Posco Protests: A Cause Divided

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An eerie air of suspicion hangs over Gobindpur, the last village standing between a $12 billion steel plant and the mineral rich state of Odisha. As the state government persists with land acquisition for POSCO’s proposed mega steel plant, residents of Gobindpur avoid meeting the eyes of their fellow villagers.

Villagers are now torn between those opposed and those supporting the mega project. Many are willing to give away their lands for the project. Many others are opposed to the move.

The construction of the POSCO steel plant has been stalled since 2010 following the Meena Gupta committee report. Even the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had given a stay order on it. “We have not stayed the land acquisition but the construction. What is confusing is how can the government still acquire land in the name of this specific project, when there is a stay order on it,” says an NGT member on condition of anonymity. Besides, the MoU signed between the Naveen Patnaik – led BJD government in Odisha and POSCO in 2005 stands terminated as it was a five – year MoU and it is yet to be renewed.

Much blood has been spilled since 2005, when the project was proposed. Loved ones lost their lives. Now neighbours have turned enemies. In the seven- year tenacious fight against land acquisition Narayan Mandal (68) has lost two of his three sons in the past five years. Nowadays, the first thing he does in the morning is to offer a prayer for his eldest and only surviving son’s longevity. His youngest son Tarun (32) died on 2 March in a bomb blast while attending an anti- POSCO meeting. Three people, including Tarun, died when someone hurled a crude bomb at the gathering. The villagers believe it was the handiwork of a few from their own ilk.

The village of Gobindpur is divided between what Prakash Jena (42), a local farmer, calls ‘anti and pro’ POSCO factions. Jena’s brother Manas Jena (36) was among the three victims of the 2 March bomb blast. Both groups accuse each other of carrying out violent attacks.

“This was a peaceful place. People had never taken to violence. It was after leaders like Abhay Sahoo got involved in the agitation that things turned bloody,” says Prafulla Mohanty (50) a leader of the pro-Posco group in the village. Mohanty claims that the situation became such that the villagers had to ask for police protection from anti-POSCO protestors. Mohanty gave away his land for what he calls betterment of his life, though he rues the government compensation is no better than what he would have earned from his land.

“The village is ready to give up its land for the betterment of this region. But ‘outsiders’ are playing dirty,” says Ranjan Bardhan, a villager who supports the POSCO project. Bardhan had filed an FIR after the 2 March blast alleging that three men died while making crude bombs.

The reality on the ground, though, is more complex than articulated by Mohanty and Bardhan. Of the 450 families that inhabit the village, 60 have given their land for the project, the remaining are opposed to the acquisition. And are determined to continue with their protests.

“I have three acres of land and my betel vines are flourishing. Any government compensation would not match the turnover from the agriculture,” says Dhojji Das, a septuagenarian farmer who says he earns as much as Rs 4 lakh every year from his betel vines.

Villagers claim there have been pressures from both the administration and from people inside the villages. But little did they care as “giving away the land would be synonymous with committing suicide”, says Balaram Barik, who earns Rs 2 lakh a year from his one-acre betel vine. Barik claims he does not belong to the anti-POSCO brigade. “There is nothing called anti-POSCO. Whoever refuses to give away land is tagged as an agitator,” he says. Most villagers are opposed to such labels.

“Those singing pro-POSCO tunes were once fighting with us,” says Narayan Mandal. “They killed two of my sons.”

Narayan refuses to call the deaths coincidence. “Both my sons were extremely vocal against the land acquisition.” Incidentally, his youngest son had lodged an FIR against land acquisition officer Sangram Mahapatra, for allegedly beating up villagers on 3 February during a police operation in the village.

“The entire district administration and the police are actively promoting violence here,” alleges Abhay Sahoo, the leader of the POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS). Sahoo has led the anti-POSCO campaign since 2005. “Following the 2 March blast when the victims’ families went to lodge a complain at the local police station, they were driven away. The police reached the spot 15 hours after the blast, and lodged an FIR against the dead,” claims Sahoo.

The investigating officer Madhab Chandra Nayek though tries to evade this allegation by saying, “They anyway don’t want a police presence there.” Nayek did not entertain further questions. He claims the SP is the only authority to speak on this issue.

“The agitators are taking to violence and making crude bombs. The three died while making bombs,” says police SP Satyabrata Bhoi, even before any specific question is put to him. But when confronted with the fact that, as the locals claim, the deceased could not have been making bombs since they sustained injuries only on their legs and backs, the officer refused to entertain any more queries. If they were indeed making bombs their hands and the stomach would have been mutilated and severed.

SINCE THE “investigation is still under process”, it’s not possible to know the truth of the 2 March incident. But Gobindpur is showing signs that once the land acquisition process starts after the Assembly session in Odisha, no side will cede an inch of land.

“Even though the police has registered cases against 700 people after the naked protest by tribal women last week, we will see it till the end when the police and the land acquisition officers enter our village the next time,” says Prakash Jena. He is determined not to let his brother’s sacrifice go in vain.

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