Abhay Charan Rout (46) of Nuagaon village did not want his betel vine demolished to make way for Korean steel major Posco’s $12 billion (Rs54,000 crore) plant.
However, when the Jagatsinghpur district administration started land acquisition for the project from May 18 — after a clearance from the union ministry for environment and forests — he accepted a compensation of around Rs1.4 lakh for his demolished vine.
“I had no choice. The administration announced over loudspeaker the vines would be demolished anyway,” said Rout, who supported his nine-member family with an earning of about Rs2 lakh a year from his vine, 18 cashew nut trees surrounding it and 50 goats.
Rout knows the compensation will run out. Now, he has joined the demonstrators standing in the way of India’s biggest foreign direct investment.
He and many others of Nuagaon, where a pro-Posco group — the United Action Committee — holds sway, have turned against the project.
On June 21, the state government stopped land acquisition following weeks of protest during which children, women and the elderly formed human barricades at the border of Gobindpur-Nuagaon villages, about 200 km east of Bhubaneswar, to block the entry of government officials.
Orissa chief secretary BK Patnaik said, “The district administration is holding talks with the people. We hope to acquire land for the project peacefully.” The protesters believe there are no grounds for talks. “Overnight, we were termed as encroachers. My family earns more than Rs15,000 a month from our two betel vines and cows. Why should we trade this for an uncertain future?” asked Sabitri Sethi (54) of Dhinkia village.
People of eight villages under Dhinkia, Gadakujanga and Nuagaon gram panchayats are fighting against the project under the banner of the Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS). The PPSS has rejected the state’s government’s R70 crore rehabilitation package for about 3,000 families.
There are more than 4,000 betel vines in the forestland across the three panchayats. Of the 4,004 acres required for the plant, about 3,000 acres is forestland.
The protesters claim they have been cultivating betel for generations. The state government maintains they are illegally occupying forest land.
The Forest Rights Act (FRA) recognises rights of communities and individuals over forest land. If they are members of the Scheduled Tribe, they can enjoy ownership rights over the forest land under their occupation anytime before December 2005. However, Other Traditional Forest Dwellers need to prove they were dependent on their patch of land for 75 years.
In the case of Vedanta’s mining lease in Niyamgiri hills, Orissa, the FRA went in favour of the tribals. However, in Posco’s case, the union environment ministry cleared the project on the basis of the state government’s stand that there were no forest dwellers in the area earmarked for the plant.