POSCO project remains grounded on betel vs steel fight
It is now the betel leaf farmers of a cluster of villages around Paradip in Orissa who now stand in the way of the Indian footprint of a global steel behemoth.
Five years back when South Korean chaebol POSCO signed an MoU with Orissa government to set up a Rs 51,000 crore mega project near Paradip, scarcely did it anticipate the trouble it would face from the betel leaf farmers of eight villages where the project is supposed to come up.
POSCO-India, which needs 4004 acres of land to set up its 12 MTPA greenfield project, failed to acquire an inch of land in the eight villages in three gram panchayats of Dhinkia, Gada Kujang and Nuagaonas even as the MoU with a five-year validity period lapsed.
The villagers, who earn their living by exporting betel leaves to countries like Maldives, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, argued that a single leaf fetched them Rs one and one acre of betel vine was worth Rs one crore per annum.
There are about 2,900 betel vines in the area giving daily employment to 6,000 people, said POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti president Abhay Sahu. "We will not allow an inch of our fertile multi-crop land for the industry. We have a flourishing and sustainable agrarian economy," claimed Dhinkia gram panchayat sarpanch Sisir Mohapatra who is also the secretary of the Samiti.
Manorama Khatua, a woman activist opposing the POSCO project, said betel leaves from Dhinkia had a special appeal to people in Mumbai and Kanpur.
Demanding shifting of the plant site, the Sangram Samiti in a memorandum to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said: "Betel cultivation in the past had successfully driven out the Integrated Test Range from Baliapal to Chandipur area in Balasore district." This was not all, the betel leaf farmers of Dhinkia had also fought and succeeded in shifting the proposed refinery project of IOCL in 1993-94 to Paradip.
"The IOCL had to shift its project for the sake of betel vine and agricultural livelihood," Sahu pointed out pleading that the villagers were ready to sacrifice their lives for the sake of their livelihood.
"We have no objection to Posco project. But it must shift to some barren land as Dhinkia symbolises a flourishing agrarian economy," Mohapatra, who faces a non-bailable warrant for leading the anti-project agitation, said. With the expiry of POSCO's MoU, the Naveen Patnaik government feels: "It (POSCO plant) is now or never."