|Odisha villagers conduct sit-in to protest POSCO. Photo: PPSS|
For over a month, villagers in the eastern Indian state of Odisha have been conducting a sit-in to demand the withdrawal of armed police officers at the site of a proposed $12 billion steel complex at Jagatsinghpur, the latest protest in nine years of confrontations to halt the project.
The villagers are opposed to the plans of Pohang Iron and Steel Company (POSCO) of South Korea - one of the world's top five steel producers - to build a plant with a 12 million ton annual capacity at Jagatsinghpur as well as an iron ore mine and a port. The project will be India's largest foreign direct investment to date.
The land that POSCO wants is currently used by the villagers to grow leaves for paan, a mild stimulant that is chewed by billions of people in India. This together with fish farming and other mixed crop farming provides the basis of the sustainable local economy.
The protestors have hit the national headlines twice in the last few weeks. First when a bomb blast claimed the lives of three villagers in the area on March 2 and five days later on the eve of international women's day, when some of the women staged an unusual protest. They began to take off their clothes in front of policemen.
"Why have you come here? What do you want to see?" the women shouted at the police officers as they started to take off their upper garments. The police promptly slapped charges of obscenity against three women.
"When everything else failed, the women preferred to bare their bodies so that the government and the public wakes up from their slumber and understand what is happening," says Abhay Sahoo, the head of Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS which translates as Committee Opposed to POSCO Set-up.)
The villagers are incensed because the Indian government seized their betelnut vineyards and razed their crops shortly after the bomb blast claimed the lives of three villagers in Patana in early March.
Almost immediately the police announced to the local and national media that the men were attempting to make a crude bomb. But, according to the villagers and Laxman Parmanik who was injured in the blast, the bomb was hurled at them by someone else.
A fact-finding team of human right activists who visited the site after the incident condemned the manner in which the Jagatsinghpur superintendent of police made an announcement to the media even before police had visited the village to conduct investigations. They pointed out that the police took 15 hours to come to the village after the deaths had occurred.
The team quoted family members of the victims who allege that the police came to their houses at midnight and asked them to sign a written statement to the effect that the victims died in the process of making the bomb which they refused to do.
After last rites were performed for the bomb victims in Patana village, thousands gathered for a major rally and a meeting conducted by various opposition political parties on March 6. The speakers condemned the district and state administration for attempting to stifle the democratic protests of the villagers by using force and private militias.
High among the grievances of the villagers is the fact that the local police filed 230 cases against 2,000 villagers between 2006 and 2012 on charges ranging from arson to rape. "Captive Democracy,” a report on these charges by D Raja and lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan, notes that most of the complaints do not name specific individuals allowing the police to implicate any person in any case. In some cases entire villages comprising of thousands of people have been implicated. As a result many villagers are now afraid of venturing out of the village for fear of being arrested.
These concerns have caused a number of groups including the Congress party (which is part of the ruling coalition government in India) to write a letter to the governor of Odisha voicing concern over the "continued police atrocities and prolonged repression on the villagers in Jagatsinghpur district.
In the meantime the Odisha government has been slowly acquiring land for the project. They obtained rights to 2,000 acres in 2011 but POSCO wants another 700 acres near Gobindpur village where the villagers are protesting.
Villagers say these lands are protected under the Forest Rights Act which empowers them as forest dwellers to deny outside acquisition of the land. This law together with the required environmental clearances have been the focus of a number of government inquiry committees which have issued contradictory opinions.
First the N C Saxena committee, appointed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, upheld the villagers' complaint that there were gross violations under the Forest Rights Act in July 2010. Then another committee chaired by Meena Gupta, appointed by the same ministry, gave the green light for land acquisition to resume in October 2010 (although several members of the committee dissented). Then land acquisition was halted in March 2012 by the National Green Tribunal, another (permanent) body established by the Ministry of Environments and Forests).
Last week, yet another central government agency - the Comptroller Auditor General which is in charge of auditing government authorities - charged the Odisha government with giving "undue benefit" to POSCO by violating zoning laws and under pricing land that was given to the company.
"The lack of transparency, accountability and due process in acquiring land for POSCO and moving ahead with the project is alarming," says Miloon Kothari, executive director of the Housing and Land Rights Network. "It is clear that the recent action in Gobindpur village is a result of the government's insistence on promoting foreign direct investment even though it violates the constitution of India, international law and the human rights of the villagers."