By Sampad Mahapatra
Can a minority of 4000-odd people hold Orissa and India to ransom? Do they have any right to stand in the way of the biggest Foreign Direct Investment in India, the Rs 52,000 crore South Korean project that would generate huge amounts of revenue and employment and benefit millions of people? Should the Orissa government not take the toughest measures against people who are resorting to blackmail by using small little children as human shield? And in the process, embarrassing a government which is only trying to take control over the land it owns and for the larger public good.
Valid questions you would say. But travel to Dhinkia, 150 kms from Bhubaneswar and your world view may just end up quite different.
On June 9, Govindpur, a small sea-side village hemmed in by sand dunes and hundreds of betel vine farms that dot the sandscape, was fighting both the state and the sun. And what I saw shocked me.
Over 300 school-going children in the age group of 5 to 15 were lying prostrate on the hot sand and shouting slogans. Behind them were rows and rows of women and elderly people sleeping on the sand and joining the chorus : “Hataao Hataao Posco Hataao” ! Barely 200 feet away, 500 riot-ready policemen were ready to break loose. The SP of the district was busy issuing warnings from a loudspeaker, asking people to disperse or face the music.
The sight was revolting. How could people allow their own children to suffer under the scorching sun, I wondered. Have they joined the barricade voluntarily or have they simply been used as human shield? What if they die of a heatstroke?
9-year-old Pushpa Mandal told me she was there because she had to. “Can we sit back at home when a ruthless government wants to grab our land and destroy the livelihood of our parents ? Do I have a future?” she asked me without even expecting an answer. She knew she didn’t.
Next to her was 12-year old Abhimanyu. He was in pain but that did not make him any less belligerent. “We have gone through hell in the last six years. Naveen Patnaik government has punished us enough. Why can’t he ask Posco to look for another site? Steel can be produced anywhere but you need a special soil to grow betel. Why does he want to snatch away our land and reduce our parents and us to beggars?” I couldn’t miss the tears welling up in his eyes.
Sabita Behera, a betelvine farmer herself who was there with two of her daughters boldly defended the decision taken by the Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti to include children in the human barricade.
“Why not?” she asked. “After all it is they who are going to suffer the most. Will the company give them jobs ? No. But now even at this age, all of them earn one to two thousand rupees every month by simply counting and stacking the betel leaves.”
But what about their education?
“They all go to school but the schools are closed now for summer vacation. In any case even if they complete higher education, will they ever get a job? But if the betel vine farms are there, they will earn their bread and lead a comfortable life.”
Practical lessons that life teaches.
My first visit to Dhinkia panchayat was on 23 June 2005, a day after Posco signed an MoU with Orissa government for its 12 million ton 12 billion dollar project. I was curious to see the place Posco had chosen as its project site. It was late afternoon by the time I reached Dhinkia. I was struck by one common sight across Trilochanpur, Patana and Govindpur where every family was busy sorting betel leaves according to their size, counting and then stacking those in large baskets. Children, women and the elderly – in fact every person in this panchayat earns good amount of money out of this lucrative cash crop.
Over two third of the 2900 acre forest land that Posco wants for the project is in Dhinkia panchayat itself. And this large patch of sand is dotted with over 1000 betel-vine farms, several clusters of cashew plantations and hundreds of fruit bearing trees. Betel vines do not grow just anywhere. It requires a special kind of soil and environment that are available in this patch of land.
That explains why the local people are unwilling to part with even an inch of this ‘golden land’ that has fed the local population for generations.
Interestingly, though the local anti-Posco outfit is called ‘Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti’ (PPSS), the people here do not have anything against Posco or any industry as such. They say they are at war not with Posco but the state government which is behaving like an agent of the foreign company and trying to forcibly acquire land without initiating a process of dialogue.
“All that we are asking for is the re-location of the Posco project. Why should we allow our vibrant, self-sufficient and sustainable agrarian economy with a industrial project with uncertain and undefined benefits?” asks Abhay Sahoo, chairman of the Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti. He says they are ready for the supreme sacrifice.
In 2003 people in Dhinkia had allowed a part of their village to be acquired by the Indian Oil Refinery through a unanimous ‘Palli Sabha’ resolution. They agreed to concede to the demand for land because it was a PSU and more importantly the land to be acquired was neither a source of recurring income nor of any great value to them.
But now that they are up in arms against land acquisition for such a mega project, how does the government deal with them ?
Devdutt Singh, the Jagatsinghpur SP who was leading the police operations at the site said, “We are duty bound to acquire forest land owned by the government here but are being prevented from carrying out our job. This is unlawful, immoral and undemocratic and so we will do whatever is lawful.”
A senior district official sitting next to him dismissed the human barricade as sheer blackmail and said they deserved to be beaten up black and blue. “The Union Ministry of Environment and Forest has already granted the full final clearance to the project. The state government is trying to acquire not any private land but 3600 acres of land that it owns. So who are these people to stop us?”
“But what about the local community’s right over the forest land?” I asked him. The officer shot back. “That matter is over. They have no rights. We have made it clear there has been no violation of the Forest Rights Act and the Government of India has accepted it. Period.”
I am not quite convinced. Can any welfare state deny the local community their right to say no to the diversion of land that sustains them ? Remember, it’s a whole community, not just a few individuals that depend on this forest patch for a livelihood. I do not think this needs to be fought out in court rooms. It is a moral question that any elected government worth its name needs to respond to.
The celebrated Forest Rights Act, trumpeted by the UPA as a landmark law, recognizes rights of the communities and individuals over forest land. If they are members of the Scheduled Tribes they can enjoy ownership rights over the forest land under their occupation any time before December 2005 . But when it comes to the Other Traditional Forest Dwellers, they need to prove they were dependent on the concerned patch of land for 75 years ! Why? By what logic?
Public good? Who defines what is public good?
If we choose to deny the local communities any right over the forest land under this pretext or the other, we are making a mockery of our own laws and in a way subscribing to the logic that justified human sacrifice in ancient and medieval times, apparently for the larger public good.
Kondh tribals in Orissa used to sacrifice one member of their community each year to ensure a bumper ‘turmeric’ crop. The gory ritual that involved beheading of the person and sprinkling of his blood on the nascent turmeric crop was called the ‘Meria’ !
Would we be any less barbaric today if we believe the government is authorized to trample on people and their basic right to livelihood and dignity just because they refuse to fall in line or hail the $12 billion steel project, the biggest FDI in India as a manna from the Heaven that will ‘change the face of Orissa’ and wipe out hunger, poverty and backwardness with its magical steel wand. If four crore people stand to benefit why can’t 4000 people be gracious enough to give in ? If they don’t they can to go to hell.
As I walked back pondering over the 21st century `corporate’ version of Meria, I took a second look at the young Anna Hazares lying on the sand, far away from the media glare of Delhi. And I wondered if the Mahatma would have learnt a lesson or two from these young `Ahimsa’ soldiers.
(Sampad Mahapatra is Chief of Bureau of NDTV in Orissa and a documentary filmmaker)
Recommended reading :
By E A S Sarma