Caught in the steel trap

KENDRAPADA: Debendra Kanra is a pleased man. The sun beats down on the Kujang tehsildar as he stands on a sandy field in Gobindapur village on a Wednesday morning, overseeing an army of around 30 workers drawn from neighbouring villages, who are busy dismantling betel vines off the land on which Posco’s much-vaunted Rs 52000-crore steel plant project is slated to come up.

The work to dismantle betel vines has been on since Sunday in the presence of armed police in Gobindapur despite protests by many villagers, said Kanra, while taking innumerable calls on his phone. Kanra is the man in the hot seat, furiously signing cheques for about 54 betel vine farmers who altogether received about Rs 1 crore compensation money.

Providing a contrasting vignette to the land acquisition drama for the South Korean steel major, a little distance down the dirt track in Bhuiapala village one spies a group of men despondently looking at the frenetic activity of pulling down the vines.

“Till recently it was my land. I raised betel vines on it,” says Durlava Swain (52), who till the other day cultivated betel vines on nearly half an acre of land inside what is now called the project land. Did Durlava voluntarily give up his land? “No, never,” he says fiercely, adding, “How could I agree to give away my land. It has been with us for generations. It has fed and clothed me and my family of six.” So, how will he support himself now? Durlava’s face clouds over. “I don’t know. Starve, I suppose,” he says, staring in the distance at an uncertain future.

During a trip down Gobindapur, Dhinkia, Trilochanapur and other neighbouring villages with a population of 12,000 in the vicinity of the ‘Project project land’ one comes across seething anger with villagers alleging large-scale forceful displacement.

There are stray examples of villagers weaving dreams of a rosy future with the compensation money they have received. Ashok Burdhan of Gobindapur village wants to invest his compensation money of Rs 6 lakh in a business, while Bijaya Jena plans to open a tiffin shop in the port town of Paradip with his booty of Rs 5 lakh.

One can only hope Burdhan and Jena don’t meet the fate of the likes of Bachhaba Swain of Noliasahi village. Two years ago, the 54-year-old had got a compensation of Rs 4 lakh when the government acquired his betel vine farms. Bachhaba spent Rs 2 lakh in the marriage of his daughter Sita and gave the remaining money to his son Rajendra to open a grocery shop in Kujang. Rajendra failed to run the shop and suffered a huge loss. Now Bachhaba and his son work as daily labourers in the construction site of an oil refinery of Indian Oil Corporation.

“We do not want to become labourers like Bachhaba and his son. We earn about Rs 5 lakh a year from two acres of betel vines. After the banning of gutka the demand of betel is rising. But the state government is helping a foreign company Posco by taking away our livelihood,” said Ranjan Swain a betel vine farmer of Gobindapur, echoing the helplessness of hundreds of fellow farmers.

When contacted, district collector S K Mallick, however, astutely parroted the oft-repeated line of the government: “We are flattening the betel vines of only those farmers who agreed to receive compensation money in lieu of their betel vines.”

[Source — Times of India]

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