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Violence: Orissa village decides to boycott polls

Residents of Dhinkia refuse to vote over face-off between farmers and South Korean steel maker

india Updated: Apr 23, 2009 11:17 IST

In the heart of Orissa’s cyclone-prone Jagatsinghpur Lok Sabha constituency is a village where a storm of a different kind has been raging since 2005.

The people of Dhinkia have decided not to cast their ballots in the second phase of concurrent polls to the Lok Sabha and the state assembly on Thursday.
The coastal village has seen repeated violence since 2005, when the Orissa government signed a memorandum of understanding with South Korean steel company Posco, which proposed to build a steel plant with an installed capacity of 12 million tonnes (mt) here by investing around $12 billion (Rs60,240 crore), the largest-ever foreign direct investment (FDI) project in India.
Shishir Kumar Mohapatra, general secretary of the Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS), who is heading the organization after its leader Abhaya Sahu was arrested six months ago, said: "The day (in 2005) some strangers came to the village for soil testing, we asked them what that was all about. They told us that a big steel plant was proposed to be made here by a foreign company. From that day, we decided that we will not allow anybody to take our land away from us."
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Dhinkia, one of the three panchayats that will be affected by the Posco project along with Nuagaon and Gadakujang, stands on a fertile tract known for its high-quality betel vine and cashew nut.
"We send our betel leaves to places such as Pune, Mumbai, Delhi and Banaras (Varanasi)," said Ranjan Swain, a young villager who is also a science graduate. "Dhinkia village earns up to Rs4 crore a year from betel leaves and Rs1 crore from cashew nut," Swain claimed.
"We don’t need any help from the government. The government should let us live peacefully," said another villager who didn’t want to be identified.
Peace has, however, eluded Dhinkia in the past four years. It has seen repeated clashes between PPSS, the police and the Posco Jana Samparka Vikash Parishad (PJSVP), a group that supports the steel project.
Nirbhar Samantaray, a PJSVP member, claimed PPSS had in the past engaged in violence against Posco supporters. "They have even cut off the hand of Natabar Katua, who was a member of our group." Posco supporters, who are in a minority, are denied access to several shops in the village, he claimed.
The anti-Posco group, on the other hand, claims that one of its members, Dula Mandal, was killed in a hand grenade attack by Posco sympathizers. They also claim false cases have been registered against their leaders. "Our leader Sahu was arrested when he was returning from Andhra Pradesh after receiving medical treatment... Initially, 32 cases were registered against him. Once he got bail in all cases, four new cases were lodged against him to keep him behind bars," said another villager, declining to be named.
This time, the poll authorities have shifted the voting booth at Dhinkia to a nearby village and the residents think this is a ruse by the police to arrest them when they step out of the village.
Even Posco supporters have decided not to vote.
Dhinkia falls under the Ersama assembly constituency. The main fight in the Jagatsinghpur Lok Sabha seat is between the Communist Party of India’s Bibhu Prasad Tarai and the Congress’ Rabindra Kumar Sethy.
Posco India, the local arm of the steel maker, has got clearance from the Supreme Court for using forest land for industrial purposes. "Now, under the phase II clearance, the forest department will raise a demand note as to how much money we have to deposit for creating an equal area of jungle at some other place. We are expecting it to happen by June-end," said Nihar Patnaik, manager, corporate social responsibility, at a Posco office in nearby Kujanga village.
Posco requires 4,004 acres for its plant. Out of that, 3,540 acres belong to the state government, of which 2,958 acres is forest land. Patnaik claims there is only around 500 acres of government land which is occupied by the people. "After the phase II clearance, we will start giving compensation strategically to people based on the government land. However, we don’t have any immediate plan to acquire the private land as there is resistance on the ground," Patnaik said.
According to the official, while 466 families, or 2,201 people, will have to be evicted for the project, the number of families directly or indirectly affected by the project is expected to be 3,000, or 18,200 people. A senior Orissa government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there is no reason to be pessimistic about the project. "The resistance was only expected. We are waiting for the new government and then we will review the situation," he said.