It was the end of a long, tiring and humid day. Sitting near the bamboo gate of his 'precious' betel vineyard, 70-year-old Narayan Mandal said despondently, "I don't want to migrate, once again." Mandal, a resident of Gobindpur village in Orissa's Jagatsinghpur district, is one of the many opposing the state government's ambitious $12 billion Posco steel project.
For the last six years, three gram panchayats - Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gada Kujanga - have been agitating against the project, touted as India's largest foreign direct investment, which includes a 12 million tonne steel plant at Jagatsinghpur, a captive port at Paradeep and mining operations in Sundergarh and Keonjhar districts of the state.
In 1970, Mandal migrated to Gobindpur from Kathi, West Bengal. After struggling for a few years, he started cultivating betel vine. Today, he earns Rs15,000 per month from his four-decimal vineyard (100 decimal: 1 acre), plus an additional Rs7,000 from the three cashew trees in his backyard. If he loses his land, he will get Rs46,000 as one time payment and a home in a resettled colony. The government's compensation package, which has been rejected by the agitating villagers, offered Rs11,500 per decimal of betel vine, Rs17 lakh per acre of paddy and Rs2 lakh per acre of prawn ponds. So no prizes for guessing which one Mandal and others like him would choose.
In this ground zero of the anti-Posco stir, it is the betel vine-based economy that is the leitmotif of the struggle. And there are plenty of reasons for that: first, the creeper provides round-the-year employment not only to the owners/farmers of the betel vineyards and their families but also to landless labourers. Over the years, the price of betel leaves has gone up to Rs1 (2011) from 30 paise per leaf (2005). Some of the farmers also have paddy fields and many landless labourers earn from fishing in the nearby Jatadhar, which will be difficult if the captive port comes about. Despite being on the coastline, the area has sweet sand that facilitates good crops and adequate drinking water.
The labour wage in this area is also the highest in Orissa. From Rs70 and two meals for eight hours of work in 2005, it has now gone up to Rs250 plus two meals, almost double what the Mahatma Gandhi NREG scheme pays in the state. "The business is looking better than ever before because the demand of our variety of betel leaf (Pradeep) is increasing in Allahabad and Mumbai," says Mandal's neighbour Mihir Patra, 40, who owns 30 rows of betel vine on 18 decimal land. He earns about Rs30,000 per month.
The government claims that the project will generate 8.72 lakh jobs. But according to Iron & Steel: The Posco India Story, an international and unfunded report, it is a "lie". At best, the project would generate 7,000 direct jobs and 10,000 indirect jobs over the project period of five to 10 years.
The government's promise also sounds specious because over the years, job opportunities in the mining sector have decreased due to increased mechanisation. The sector is also known for hiring informal and subcontracted workers and the ratio of formal and informal workers in the mining sector is 1:10. The government's data also shows that the number of workers directly employed in mineral-based activities in the state has come down from 52,937 (2001-02) to 49,176 (2007-08) whereas the extraction of iron ore has increased from 55.5 million tonnes to 74.5 million tonnes during the same period.
However, land acquisition is not the only hurdle facing the Posco project. The mining rights given to the company is also facing a judicial challenge since there are pending applications of other companies for the same mines. The clearance for a captive port in the mouth of Jatadhar is also being contested in the state high court because it was given without competitive bidding. There are growing protests against the water rights given to the company. The protestors say increasing pressure on the Hirakud dam will affect the supply for irrigation. The 122.63 cusecs of water promised to Posco is the highest volume of water ever allotted to any project in the state. But what probably irks the people most in these areas is the fact that chief minister Naveen Patnaik, despite making several promises, is yet to visit Jagatsinghpur.
Meanwhile, in the 'anti-Posco' villages, the public health centre and primary schools are non-functional and thanks to the FIRs lodged against the protestors, not many have managed to go out of the village in the last six years for medical help. A recent medical camp organised by a Kolkata-based NGO showed that many are suffering from hypertension, insomnia and mental disorder.
But what could actually trip the project is the way the Opposition have started throwing their weight behind the protests and carving out their political territories. Since entering the land acquisition struggle at this point will be difficult for either the Congress or the BJP, (the area has traditionally been a Communist Party of India stronghold and the chairman of the Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti, which is leading the protests, Abhay Sahu, is a member of the state secretariat of the party), the opposition parties are eyeing the other two equally contentious issues: mining and water rights. And in both the BJP seem to have an upperhand.
State BJP chief Jual Oram is leading the charge against the party's former ally, the BJD, from the tribal-dominated mining areas. "The state Cabinet did not clear the project and none of the concerned departments were consulted," alleges Oram. His colleague Bijoy Mahapatra is leading the protests for water rights. The Congress, which has negligible presence in Orissa, is also eyeing to score some political brownie points. Recently, Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi drew a parallel between the anti-land acquisition protests in Bhatta-Parsaul in Uttar Pradesh and the Posco project, suggesting that the solution could lie in setting it up on non-agricultural land. Obviously buoyed by this, Congress chief Niranjan Patnaik remarked that the present site for the steel plant is wrong and promised to return the land if it comes to power.
Last week, environment and forests minister Jayanthi Natarajan said there will be "speedy decisions" on Posco and Vedanta. But, if the mood in the 'anti-Posco' area and the political support for the other 'causes' are any indication, the future looks very, very uncertain.