Gunning for development

Rakesh Bardhan is all of eight, and studies in Class IV. At an age when children are full of dreams about what they want to do when they grow up, Rakesh is no different. Except that he asserts, “I’ll agitate against the police and all type of torture of the government.”

“The anti-POSCO struggle in many ways exemplifies what’s inherently wrong with the development drive literally unleashed on the people of rural India.”

Rakesh is gutsy, hardened; he is also one of the leaders of the Balok Sena, the boys and girls seen on the frontlines of the anti-POSCO agitation in Odisha earlier this summer. Rakesh chants slogans, and mobilises schoolmates. But there are other things too that Rakesh does – like assisting his father Fakir in the family betelyard once he is done with his studies.

Hundreds of children in Dhinkia village, in the coastal district of Jagatsinghpur, have been sucked into the anti-POSCO struggle. Not by their parents, but by the sight of the brutal police force which has been trying to acquire land for the steel project.

Dhinkia is one of the three villages (besides Gobindpur and Patana) which has fiercely resisted takeover of land by the government. But Rakesh and his family are virtual prisoners here. As are Tulsi Das (60), Gura Das (65), Parikhita Maiti (55) and Indramani Sai (55). Theirs is no age for anyone, leave alone women, to be on the streets to agitate. But they did, and ended up with rubber bullet injuries. That’s when their trauma began. They cannot go out for treatment since they fear being arrested on the basis of false cases filed against them.

A fact-finding team from MASUM (Banglar Manabadhikar Surakha Mancha) found in June that filing of false cases is one of the ways the Odisha government has been tackling the resistance.

In Gobindpur, around 400 women and 600 men have several false cases against them. Some have as many as 40-50 each as a result of which bail is not available. And since applying for bail repeatedly, is an expensive proposition, most have given up.

That does not mean they are willing to give up land. Padma Charan Dolai has a family of seven. He owns two acres of land, a small pond, and a betel farm. Dolai avers, “We got the right to cultivate, and to consume this land and forest products from the King of Burdwan long before Independence. We also protect and conserve the bio-diversity and endangered flora and fauna. They fulfill our livelihood and we protect them. So, this place has no room for outsiders.”

The struggle, however, is not just about landowners. Dukhi Das, 28, has none. But he has eight goats, and collects firewood, dry leaves and cow dung from the adjacent forest. Says Das, “I’m involved only with the forest. Since I’ve no land, I’ve no legitimate demand. Neither POSCO nor the government will compensate me. I’ll have nothing left.”

The anti-POSCO struggle in many ways exemplifies what’s inherently wrong with the development drive literally unleashed on the people of rural India. The POSCO India Private Ltd plant, first announced in 2005 by the world’s third-largest steel company by output, was slated to be the largest single foreign investment in India. At Rs 50,000 crore, it probably still is; but is now also one being ruthlessly enforced by the gun and court judgments.

Protests against the plant have been going since the beginning, but the agitation led by the POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS) started making headlines only in May 2010 when armed police battalions attacked unarmed protesters at Balitutha village. Shops, eateries and thatched houses were set afire. Protesters were shot at, albeit with rubber bullets. But one person did die, and hundreds including women were injured.

That was when the conflict escalated. And this May, women and children rushed to the frontlines. More than 2,000 people formed human barricades around Dhinkia. The state government called it blackmail, and the media went to the extent of saying that children were being used as shields. What most didn’t say was that the people had been pushed so much against the wall, that everyone in Dhinkia was willing to resist the steel plant till the very end.

While the rest of India, maybe only the urban part of it, was bracing up for its cathartic fast against corruption, villagers of Dhinkia stood resolute in the unbearable heat. As they stuck to their ground, many fainted. As did two policemen. The protest was described as “unlawful” and warnings were issued about the imminent use of teargas shells and lathi charges. Eventually, the law failed to break the will of the people. But the people knew that the police would return.

They did, a number of times. Each time, they encountered the same determined lot.

If you have been following similar struggles being waged across the country, you will probably say that it is not very different from the others. True, it isn’t. Only that in this case, the State hasn’t been able to break the backbone of either the struggle, or let loose paramilitary personnel on the pretext of tackling Maoists, since they are not yet in the picture.

There are innumerable grounds why the POSCO project is both ill-conceived as well as anti-people in implementation. Preliminary studies had failed to even estimate the number of residents or the quantum of forestland located on the construction site. Environment impact assessments were faulty, and public meetings were staged. The Forest Rights Act was rampantly violated. Neither the Union nor the state government, however, was willing to listen.

The final go-ahead came on January 31 this year. Minister Jairam Ramesh threw all reports into the dustbin, and sent out the signal that India Inc desperately wanted to hear: that environment or people would not stand in the way of development. But what development ought to mean is something that the UPA-II dispensation has not been able to spell out yet.

The anti-POSCO struggle, meanwhile, goes on.

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