which is the sign and the seal but never the means of sacred execution, may be
called sovereign violence. — Walter Benjamin, 1921.
Clad in her Odiya-style
sari, Gitanjali Das is sitting on the verandah of the only temple in Patana
village. She is outwardly calm but there’s no doubt she’s worried. She is 65,
owns some 10 cows, and paddy fields, but lives alone. There’s no one to take
care of her. Her only son works as a temple priest in Cuttack and makes a
little extra working in a shop. Her major worries are about this son, not
When she became active in the region’s anti-POSCO movement, her life changed, as did that of many others. At one protest against the company, she was beaten up by police and thrown in the river.
“They snatched away all my jewellery,” she says. “Now, how I will marry my son off, tell me how?’ The police have slapped four cases against her, she says, and now she can’t go outside the village to find a suitable bride for her son.
Gitanjali is not alone in her sorrows. It’s a shared suffering. Like her, many others have tales of loss and betrayal. They, too, are in trouble with the authorities. According to Prashant Paikray, POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS) spokesperson, a total of 173 cases have been registered against people protesting against the project.
For these people, the Pohang Iron and Steel Company of South Korea is a name that inspires fear and loathing. Its ₹50,000-crore ($12 billion) project with a planned output of 12 million tonnes of steel per annum in Odisha. It’s at once an icon and an epithet to describe the New India.
The project’s votaries believe it will transform the state economy and demonstrate Odisha’s enormous potential as a powerhouse of industry. Its opponents, on the other hand, point to the eviction of thousands of India’s poorest from their ancestral homes to a world of transit camps and unkept promises. Any transformation, they feel, must improve their lives as well. So far, they say, the present is clouded in fear, and the future rests in ambiguity.
The resistance seems determined, though. Sidharth is my guide into the heart of resistance; he takes me to various project villages where he also plays the role of translator. Sidharth is young, works for the local newspaper Utkalsamaj, and has high dreams for his own future—a future he sees in resistance and the struggle against development.
Interestingly, he is the only member of his family against POSCO. His family has connections with the ruling Biju Janata Dal and supports the project. Sidharth left home to register his protest. Now, he lives with the PPSS leader Abhay Sahoo. He waits for a future that will resolve this conundrum for him.
Niranjan Das is a Brahmin. He must be in his sixties. He is sitting in the field adjacent to Patana’s temple watching his cattle graze peacefully.
“Why do you fight POSCO at your advanced age?”
“We do betel and paddy cultivation (one acre each). Women get ₹150 while men earn ₹200. This is all we can do.”
He pauses and thinks about it. “Why should I leave this?” he demands.
Then his face falls away in hopelessness. “There are two rubber bullets inside me,” he says. “We don’t have a doctor here; the nearest primary health centre is in Balithuth. Sometime, doctors from the cities come here for health check-ups and camps. No surgeon is available.”
The bullets date from May 15, 2010. On that day, more than 4,000 protestors were on dharna against the police presence at Balithuth. Police asked the villagers to leave, but they declined. The result was a lathicharge and teargas. Finally, rubber bullets were fired. Niranjan Das’ bullets are souvenirs of his resistance. According to one report, it did not stop there. Partho Sarathi Ray, a commentator, said the police also fired shotguns directly into the crowd.
On the way back from the daily dharna which takes place come rain or shine, where villagers are educated about the world around them, I meet a boy in his 20s. He begins to talk about his determination to fight against the company, and then suddenly grabs my hand and presses it against his forehead.
“Can you feel the bullet?”
“Yes, I can.”
“This is inside me but
I can’t be operated upon because I can’t go outside this village, since there
are cases against me. I hope this will not affect my future.” He guides me to
my temporary base and then disappears.
The dharna site is a place where people from project villages gather daily for hours, on a shift system. Every village has to participate in turn, but not all residents have to come. The site is a clear expression of a rooted movement.
The new age revolution hasn’t reached this isolated land, but the sense of connections is nevertheless formidable. The protesters form a concrete culture of resistance which is regulated not by “likes” and “comments”, but by songs, music, education and slogans.
The PPSS leadership has tried to bring activists and political leaders from across the country to speak to the villagers. When I get there, one speaker is talking about Egypt and the revolution in the Middle East. Initially, it appears absurd, as the village has to do nothing with the Middle East, but the information and the stories from beyond borders visibly stiffen the determination to resist.
The government says plant more trees, then why do they want to come here and cut down trees
There seem to be as many women as men. A group of women sitting together tell us why they are here. “When the police took away our men we came into the struggle. We resisted the police. We will not give an inch.”.
One woman says, “The government says plant more trees, then why do they want to come here and cut down trees?”
Another has a question: “When we first started cultivating betel, the government didn’t give us any help. Why does it now want to destroy what we have built?’
On the surface, life is normal in the villages of Gobindpur, Patana, Dhinkia and others. Farmers are busy on their farms in the daytime and play cards in the evening. Betel vine, cashew and paddy are the primary source of income. Fishing too is important. Most farmers and labourers seem happy with their economic status. But just ask them about the future, and they are overtaken by a sort of numbness.
They remember what happened to the post office in Dhinkia village. The government closed it down because the postman joined the anti-POSCO camp. That is a haunting reminder of the fragility of their situation. That could be their fate, too.
In Noriya Sahi, the mandate is divided. There are a group of people who oppose the project but many others support it.
Behera cultivates betel vine, and cashew and rice as well. He also grows pineapples, mangoes and coconuts. He is very clear about his life.
“I get compensation every week, every month, but the company will compensate only once. I will never give up my land as long as I live.”
This sentiment is quite common. Panchana Mahapatra, owner of a hardware shop in Balithuth remarks: “One acre of kaju (cashew) is worth ₹3 lakh. How can POSCO be better than this?”
Gobindpur village is the ardent centre of resistance, but villagers in neighbouring Nuagaon are not completely anti-POSCO, though the majority supports the resistance. Landlords and their musclemen have stopped the resistance from becoming reality. There have been clashes between the villages as a result. Indeed, on September 9, 2009, the anti–POSCO activists of Gobindpur and pro–POSCO activists of Nuagaon blocked the road on their respective sides.
So when I ask Sidharth to take me to Nuagaon he flatly refuses. “I don’t want to beaten get up by the villagers.”
Nuagaon is home to Anadhi Rao, leader of the United Action Committee (UAS), a pro-POSCO group which mobilised the villagers to give land to the Korean company. At first it was a centre of resistance, with 80 per cent support for PPSS. But the absence of leadership helped the UAC.
While the Nuagaon panchayat passed a resolution against POSCO a few years back, the UAC keeps a lid on such sentiment. In July, though, Bhaskar Swain, Nuagaon sarpanch, who also heads Bhitamati Surakshya Manch, announced that neither Nuagaon nor Gadakujang would support the project.
UAC is essentially a landlord affair, of people who own large tracts. When they agreed to the project they had six demands of the government and the company, which included proper rehabilitation for families who lost their land, increased compensation and employment for at least one person from each family. Now, many of those who were with the UAC are on dharna in Kujang and Nuagaon, alleging that their leaders have failed them. There is a growing feeling that the UAC leaders have compromised themselves.
Gobindpur village is the ardent centre of resistance, but villagers in neighbouring Nuagaon are not completely anti-POSCO, though the majority supports the resistance. Landlords and their musclemen have stopped the resistance from becoming reality. There have been clashes between the villages as a result.
The POSCO formula
POSCO-India Package for Displaced & Affected families, the company claims:
“Our approach is: First Rehabilitation then displacement”. Ironically, however,
the step for rehabilitation begins with displacement and in the case of the
transit camp, the rehabilitation is no better than the displacement itself.
WHAT BEYOND RESISTANCE
The India growth
story has so far skated around the really hard questions. Amid the glittering
malls and roads flooded with cars the fate of Patana seems distant and unreal.
But the answers are the difference between dignity and a living death. What
will happen to these villagers if they are displaced forever? The questions are
not restricted to resistance and violence; there are more fundamental questions
about democracy and development.
As for POSCO, the challenges before it are not simple. After land and the port, it needs water and iron ore, to be mined from Khandadhar.
But that land is ready to resist, too. The government has decided to allocate POSCO 600 million tonnes of the highest grade iron ore of Khandadhar, but the project has to resolve many issues. It requires the felling of almost six lakh trees.
Ecologists are gravely concerned at this massive deforestation. They have observed in a letter, “This activity will entail conversion of non-forest land into forest land to carry out afforestation and in the process deprive another lot of people of access to common land... It seems that the decision is driven by a desire to crush the spirit and livelihoods of the people of the area.”
These tales of resistance also open up deep questions about the future of democracy at the grassroots, and the relationship between freedom and development.Does development strengthen democracy at the ground level and empower people? The study of resistance struggles might prove that it is those movements that strengthen democracy in India.
At the heart of this all lies the question of freedom and equality, equality and growth with inclusiveness embedded in democratic power. Failure may lead to unimaginable injustice, violence and chaos.
Kujang is like a
police camp and every other eye looks at strangers with suspicion. No one is
inclined to share much, but in the last few months the protest has got
Narayan Mandal must be in his eighties. He sits on a bed outside his home, still in mourning for his son. On April 20, 2008, villagers returning home were attacked in Gobindpur. Narayan’s son Tapan alias Dula Mandal was killed. Narayan is silent; there is nothing left to say.
Abhay Sahoo is one man who has shaped this movement through all its six years. He is very sure the Dhinkia movement will never fail. He came to Gobindpur only to lead it, and stays here while his family is elsewhere. He too is not expected to go out of the area—the known price of resistance.
On October 12, 2008, when he set out for treatment he was arrested.
“I was charged with 33 cases, and when I was in jail four more cases were slapped on me. I was in prison for 10 months and 14 days. Now there are 49 cases against me. The government has charged me over the movement and keeping officials in detention, etc.”
Dhinkia is the epicentre of resistance. It is also the land without which POSCO’s project is not possible. All eyes among
the protestors are on Dhinkia. They believe with a blind faith that Dhinkia will never fall down. Abhay Sahoo claims: “POSCO is not possible. Dhinkia will never break… it’s united… they will have to shift. In Dhinkia it’s not possible. Only force can destroy this resistance.”
The POSCO story
begins in 2005, when a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between the
State of Odisha and Pohang Iron and Steel Company to establish an integrated
iron ore mine, steel plant, private port project at Paradeep (Jagatsinghpur
district). It is the largest FDI in India. When signed it was expected to
significantly accelerate industrialisation. What happened was something
Soon after the MoU was signed, resistance erupted in the heart of the project villages. For the last six years, the project has languished as resistance to POSCO persists.
Six years of resistance have produced a complex link between “development violence” and panchayati raj”, “local democracy”. When the panchayat and villagers collectively opposed the project, the panchayat president was dismissed. Meetings called to discuss the project in different villages were termed illegal.
In December 2009, the Collector & District Magistrate of Jagatsinghpur wrote to the Block Development Officer, Erasama, to convene the Pallisabha for action on the diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes under the Forest Act, 1980. He asked the respective panchayats in January to convene a Pallisabha, expected to be under the officer.
The Pallisabha was convened on February 5, 2010, discussed the conversion at length and unanimously resolved saying that :
a) Since it is our legitimate right to preserve and protect forest and its resources we will not permit its transfer particularly to the proposed Posco project or its destruction. According to the clause (5) of Forest Act it is our legitimate right
b) We are not permitting and strongly opposing the transfer of forest land to Posco Project.
c) By virtue of Forest Act and other Acts, we demand recognition of our legitimate right over forest land. On these above mentioned grounds the Governemnt has to respect our right to protect and preserve our forest land and resources This resolution was sent to Jairam Ramesh, then Environment and Forests Minister. Soon after, the Collector declared the Sabha illegal.
According to Sisir Mahapatra, then sarpanch, the executive officer who was required to attend the Sabha stayed away saying he hadn’t received instructions, giving government a pretext to dismiss the panchayat and expel the sarpanch, calling the whole act illegal and “fraudulent” .
The village faced a siege in November 2007 when police erected barricades, effectively imprisoning the villagers for several months. Essential supplies like kerosene as well as the movement of people were stopped.
Two villagers sympathetic to the struggle were suspended from their government jobs. The police ensured that no one moved out to unite with those who could not hold out against the administration in the neighbouring villages.
Amid all this turmoil, Patana’s school continues to be packed. The children too are part of the struggle. For instance, when police tried to enter Dhinkia the children lay on the road to stop them.
I ask Shumy Ranjan of Class IV who encourages them to join the protest.
“No one. We like the soil, water and wind of this place. We want to save this land (our mother).”
It was on June 10, when a desperate administration and policemen attacked Dhinkia village, that the women and children formed a human barricade to hold them back.
The children are one reason why the resistance feels encouraged. Since the beginning the children have been involved in the protests.
Jagannath Das is just 11 but he has already faced the police. He said: “We have everything here, anything we want. I told the police to leave and go somewhere else.”
This is not, however,
the entire story. There is another, of the “Closed Prison”—known as the transit
camp. Here the equation is not so much “resist and suffer”, as “surrender and
The transit camp at Badagabapur, 10 km from Dhinkia, is in the midst of nowhere, “hanging” like the future of its occupants. The transit camp, established by POSCO and handled by the state administration is a tale of apathy, treachery and human suffering.
It was set up in January 2008 by POSCO primarily for displaced families of Patana village who had agreed to give up their land and moved to the camp in the hope of a “New Age”.
POSCO’s CMD in his messages noted that “on our part, we have announced our R&R package and successfully shifted the Patna villagers to the Transit Camp. As we await data compilation and analysis for the land acquisition process to proceed, we should make detailed study of all future requirements and plan ahead. We need to chalk out the details for the extension of the transit camp and also for the Rehabilitation Colony.”
Years have passed but nothing has been done for the “temporary settlers”.
Balithuth sarpanch Praful Sahu said the transit camp houses around 52 families, and that POSCO bribed them to become project supporters. Some 20 per cent of people in Dhinkia and Gobindpur are for POSCO. These families were promised jobs with salaries of Rs 20,000 per month. The Odisha government pays them ₹20 a day.
Sahu added that displaced families from Patana who didn’t have land were promised ₹40 lakh per family, but these promises have not been delivered.
Chandrakant Mohanty speaks for people in the transit camp. He begins by saying: “Originally, we were with the anti-POSCO movement since we knew Patana would be destroyed if POSCO came there.” But dissent within the movement forced this step on them, he claims.
“This colony has been built by POSCO but the government is running it. We are paid ₹4,000 daily (for all 52 families). This amount has remained unchanged over the years. We are unable to live decently on this. There is no money to get our children married. We are sitting without any plans for the future. There is no school for our children (at least 35), who are sitting idle.”
The POSCO CMD still claims in a company newsletter that “Necessary arrangements are made for water and electricity facilities. POSCO-India will continue to support the inhabitants for education, health and other facilities.”
Life in the transit camp has turned out to be a date with despair. All the inhabitants once owned farmland and had a quality life. Now, they can’t even do contract farming in the fields around as they don’t have the money for it.
When I visit the camp, the women are busy with the daily chores and the children play inside and around the camp. Some of the men are not to be found in camp having, out of desperation, started working as migrant labour. Others are hunting for jobs that pay a daily wage. Mohanty is right. Twenty rupees a day is not enough for survival.
Now the villagers in the camp just want to return. “We don’t care about POSCO; we just want to go back to our villages. We don’t have money for education or sickness. We beg our relatives for money. There are 250 people here, including 35 children.”
The government promised them jobs in POSCO and so is pressing them to stay till land acquisition is done and the plant is up and running.
Mohanty has met Odisha governor M C Bhandare and given him a letter about life in camp, but no action seems visible.
The larger tragedy of these families is that they have lost all sense of belonging. As they agreed to leave, they are considered unfaithful in the village, while in camp there is no one to address their condition. It’s hard to tell if they take any side or not, but they are very clear that POSCO will uproot everything.
Mohanty’s message: “If POSCO comes up, the villagers of Dhinkia, Kujong and Pulang will be begging for alms. Most workers in the plant will be from the outside. We have always known local people won’t benefit from POSCO. This is all a political drama.”
And he opened up a new possibility. “We will become Maoists if we are not allowed to go back. We will fight from the jungles like Maoists.”
Their villages and PPSS activists are ready to welcome them back but only if they come without the support of the administration. But the settlers are scared to do so.
Their homes are empty and the lands fallow. Acquisition has not begun and there is no compensation yet.
Vivekanand Bari (Vibhu) is a mechanic working for Panchanana Mahapatra. He has spent almost four years in the transit camp. He too gets ₹20 a day, which is insufficient, and so has taken up work in this shop. He has six guntas of private land and government sanctioned land in his village, but can’t go back to cultivate it. “I am willing to go if the anti-POSCO group permits me,” he says hesitantly. But does he have the courage to go alone before the villagers he once abandoned?
POSCO, then, is not just about steel and the continuation of the Indian economic miracle. It is also, equally, about the future of the villagers under the project and the lives of their children.
As desperation mounts among the villagers, the “sovereign resistance” seems to be set for a long battle with “sovereign violence”.