Residents of two villages in Chhattisgarh hit by Maoist violence have stepped up their protests to prevent the government from acquiring their farm land for Essar Steel's upcoming plant.
"We will sacrifice our lives, but not surrender our land!" That's the message the impoverished villagers of Dhurli and Bhansi are sending out to everyone visiting the area, be they government officials, industrialists or media persons.
The villages are situated in one of the Maoist strongholds of Dantewada. It is where Essar Steel's 3.2 million tonnes per annum plant will come up in two phases.
The company has been awarded a prospecting license for a 2,285-hectare stretch in Bailadila hills.
Maoist guerrillas are said to be cashing in on the growing resentment among the tribals and encouraging them to intensify violent protests against the government plan to acquire 600 hectares (1,480 acres) of land - 200 hectares from Dhurli and 400 hectares from the adjoining hilly region of Bhansi.
A Muria tribal stronghold, the Dhurli and Bhansi villages are located some 400 km south of mineral rich Chhattisgarh's capital Raipur and 16 km from Dantewada town.
A senior official said 69 families would be affected by Essar's plant. The company made a deal in June 2005 with the government to invest Rs.70 billion for the plant.
The villages are located close to Bailadila hills, divided into 14 deposits, and have one of the world's largest and finest quality iron ore stocks where the public sector National Mineral Development Corp Ltd (NMDC) has been excavating iron ore for decades for domestic supply as well as exports.
The tribal protest against land acquisition took a violent turn on April 1, when Maoists stepped into the row and killed two farmers in Bhansi. The farmers had agreed to surrender their land for financial compensation.
"The Muria tribe has never conceded ancestral farm land for money to anyone. The tradition will end only if we are killed," Telami Vija, 51, told media at Dhurli village when the correspondent visited the Essar's planned steel project site.
Two elderly villagers, Ingaram and Budhram, said, "A violent war is in the offing as the government is forcibly trying to take over our land".
They alleged that the village head, Bhagat Kunjam, had become "an Essar agent".
Communist Party of India (CPI) leaders, including Gurudas Dasgupta, came here last month and voiced support to the villagers, Gundaram, 60, told the media.
In Bhansi, the situation is tense because the Maoists have asked tribals not to concede a single inch of land to the government for industry.
One village chief who supports the plant had a different point of view.
"The majority wants to give up their land. But who will go against the Maoists? They (Maoists) have said they will eliminate any person found lobbying for the plant," Bhansi sarpanch Anup Telam told the media.
"For the last one month I have been visiting Bhansi village only in the daytime. I spend the night in safer areas, mostly in Dantewada town, due to threats from Maoists," he said.
Another villager said a few of them from Bhansi were willing to negotiate with the government on the compensation amount but Maoists were coming in the way.
"It's too much; I can't decide the fate of my own land. I support the plant proposal but I am concerned about my family's future. I know very well what they (Maoists) can do," said the Bhansi villager.