Pre-dawn police crackdown on village at POSCO site

Move marks restart of land acquisition for steel plant; police say they were only protecting farmers who wanted to give land

In a questionable land acquisition effort by government, hundreds of armed police personnel barged into Gobindpur village—a settlement that falls in the project area of South Korean steel major POSCO’s proposed mega steel mill in Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur district—before sunrise on Sunday.

The pre-dawn swoop marked resumption of land acquisition for the Rs 51,000 crore steel project which local people have been opposing vehemently for the past eight years.

Land acquisition for the mega project had been halted following death of a person during construction of a coastal road for the project on December 14, 2011.

“Some village residents, who were willing to part with their betel vineyards in Gobindpur village, had sought police protection. Since we had report that members of POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS) were preparing to cause violence, we moved police personnel into the village,” said Jagatsinghpur superintendent of police Satyabrata Bhoi.

Vineyards demolished, compensation handed out

At the end of day, the district administration razed 13 betel vineyards to the ground and disbursed the compensation amount in cheques to residents. The district administration announced that the ongoing exercise would continue till the vineyards of farmers willing to give land are taken over.

According to Jagatsinghpur district administration sources, 16 platoons of police (nearly 400 personnel) were deployed at different places in the project area in view of rising tension. Although police tried to take PPSS activists by surprise by starting land acquisition in the wee hours, some villagers protested the move. Villagers clashed with police personnel. Later police chased them away.

Jagatsinghpur Member of Parliament Bibhu Prasad Tarai and his supporters staged a demonstration nearby at Patna Chhak, demanding withdrawal of police force. PPSS activists, who are mostly from Dhinkia, came in procession and chanted slogans against police action.

“Police have deceptively entered to the villages with full force at 4 am on Sunday. When villagers protested, they were taken into custody. Police indiscriminately started pulling down betel vineyards and cutting trees forcefully,” said Prashant Paikray, spokesperson of PPSS.

“We fail to understand why the Naveen Patnaik government is so desperate to acquire land when the National Green Tribunal has already suspended the environment clearance for the proposed POSCO project,” said Paikray.

In 2005, POSCO had signed memorandum of understanding with the Odisha government for setting up a 12 million tonne per annum capacity steel plant at an estimated cost of Rs 51,000 crore.

About 1,620 hectares (ha) of land is required for the project. Of the total land, 177 ha is private land, 246 ha is non-forest government land and 1,197 ha is recorded revenue forest. As the people’s protest against the project grew, the company had to change its plan.

POSCO India Private Limited—POSCO’s Indian subsidiary—submitted a revised proposal for establishing 8 mtpa-capacity-steel plant on 1093 ha.  Industry watchers say it is make or break situation for the company.

As the next election is scheduled to be held in 2014, the state government may not be able to use force for land acquisition after a few months. This is the most opportune time to get hold of the remaining land. The Jagatsinghpur district administration claims to be in possession of around 809.37 ha. Another 283.28 ha would enable the company to start its 8mtpa capacity project. However, leaders of PPSS have announced they will resist the fresh acquisition using all their strength.

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The Odisha government on Sunday resumed land acquisition for Korean steel maker Posco’s 12 million tonne per annum steel project in Jagatsinghpur district after more than a year amidst fierce protests from anti-Posco villagers and baton charge by police.

Tension ran high at Gobindpur-Nuagaon border, the site for Posco’s proposed $12 billion (Rs 54,000) plant about 200 km east of Bhubaneswar, when the district administration officials entered the area with police force in wee hours of the morning and started demolishing betel vines.

Women, who have been on a demonstration along with children and old people since January 14 forming a human chain, rang bells to alert villagers who then opposed the land acquisition. Police allegedly used baton to disperse crowd.

“We started land acquisition in Gobindpur village this morning in a peaceful manner and acquired the betel vines and land of those who had given their consent,” Jagatsinghpur collector SK Mallick said, adding that there was no use of force on people.

The Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS), spearheading the movement against the $12 billion (Rs 54,000) plant, however alleged the district administration forcefully entered the area with more than 12 platoon police.

“The police came to Gobindpur-Nuagaon border at 4 am and attacked the women and children. More than 50 persons were injured in the process, three of them critically,” PPSS spokesperson Prasant Paikray told Hindustan Times, adding that while the National Green Tribunal had already suspended the environment clearance to the proposed Posco project, the Naveen Patnaik headed state government was behaving like an agent of the company.

Posco signedan MoU with the Odisha government in June 2005 to set up the green field steel project, touted as India’s single largest investment. The MoU has expired in 2010 and has yet to be renewed so far.

People of eight villages under Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gadakujanga gram panchayats have been opposing the  plant under the leadership of PPSS.

The state government had already acquired about 2000 acres for Posco, but suspended land acquisition in June 2011 in the face of stiff protests from villagers.

In December 2012, the district administration decided to resume the land acquisition work to acquire the remaining 700 acres needed for the commencement of the project.

Alarmed by the administration’s move, the villagers also have resumed their protest demonstration fronted by about 400 children since January 14.

On January 28, Union commerce and industries minister Anand Sharma had assured the South Korean government to review the works for Posco at the Partnership Summit in Agra.

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“There was heavy fog when we found the police reaching Batatikira. They beat me up and other men, women and children,” said Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti member Manorama Khatua, referring to a lathi charge on agitating villagers on Sunday, when land acquisition for the Posco steel project resumed here.

Since January 14, hundreds of villagers had been agitating peacefully, forming a human chain, at Batatikira against further acquisition of land. On Sunday, demolition of vineyards and felling of trees here were stopped after hundreds came out to oppose the administration’s move to acquire more land. However, a senior administration official claimed that 80 per cent of the residents of Gobindpur supported land acquisition. During the day, 12 betel vines belonging to those who had given their consent for land acquisition were destroyed and they were paid compensation by cheque, the official said. The Collector and Jagatsinghpur Superintendent of Police were present at the spot. Samiti leader Abhay Sahu countered the administration’s claim saying that actually 80 per cent of the people were against handing over their land.

Millions of betel leaves were crushed as the vineyards came crashing down under tractors. Many growers who oppose the land acquisition drive stood mute, even as a few villagers accepted the compensation. Administration officials, who came back from Gobindpur after the Sangram Samiti demanded immediate withdrawal of police from the area, told The Hindu that land acquisition will continue.

[Sources — Down To Earth, Hindustan Times, The Hindu]


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