Betel vines are once again beginning to dot the landscape that was meant to be the site for a Rs 52,000 crore giant steel plant.
Ten years after South Korean steel major Posco signed an agreement with the Odisha government under a blaze of publicity to set up a 12-million tonne steel plant in the state’s coastal Jagatsinghpur district some 150 kilometers from capital Bhubaneswar, the project has made no headway and local residents have begun to reclaim inch-by-inch the land that had been acquired for the plant.
In Nuagaon, villagers have smashed down a Posco-built boundary wall and physically taken back a huge parcel of land for betel and cashew plantation. Not far away, in Gobindapur village, at least 40 betel vines have come up on 50 acres that officially had been acquired for the plant.
Under the original agreement, Posco was to be given over 4,000 acres of land by demolishing more than 2,000 betel vines. Local economy was largely dependent on the betel vines generating an average monthly income of Rs 15,000, and the planned measure was never popular.
Protests, at times violent resulting in five deaths, led the authorities to limit the acquisition drive to 2,700 acres and scale down the planned plant production capacity to 8 million tonnes. By 2013, the police were deployed and the acquisition was completed through the use of force in areas such as Nuagaon, Gobindapur and Gadakujanga.
In hindsight though, the locals opposed to the plant, only lost the battle and not the war. Mired in difficulties including a slump in global steel prices, Posco chairman and CEO Kwon Oh Joon earlier this month announced a suspension of all operations in Odisha due to “lack of visible progress”.
The locals now are stepping into the void. The Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS), a grass-root organization that spearheaded the agitation against the steel giant, has called on the inhabitants to intensify re-erection of betel vines on land they seize back.
“PPSS will also start a drive to plant trees to replenish lakhs of cashew nut trees cut off by administration during and after land acquisition,” PPSS leader Prasant Paikray said.
With Posco absent from the scene, it has been entirely left to local government officials to resist the villagers and they have filed police complaints against 18 locals. “The land belongs to the state…that it has acquired after paying proper compensation,” Ersama tahsildar Sarat Kumar Purohit told HT.
But the villagers remain undaunted.”Let the government arrest me,” said 70-year-old Rajiba Behera, pointing to his freshly re-created betel vine. “The administration and police dismantled my betel vine forcibly. My eight-member family would have starved if I had not re-erected the vine after my compensation of Rs.2.75 lakh exhausted.” With more and more villagers coming up to reclaim the land they lost, the chances of the Posco plant coming up ever are dwindling further.