Ashutosh Mishra

By Ashutosh Mishra

Bhubaneswar: Public hearing for environmental clearance for JSW Utkal Steel Ltd’s proposed steel plant in Jagatsinghpur district is reported to have passed off peacefully last week. A section of villagers from Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gadakujanga, however, recalled the harassment they had faced when the state government was acquiring land in the area for the steel mill of South Korean behemoth, POSCO. The company has since abandoned its plans of setting up the project and left Odisha but bitter memories of police highhandedness during the land acquisition drive remain.

The POSCO project, the biggest foreign direct investment (FDI) in the country at the time of the South Korean company singing a memorandum of agreement (MOU) with Odisha government in 2005, had been hailed as a major milestone of Naveen Patnaik government in the field of industrialisation. The state government had rolled out the red carpet for the company and pulled out all stops to ensure that the project took off at the earliest.

The government, however, had not accounted for the people’s will and its power. People of the area comprising the panchayats of Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gadakujanga rose in revolt as they felt that the proposed steel mill threatened their self-sustaining economy. The land the government proposed to acquire for the steel mill grew paddy, sustained betel leaf vines and pisciculture that kept their kitchen fires burning. All that was at stake and the few direct and indirect jobs that the project promised could never have compensated for them. Equally important was the question of environment.

The popular agitation launched by the people under the banner of POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS) had to contend with police atrocities against the local residents, many of whom were arrested. There were several incidents of violent clashes in the area and panchayat elections in Dhinkia had to be postponed because of the prevailing atmosphere of fear and distrust.

The combined might of the state and the resourceful South Korean corporate even succeeded in driving a wedge into the movement but even the splinter group made demands that could not be fulfilled. The company also made an unsuccessful bid to win over the agitating people by reducing its demand for land. Faced with such problems and the prospects of not getting the Khandadhar iron ore mines POSCO finally decided to call it quits.

POSCO’s departure from Odisha may have been a loss of face for the state government but there were lessons to be learnt from the episode, the most important of these being that since industries are meant for the development of people they should not be set up at their cost. The other lesson that the authorities must keep in mind is that any attempot to suppress the voice of the people is bound to boomerang.

With a new steel project proposed in the area it is important that the demands of the local residents are taken into account and considered sympathetically. They have already been through a lot and should not be subjected to any more harassment. If the project comes up with their consent it is most welcome.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)