Land Struggles

As Posco exits steel project, Odisha is left with thousands of felled trees and lost livelihoods

The South Korean firm's MoU in 2005 was India's largest FDI deal. On Saturday, it pulled out of the plan.

In 2005, when Posco, the world’s fourth-largest steelmaker, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Odisha government to set up a 12-million-tonne-capacity steel project in Jagatsinghpur district, it attracted global media attention for being the biggest foreign direct investment in India, at that point of time, at $12 billion (Rs 52,000 crores). It was heralded as the project that would set Odisha – at the bottom of several development indices – on a high-growth trajectory and make India a steel superpower.

Twelve years and several twists and turns later – largely in the shape of public resistance to the project as well as regulatory hurdles – the South Korean steel major has officially withdrawn from the project. On Saturday, Odisha’s Industries Minister Debi Prasad Mishra told reporters in Bhubaneswar that Posco had offered to surrender the land it had acquired because of its inability to start work on the project.

“The [state-owned] Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation had acquired 2,700 acres of land for the proposed Posco project,” Mishra said. “The state government in a letter had asked Posco to clear dues of Rs 82 crore towards cess. In its reply, the company has said it is not interested in taking possession of the rest of the acquired land and paying the remaining amount. It has requested the government to take back the acquired land handed over to it.”

With this development, the net result of the Odisha government’s most ambitious industrialisation dream is lakhs of felled trees, thousands of promised jobs that never materialised, and frustrated villagers staring at an uncertain future.

People’s resistance movement

When the Odisha government signed the memorandum of understanding with Posco, it made a commitment to the company to offer 4,004 acres of coastal land, even though the Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation did not have a single acre at its disposal – unlike its counterpart in Gujarat that keeps a land bank ready before inviting any prospective investor to the state.

The project ran into trouble from the onset. Villagers opposed the acquisition of their land – on a fertile strip on the coast of the Bay of Bengal near Paradip, famous for its betel vines. The resistance was largely because the betel-based economy sustained 20,000-odd people in eight villages in Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gadakujanga gram panchayats that would be affected by the project. And about 3,000 acres of the 4,004 acres of land required for the steel plant was to come from forestland, its sandy landscape dotted with around 5,000 betel vines. The vineyards gave farmers here an assured average income of at least Rs 20,000 per month.

A villager in his betel vineyard, which was dismantled during the land acquisition process in 2013. With the project stuck, he re-erected the vines in 2015. 
A villager in his betel vineyard, which was dismantled during the land acquisition process in 2013. With the project stuck, he re-erected the vines in 2015. 

The Jagatsinghpur district administration countered the resistance by accusing the villagers of occupying the forestland illegally, though the latter said they had been cultivating betel for generations. The villagers, who came under the banner of the Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti to protest the land acquisition, rejected the state government’s offer of a Rs 70-crore rehabilitation package.

The project, however, also fractured the village community. One group, the United Action Committee, which was influential in Nuagaon, the biggest of the affected villages, supported Posco’s entry. This led to clashes between pro-Posco and anti-Posco groups, claiming five lives. Police cases were lodged against many anti-Posco activists, including women, who, in their attempt to avoid arrest, lost out on their livelihoods.

The district administration carried out the land acquisition in two phases – in 2011 and 2013. In the first phase, residents of Nuagaon willingly allowed their betel vines and fruit-bearing trees, mostly cashew nut, to be torn down in exchange for compensation. But fierce resistance in other villages, especially by hundreds of children and women who blocked entry points to the vineyards by squatting on the sand in the scorching summer heat, forced the administration to suspend the land acquisition for the next two years. When it resumed the process in 2013, backed by additional police deployment, it had limited the land to be acquired to 2,700 acres by excluding Dhinkia village, the epicentre of the anti-Posco campaign.

While the Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation handed over 1,700 acres out of the total 2,700 acres to Posco, to start an 8-million-tonne-capacity steel mill in the first phase, the state and Central governments proactively cleared any environmental roadblock in the company’s way ahead of the then South Korean President Park Geun-Hye’s visit to India in January 2014, and a few months before the general elections.

A hoarding marking the entry point to the project site at Balitutha. It announces the state-run Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation as the "friendly facilitator" of the project.
A hoarding marking the entry point to the project site at Balitutha. It announces the state-run Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation as the "friendly facilitator" of the project.

Regulation roadblock

Still, not a brick was laid in the project area. There were several reasons for this. Though the steel plant was central to the ambitious project, it had two other vital components – a port and a mine that Posco was confident of building. Many Posco officials maintained the port and mine were indispensable for the project. So confident was Posco about clinching these two components that it refused an offer from the Paradip Port, a few kilometres from the project site, for separate berths exclusively for its use.

Mining experts speculate that Posco’s non-negotiable stand on getting the captive mine and port was driven by its intention to source iron ore from the Khadadhar hill in mineral-rich Sundargarh district at dirt cheap rates – Rs 1,200 a tonne against the market rate of Rs 3,500 per tonne.

However, in January 2015, an amendment of the Mine and Minerals Development and Regulation Act – in the wake of allegations of mining scams across the country, including in Odisha – put a spanner in Posco’s plans. Under the amended law, it was now mandatory for the company to go through the auction route to get its captive iron ore mine. Earlier, the state government had promised to help it obtain the mining licence for free.

Thereafter, Posco completely lost interest in the project, which was now as good as dead – though a formal announcement took another two years to come.

Ruined economy, damaged ecology

When this reporter visited Nuagaon in August 2015, a few battered and broken prefabricated shipping containers were all that remained of Posco’s site office on a deserted swathe of sand. The villagers had already demarcated the “Posco land” with small plants and stones and divided it among themselves.

All that remains of Posco's site office in Nuagaon village in 2015.
All that remains of Posco's site office in Nuagaon village in 2015.

In villages like Gobindpur, where the administration had acquired land in the face of stiff resistance, villagers had re-erected their betel vines and resumed cultivation.

Though it is the end of the road for Posco, the damage that has been done to the area seems irreparable. Lakhs of stumps of what were once cashew nut and other fruit-bearing trees are tell-tale signs of livelihoods lost and an ecology devastated.

Today, Nuagaon, the village that backed Posco, is a picture of despair: its residents have exhausted their compensation amounts and are left with no other means to sustain themselves. More than a half of the village is unemployed. Those who owned betel vines and employed people to work on them now make a living as daily-wage labourers in the vineyards of Dhinkia, which survived the land acquisition. Nuagaon also suffers from a shortage of firewood as its forest cover is all but depleted, another remnant of the project.

While Posco may have made its exit finally, the industries minister has said that the state will hold on to all 2,700 acres of the acquired land for future use. And on Sunday, Union Coal and Power Minister Piyush Goyal said that there are other companies that can replace Posco.

Such statements show that no lessons have been learnt from the over-decade-long Posco fiasco. For if the state government decides to give the land to any other big ticket investor, it would have to reclaim this land from the people and risk triggering another grassroots resistance movement.

The Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti has already threatened to launch another agitation if the state government does not return the land to the people.

All images credit Arabinda Mahapatra.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.