Return The Land Acquired for Posco Plant

When I was in school, there was this friend of mine, the son of a veterinary surgeon, who was the only proud owner of a proper cricket kit – bat, ball and stumps – in the whole area. It was only natural for us to keep him in good humour and allow him to bat – and skip the menial job of fielding – for as long as he wanted, even after he was bowled neck and crop by one of us. Even a murmur of protest and he would threaten to pack up and rush home with his kit leaving us stranded. In behaving the way it is after Korean steel giant Posco asked it to take back the land acquired for its all but shelved mega steel plant project, the Odisha government is acting much like my petulant childhood friend.

Once the project for which the land was taken over has been shelved, logic and fair play demand that the land should be returned to the people – as was done in the case of Singur in neighbouring West Bengal. But an obstinate state government now says the acquired land would now be kept in the IDCO land bank for future use by other industrial houses. It is entirely possible that the land has already been informally promised to an industrial house for setting up an industry in the area. But make no mistake; it would be a disaster if the government makes any such effort.

Industry minister Debi Prasad Mishra’s claim that the land belongs to the government and it is free to do what it wants to do with it may be technically and legally correct. As per the revised land acquisition policy notified on February 7, 2015, “Land acquired and possession taken over but not utilized within a period of five years from the date of possession shall in all cases revert back to the state and deposited in the Land Bank automatically.” But there is more to governance than just legality and anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the way governments function knows that the state government is well within its rights to make an exception in this case and return the 2700 acres of once fertile land to the people it was acquired from.

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The way events have panned out over since June 22, 2005, the day the MoU with Posco was signed, leaves no room for any doubt that the decision to locate the mega 12 MTPA port based steel plant in a highly fertile area was a monumental error of judgment in the first place. And yet, the government went ahead with uprooting the people from their homes and disrupting their flourishing agrarian economy with a rare, messianic  zeal. It used every trick of allurement, intimidation and coercion at its command, booking people on false charges, lathi charging and even firing on innocent villagers and driving a wedge between the people to divide them into two mutually hostile pro and anti Posco groups. If the project still couldn’t see the light of the day after well over a decade, it was certainly not for any lack of trying on the part of the government.

Now that Posco has made its intentions clear by asking the government to take the land back, the devastated people of three panchayats – Dhinkia, Gadakujanga and Nuagaon  – are trying to pick up the shattered pieces of their life. Their sources of livelihood are now in ruins and the compensation they got is now exhausted in the absence of any alternative sources of income in the years since their land was taken over.

Ironically, the devastation all around has had at least one positive fall-out. The two groups of people, who were at loggerheads with each other not so long ago, have now realized the futility of hostility and decided to bury the hatchet. The once pro-Posco group has now joined the anti-Posco group in demanding the return of the acquired land to the people. Once divided by the machinations of the administration, the people are beginning to unite and dream of shared prosperity once again. Nature, as we all know, has an infinite capacity for regeneration and there is no reason why the area that now resembles a war-ravaged territory cannot get back to its pristine glory and become a flourishing land for ‘dhaana, paana and mina’ (paddy, betel leaves and fish) again in a few years’ time.

This is a heart-warming development and all efforts must be made by everyone concerned to help the people affected by the project to pick up the threads of their disrupted life. Needless to say, the state government should be at the forefront of such efforts. It must shed its recalcitrance and return the land to the people – this time with proper land deeds – by amending the relevant law, if necessary.