The lifeless branches of betel vines are lying bare in the field, some of the dried leaves still clinging to the twigs, with many of them likely blown away by the winds into oblivion.
Betel vineyards, the economic mainstay of the local farmers in the remote village of Jagatsinghpur in India’s eastern Odisha state, are being destroyed to make way for a massive steel plant to be built by South Korean steel giant Pohang Iron and Steel Company (POSCO).
The nearly $12bn project, India’s biggest foreign direct investment, has been stalled for the past eight years due to stiff resistance by local farmers and tribals, who face displacement due to the project.
On January 10, the country’s environment ministry cleared the project, but asked the Korean company to spend on “social commitments”.
“Though an additional burden has been put on us, we are happy with the revalidation,” POSCO-India spokesman IG Lee told Reuters news agency.
The environment clearance to the multi-billion project comes after a proposed captive port nearby was delinked from the much-delayed plant.
The National Green Tribunal, which has been looking into the felling of trees in the area, has finally agreed to give the project forest clearance.
The clearance nothwithstanding, opposition to the project runs deep in the area.
Activists allege that the government has run a witch-hunt against members of POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti, PPSS (Committee to oppose POSCO) – formed in 2005 to counter the project.
PPSS spokesman Prashant Paikary told Al Jazeera that the environment ministry rushed with its decision eyeing the general elections.
“POSCO claims that it spent Rs 400 crore ($65m) under corporate social responsibility on peripheral development work, but nothing has been done in the area. You can come and see for yourself,” he said.
Paikary said that the democratic movement against the proposed plant will continue.
Al Jazeera’s call to India’s ministry of environment was not answered.
Poor, mineral-rich region
Odisha state, a poor but mineral-rich region, has been zealously pushing for the project as part of its industrialisation policy.
In July last year, the state government led by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, announced the completion of land acquisition that has seen persistent opposition from the local people.
|Locals who stand to lose their livelihood have been putting up a struggle against the government’s land acquisition plan [Sanjay Kumar]|
In February and July, police had destroyed vineyards in Govindpur village in Jagatsinghpur district, about 150km east of state capital, Bhubaneswar, amid opposition from farmers, many of whom were allegedly injured in the police action.
The acquisition took place despite suspension of environment clearance by the National Green Tribunal in March last year.
“The state is trying to move them [local people] out from there. Their livelihood, their habitat is never considered a priority by the state,” Shivani Chaudhary, Executive Director, Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), told Al Jazeera.
Local farmers and tribals, who stand to lose their houses, lands and livelihood, in Gadkujang, Dhinkia, Nuagaon, Paatna and Govindpur villages have been putting up a struggle against the government’s land acquisition plan for the past eight years.
There is heavy police presence round the clock in the area and fear stalks Dhinkia and Govindpur villages, which have become the battleground of resistance against the proposed plant.
Paikary of PPSS said a large number of people opposed to the proposed plant have not ventured out of their villages for nearly five years fearing arrest by the police.
“Today, there are about 245 cases against nearly 2,000 people, including 500 women,” Paikary said.
Abhay Das, a resident of Dhinkia village who is opposed to the project, alleged that the police had been supporting the company.
“We will continue our agitation against the project.”
People who would be evicted for the POSCO project have relied on their lands for generations in order to obtain adequate food and sustain themselves and their families
Chaudhary of the HLRN said: “There is collusion between the state and corporate interests. People are not even allowed to go out for medical purposes. You know the kind of violations that are happening there in Jagatsinghpur’s Dhinkia are absolutely unbelievable.”
Abhay Sahu, PPSS leader, was arrested in May last year in connection with a bomb blast in Paatna village that killed three of its own members in March. Anti-POSCO activists allege that the bomb was thrown at their members by pro-POSCO men and that Sahu was framed.
The PPSS leader, who has more than 50 cases slapped on him related to the anti-POSCO agitation, has been arrested twice in the past.
Repeated calls to seek Orissa government’s reaction on the issue went unattended.
Superintendent of Police of the Jagatsinghpur district, Satyabrata Bhoi, denied that the police was biased.
“Actually, this POSCO thing started in 2005. From 2005 till date there are charges against 100-150 people, not 2,000 people,” he told Al Jazeera.
The UN independent human rights experts in December 2013 urged company promoters to halt the mega-steel project citing serious human rights concerns.
“Forced evictions constitute gross violations of human rights,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing Raquel Rolnik.
“People who would be evicted for the POSCO project have relied on their lands for generations in order to obtain adequate food and sustain themselves and their families,” the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, said.
The South Korean steel major, the world’s fourth largest steel producer, has defended its track record.
“POSCO has been highly sensitive to the human rights of the local community from the inception of the project. POSCO has never infringed upon any human right of any individual in the course of project implementation,” the company said on its website.
Spurt in protests
In recent years, there has been a spurt in protests by tribal people living in resource-rich areas of Odisha against government plans to evict them to make way for mining and industries.
An inept bureaucracy has meant that the project-affected people have most often not got adequate and fair compensation.
Odisha, which holds nearly 30 percent of the country’s total mineral resources, has seen a number of agitations against land acquisition.
In July, 2013, the Dongaria Kondh tribal people of Niyamgiri Hills in the state rejected aluminum mining by Vedanta Plc, a UK-based company. The tribal council was given the final say by the Supreme Court, India’s top court.
In 2008, at least 14 tribals were killed in police firing during a protest against a steel plant owned by the Tata group.
“They are not considered equal, their rights are not respected and most of the time, the tribals don’t even know about their own rights. There is a loss of livelihood, there is a loss of housing, there is breakdown of community, there is breakdown of social structure,” Chaudhary from HLRN said.
In 2005, POSCO signed a memorandum of understanding with the resource-rich state to build the plant at an investment of $12bn (Rs 52,000 crore).
There is a proposal by the Odisha government to give iron ore mining lease to POSCO in Keonjhar and Sundergarh districts.
But opposition parties and activists have accused the Odisha government of leasing the mines cheaply. Environmentalists say the project will affect the livelihood of locals dependent on the surrounding forests.
The mega steel plant, which experts say will generate an estimated 50,000 direct and indirect jobs, will result in the displacement of nearly 22,000 people from the area and thousands more from surrounding areas.
But it will also prove to be a death knell to sustainable agriculture around the betel vines.
A vineyard of about 4,000 square feet generates an income of nearly Rs 30,000-40,000 ($650) per month for each farmer. The popular Kujangi betel leaves reach big cities such as Varanasi and Mumbai, and are also exported to neighbouring Bangladesh and Pakistan.
With little skill to work in the proposed plant, the farmers’ future look uncertain.
“We don’t want POSCO, there is no compromise on this position. We don’t believe the government’s claim on rehabilitation. People who were affected by mining projects in the past are yet to be rehabilitated,” PPSS spokesperson said.
The environmental impact of the project is immense as hundreds of thousands of trees have been cut to clear the forests, which acted as natural barrier against cyclones such as the one in 1999 that caused the death of about 10,000 people.
The government says most of the betel farms are on forest land. As a result, it doesn’t need the villagers’ consent for acquisition.
The economic benefit comes at a very large cost. People are losing their livelihood and education and are being forced to migrate to urban areas
The village assemblies of Govindpur and Dhinkia, home to the largest number of vineyards, had passed resolutions last year, under the Forest Rights Act, not to divert any forest land for the proposed plant.
The Act, passed in 2006, grants legal recognition to the rights of forest dwelling communities. But the country’s top court approved diversion of the forest land for the project in 2008.
With the latest forest clearance, the controversial project has taken one giant step towards fruition.
However, environmentalists say the plant, which will extract huge quantity of water from the Mahanadi river, may lead to scarcity of water in the region.
Moreover, the project has split the village communities.
Superintendent of police Bhoi said 52 families from the Paatna village have been forced to flee their homes for supporting the project, a charge denied by anti-POSCO activists.
“The government and the company are using divide and rule here and the 52 families living in the POSCO transit camp are an example of that,” a PPSS spokesman said.
“The government gives only Rs 20 ($0.317) to each individual as daily allowance. They are living there for several years and the government has not yet rehabilitated them.”
Many of those who accepted the compensation initially have already exhausted their money and are now unemployed, according to a report by New Delhi-based Hindustan Times newspaper.
“The economic benefit comes at a very large cost. People are losing their livelihood and education and are being forced to migrate to urban areas,” Chaudhary of HLRN said.