makes a majority complacent about carrying on such acts is the so-called idea of compensation or rehabilitation with little deference to loss of "livelihoods", which I think has deeper roots.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • As long as the pimps in the

    As long as the pimps in the governments can be in business, the citizens of India will continue to be peddled out for investments. Most of our politicians would pimp their own mothers and daughters for a seat in the cabinet or a bag of money in their Swiss Bank accounts. What are the poor of the country to them?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Indeed, Sayantan is an

    Indeed, Sayantan is an excellent writer and a avid photojournalist by profession.... good work

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Well said. It adds few after

    Well said. It adds few after decimal to Indian GDP but adds A few to their Bank Balances...

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • I understand what the author

    I understand what the author is trying to show and indeed there are emotional (and at times realistic) contents in the view. However, I find a few things contradictory. Being a native of place largely dependent on agriculture, I have seen the price people are paying for reluctance to move to modern methods of production and livelihood. A family of 4 can possibly survive on the ancestral piece of land, but it is easy to guess if this can at all provide similar standards of living when families grow and break. You may blame the governments for corruption, environmental violations and several other problems including the rehabilitation & resettlement. I completely agree on this aspect. However, history shows that humankind has paid big prices for the fortune of coming generations (environmental issues are perhaps the largest). I hope that the natives of Dhinkia will still have some competitive edge to find jobs in these factories and they would move on. There would be other few thousands people who will get jobs in these projects adding to their families and the growth/taxes.

    I am sure the author will find a few lines here meaningful.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Thanks for your reply. I can

    Thanks for your reply.

    I can understand POSCO's motive for sure. Unless they see huge profit coming their way they probably wouldn't invest such money in a restless country like India. Also, as we have seen with native entrepreneurs, they too would resort to corruption and the Governments are more than happy to facilitate and participate.

    However, think on following terms:

    1) In India most places with industrial possibilities are such where tribal own (or live in) most of the lands or Jungle. South of West Bengal, Odisa, Jharkhand, North Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgadh.

    2) If the lands are not offered to the Governments (mostly elected by the majority) at reasonable prices, there would be clash of interest. We already see a lot of this in form of struggle and naxal problems.

    3) You may question the reasonability of the prices but not the direction. If the country has to grow, they must acquire land and if we can't put our own money, we must invite a POSCO, etc to do this
    (even if at a cost).

    4) The issue is not only about growth. I was reading Prof. Sen's comments on this y'day and it looks like as if we never tried to work out first a method to distribution this growth.

    5) Also, do you think the history and humans have been kind enough on those who are saying "mujhe tumse kuchh nahi chahiye, mujhe mere haal par chhod do"? It does not happen Sayantan. This is low-low equilibrium. Where refusal to modern way of leaving is considered optimal. This could be optimal for those villagers, but is it for India at large? Even they are Indian's and have equal rights, but they
    just can't have more equals than other.

    6) The fact is that India tried and failed in distribution and then adopted for a growth policy in early 1990s. At least this gives the engineers some chance. Earlier, we used to leave in "Jane Bhi Do
    Yarron" era.

    7) In short, the story of POSCO and villagers are issues related to "transition of the economy" from hunting/gathering/agriculture to industrialization. Most civilization have paid price. Do we have the

    I understand that what some people are saying have merrit because this helps keep govt in check. Which is essential for whatever democracy we

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • True, we don't have a fair

    True, we don't have a fair relief and rehabilitation policy, but in case of POSCO the majority of the people are even unwilling to negotiate with the government. And it seems strange that they have to prove to the government their dependence on the forests for as long as 75 years to be not thrown out.. such is the law. Absurd!

    In case of POSCO we are talking about land for which people don't have papers of ownership, since its government forest land, so the compensation is expected to be shoddy.

    As regards jobs, for people in Dhinkia their competitive edge is farming and fishing. Who are we to impose our vision of development on them? And besides what will they work as in a steel factory? As petty laborers and security guards prone to health hazards? A cursory visit to Paradip is an eye opener. You can't even breathe that air heavy with smoke and dust... and one can see long lines of yellow hatted people on their way back after work

    For POSCO the deal could not be any sweeter: access to high grade mines at throw away prices, a captive port that allows to export the ore under a swap deal, and a subservient state government to certify all violations... its not for nothing the company is waiting for over 6 years. Remember, it took the Tatas only a few months to relocate their Nano factory from Singur in Bengal to Gujarat. I belive POSCO will wait for another 10 years if it comes to that...

    Posted by: Sayantan Bera | 4 years ago | Reply
  • Satyen, thank you for an

    Satyen, thank you for an excellent article.. you just made my essay on the impact of the steel industry (and CSR policies) on the marginalised so much richer with the POSCO example.. you write with eyes seated in your heart! Bravo. I will be keeping track of your work now!

    Could I request you for any information/data you might have on any CSR activities in the area-- the pro-posco students/others, are they funded in any way by identifiable sources?



    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • *Sorry! Sayantan

    *Sorry! Sayantan

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • Shinjini, thanks for your

    Shinjini, thanks for your words of appreciation. You can see some CSR activities listed on POSCO India's website under 'press releases'. Though I haven't checked the veracity of those. Besides POSCO won't start the usual CSR unless work starts for the factory. As of now, the forest clearance has been withheld.

    I don't know whether the supposedly 'pro POSCO' groups have been funded by the company in any way. But the transit camp where some of the families are staying was built by the company. Read this press release, a blatant lie!


    Posted by: Sayantan Bera | 4 years ago | Reply