As I walked along with the villagers of Dhinkia, Patna and Nuagaon, I felt the energy, determination and apprehension. There was a smile on their faces, clarity in their hearts, resolve in their minds with just a little anxiety of what will happen next. With their goal defined, nothing else but reaching it mattered after a point. The congregation at Balitutha on Tuesday, April 1, had to be achieved as was the call by the Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS). It was not a regular meeting but symbolised the re-capturing of the four-month-old barricade put up by the administration in end-November 2007. For the villagers struggling against the setting up of the South Korean Pohang Steel Company, Posco, it was a critical step ahead.
It was truly a success, despite the restrictive attempts of the administration. The villagers and all the supporters joining in from other struggle areas from Orissa as well as other states and national level organisations came together in thousands.
It was a spell-binding experience to watch women and men walking towards their point of convergence from four different corners and reclaiming their freedom. Within minutes the barricade was torn apart and bundled up as if it never existed.
Posco proposes to set up a 12 million tonnes per annum steel plant and a captive port in Ersamma block, Jagatsinghpur district in Orissa. These projects along with the linked mining component proposed in Khandadhar, Sundergarh district, will have severe impacts on the flourishing livelihoods and rich ecosystem of the area. The steel plant and port, located around 10 kilometres from Paradeep Port will affect three gram panchayats in the Ersamma block.
Anyone who has spent even a little time in the area will know why the people are so resilient to save the land and with it their lives. The people of the area generate substantial income from paan leaves and also through paddy cultivation and fisheries. These are fitted neatly within the ecologically fragile landscape of sand dunes and fresh water ponds. The Jatadhari estuary is where the port would be set up displacing several fishing livelihoods apart from impacting the sensitive coastline. It is the canals from the estuary which irrigate the area.
One simply cannot imagine this pristine land use, which people are so proud to live with, transform into huge metal and concrete structures ‘captive’ in an ideology that regards foreign investment of such sort that can’t compensate people for their livelihoods and cultures. And that is what the struggle is all about.
April 1 as a date had a double significance. First, it was Orissa Foundation Day when Utkal Divas is celebrated across the state. Second, it was also the day that Posco had initially announced it would carry out the ‘ground-breaking’ ceremony for its proposed projects. At a later date Posco withdrew its plans with statements that the postponement was due to administrative delays related to clearances. But the rally was to go on.
When the people occupied Balitutha, flags fluttered and emotions flared. The speeches that followed, including that by PPSS leader Abhay Sahu, exhibited the resolve of the people and a clear message was sent out that the Posco projects were not welcome to all those gathered. During the address by various other supporters from Orissa and other parts of the country, they also read out solidarity messages from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KTCU) and various Korean civil society organisations, all in support of the struggle against the proposed Posco projects in India.
As I left the gathering, I could only think of what one of the village leaders told me the previous day. “The only barricade is ours,” he said, referring to the restrictions and police presence around the villages. For now, they seem to have asserted it, with a peaceful show of strength. Let us hope the rest of the country wakes up to the message they are trying to send out while struggling to save their ways of living.
Kanchi Kohli is a member of Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group.