Welcome to Ore-issa

Forest Degradation -Orissa

As the shadows lengthen along Keonjhar’s main street, the tube-lit sign above Hotel Arjun flickers to life, illuminating both – the front entrance of the hotel and the cigarette seller adjacent to it. A solitary traffic policeman walks up to the junction right outside the hotel, and assumes his position on at the most significant crossing in town.

Fifteen kilometers down the road the ground shivers as a queue, over a kilometer long, shudders to life. Engine after engine revs up as a convoy, several hundred trucks strong, begins the next stage of the 325 kilometer journey from the iron rich district of Keonjhar in North Orissa to the port of Paradip on the coast. Orders issued by the District Magistrate prohibit truck movement between 8AM and 8 PM, so every evening, dusk is heralded by the roar of truck engines. Further up, the highway narrows down into the first of many bottlenecks, and branches off, capillary-like, into narrow un-metalled paths that lead into the heart of the district’s iron-ore mining areas. Across the Baithrani River, in Joda, Barbil, Deojhar, and Thakurani, the low mountains are illuminated by high-powered halogens, as work continues at a relentless pace in the mining areas – visible as raw, red gashes on the otherwise thickly forested mountainside.

Estimated as the source of almost 35 per cent of India’s total reserves of haematite, Orissa produced more than 46 million tonnes of iron ore in 2004-05, of which three quarters came from Keonjhar alone. Almost all of it was carted away in the nearly 30,000 trucks that ferry ore from the 119 mines that dot the district. Some trucks move north from Joda, upwards towards the Jharkhand border where they supply ore to Jharkhand’s rapidly expanding steel industry, while others move north west towards Haldia port; but a major proportion move southwards through Keonjhar town towards Cuttack and cut through to Paradip port where the ore is then loaded into containers and shipped across the Bay of Bengal to the one of the few countries that has a bigger appetite for steel than India – China.

Initially seen as the engine of an independent India – the first “swadeshi” steel mill was completed in 1920 by the Tata Iron and Steel Company just across the present day Orissa-Jhakhand border in Jamshedpur– and then cast into shadow by the shining “new economy” of the 1990’s; a five year rally in international prices has seen the iron and steel sector make a strong return in the daily business pages. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pointed out in his keynote address at the India Steel Summit 2007, “In the last 5 years, the production and consumption of steel has grown at rates exceeding 9% per annum. The pace of growth has further accelerated in the current year to over 10%.” The recently formulated National Steel Policy has set the production target for 2020 at 110 million tonnes of steel, and a doubling of present capacity from around 40 million tonnes to 80 million tonnes by 2012. A buoyant national economy, and booming construction sector, is expected to result in further optimism in the steel sector, and nowhere is this optimism felt more than in the office of Padmanabha Behera, Minister of Steel and Mines and Planning and Coordination for Orissa.

“We have signed 45 Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) till date,” he told this correspondent, “and production has already started in 23.” The Minister foresees a resurgent Orissa, propelled forward by his party’s mantra of “progress through industrialization”. Behera believes that Orissa’s future lies in using its vast mineral wealth to generate employment, and of course, create wealth. However, not everyone in the state shares this vision.

*

Trucks are probably the easiest way to understand the workings of Kheonjhar’s vast and complex mining network. Several decades worth of mining, the constant peregrinations of nine-tonne vehicles, and the relentless extraction of iron ore, pyrophyllite, quartzite, manganese, dolomite, chromite, pyroxenite and limestone have torn up the earth, soaked up the rivers, and have filled the air with a thick, reddish dust that never quite seems to settle. Each remote village seems to exist in a microcosm of its own- sealed off from the rest of the world by a thick curtain of the ferrous dust that rises from the closest mining area and Orissa’s notoriously bad roads. Village gossip speaks of illegal mines, mafias, naxalites, and private militias; of intimidation by the mining companies, the local politicians, and the police; of rigged public hearings and embezzled compensation money; and the information, like everything else in Keonjhar, comes cloaked in a thick haze of ambiguity that is pierced at one’s own peril.

To understand the trucks is to understand how elite privilege, corruption and access operate along dense, intricate networks much like the roads that the trucks crisscross over everyday. Along these networks, the legal and the illegal often operate in overlapping zones, making it impossible to make a concrete accusation with any degree of certainty. After all, what is an illegal mine? How can it be identified?

“It is hereby declared that it is expedient in the public interest that the Union should take under its control the regulation of mines and the development of minerals to the extent herein after provided,” states the preamble to the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, one of a raft of laws, bye-laws and legislations passed to govern the mining sector. First enacted in 1957, and subsequently amended almost every four years up to 1999, the MMDR act serves as the central axis on which mining law is framed. The act classifies mineral according to “minor” and “major” lists, lays down procedures for the granting of reconnaissance permits, prospecting licenses and mining leases, and classifies violations, and encroachments. While states have complete control over all minor minerals such as clay, gravel, sand and building stones, major minerals such as iron ore come under the purview of the Central Government. For such minerals, central permission is required prior to the granting of licenses. Apart from the MMDR, mining is also subject to The Mines Act of 1952, the National Mineral Policy (amended in 1994), and slew of laws concerning land acquisition, and environmental assessments.

Acquiring a mining lease for a particular area for a major mineral like iron ore or coal is a relatively easy process that has been much simplified over the last 10 years in the period coinciding with the liberalization of the mining sector. Mining leases are granted on a “first come first serve” basis, and guidelines under the new Foreign Direct Investment policy of 1999 allow for “up to 100 per cent foreign direct investment” in mining and processing minerals other than diamonds, precious stones and atomic minerals. Thus, mining occupies a unique governmental space that is simultaneously highly legislated yet remarkably unconstrained for mine operators.

As per the laws governing mining, mines could be declared “illegal” on a number of grounds, the most obvious being mining in an area without applying for a lease. However, the pressure of rapid industrialization has forced State Governments to curb such practices. “No illegal mining is possible without political patronage,” explains a senior officer in the Directorate of Mines, “and local politicians have realized that the land occupied by illegal miners can just as easily be handed over to giant corporations for similar favours.” This is not to say that outright capture of areas for mining has stopped entirely in the iron-belt, but the most common examples of illegal mining occur on the boundary of legality, where the violator can claim a degree of innocence on the basis of ignorance of the law.

The most common form of illegality is to continue mining long after the lease has expired. A document obtained from the Directorate of Mines under the Right To Information Act, provides a complete list of mining leases in Keonjhar. According to the Directorate’s own figures, dated 31 December 2005, 52 out of 119 mines, or more than 40 per cent of all mines in Keonjhar district, covering 52 per cent of leased area are illegally operating on expired licenses. Of these 52, the Orissa Mining Corporation (OMC), itself a government owned enterprise, is one of the worst violators with 10 illegally operating mines over a total area of 7051 hectares, or a fifth of total land area under mining in the district. Many in the industry argue that the issue of expired licenses is not an indication of corruption per se, as the Government has been dragging its feet over license renewal for years. The failure to renew mining leases, particularly by a state-owned corporation, seems inexplicable, until one unpacks the terms of the mining lease.

As is pointed out by Ritwick Dutta in his chapter in a compilation titled “Undermining India”, the renewal of mining leases in forested areas has been the subject of much litigation since the enactment of the Forest Conservation Act of 1980. Given that most mines – included those in Keonjhar – fall within the purview of this act, the key question was whether the renewal of a mining lease required fresh permission of the Central Government. The Supreme Court, in successive judgments, particularly in State of Tamil Nadu vs. Hind Stones in 1981 and Samatha vs. State of Andhra Pradesh in 1997, ruled that the renewal of a mining lease is actually the grant of a fresh lease. Thus, a good reason for mining companies and associated state officials to go slow on the renewal of leases could be because, theoretically, the company shall have to reapply at the time of renewal and would be subject to monitoring by the Central Pollution Control Board, the Ministry of Environment and Forests and a host of other agencies.

The Forest Conservation Act mandates that forest lands earmarked for mining shall have to be de-notified by the Central Government after careful examination of the proposal and mining company shall be subject to a series of restrictions to minimize the ecological footprint of the mine. It also a useful tool to ensure that mining companies stay within the areas allotted to them, and do not encroach on the surrounding areas. Of course, like any other act, the Forest Act is only as good as its implementation. Another document from the Directorate of mines lists forty mines in Keonjhar that are operating without clearance from the Forest Department; OMC is once more one of the worst violators. P.N. Karat, the District Forest Officer says that, as of February 2006, all such cases have been dealt with, however it is an assessment that is impossible to verify independently. In the absence of firm leases, a number of companies have been granted Temporary Working Licenses, most of which are issued without any clear guidelines or monitoring.

The absence of adequate monitoring is probably the most disturbing feature of the industry in Orissa. The highly technical language adopted by both, the mines and the state, effectively silences any local articulation of opposition by the villagers directly affected by the projects. Thus, people’s testimonies of a change in the color of groundwater, an increase the cases of asthma and respiratory conditions and a drop in fertility of their fields is discounted in favour of Suspended Particulate Matter (SPM) readings collected by the State Pollution Control Board (SPCB), and groundwater studies conducted by the State Groundwater Board which prove that pollution is present, but is below the mandated safety limit. Barbil, to cite just one example, is a small town in the heart of the iron mining belt where it is difficult to breathe freely even during the day when the trucks aren’t running, but a study obtained from the SPCB states that the SPM readings in Barbil are “only” 456 micrograms per cubic metre against a reference value of 500, and so is acceptable. However, the Central Pollution Control Board reference values for “residential and rural areas” – which the villages outside the mines certainly are – only 200 micrograms per cubic metre; and the reference value for a reserve forest – which could be classified as a “sensitive area” under the SPCB guidelines – the reference value is 100 micrograms per cubic metre. Thus, the same arbitrarily fixed “standards” used to declare mining areas “pollution free” can just as easily be used to declare them unfit for human habitation.

Similarly, the only way to really verify if a mining area corresponds to the area mentioned in the mining lease is either to refer to detailed contour maps in possession of the government (and hence unavailable to the general public) or to physically plot the coordinates of the mine using a global positioning system – a system that no one in Orissa has access to. Such absolutely opacity on the part of all privilege holders in the system makes its impossible to level definite accusations against any party. But like all camouflaged sites, in Orissa too, the veil occasionally slips and offers a glimpse of the absolute arrogance with which most mining corporations treat the law.

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The road to Deojhar, as with most roads to hell, is paved with the best of intentions. Ostensibly built to connect Deojhar village to highway under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana Scheme, it has turned out to be a useful way to connect the mines to the mainline. Few villagers use this road; there are too many trucks. Of late, the trucks plying the Deojhar – NH 215 route have had to contend with a hazard apart from the crater like pot-holes in the tarmac- the presence of a fleet of bright orange earth-moving vehicles engaged in the frenetic digging of deep trenches along the road. These are vehicles employed by the Jindal company – a consortium of companies much like the Tata’s with interests primarily in iron, steel and power- to supply water to their 2000 hectare iron-ore mine in the hills above the Deojhar village.

“Jindal is laying a nine kilometer pipeline to draw water from the Baitarani River,” informs Arjun Saraswat, Deputy General Manager of Sarda Mines Private Ltd. – the company that posseses the lease for the Jindal land. “This water shall be made available through the soon to be completed Kanpur Dam project.” At the time of this article going to print, digging work was almost complete, and pipes of 2 feet diameter had been laid along a stretch of four and a half kilometers.

But has Jindal acquired the necessary permissions for this pipeline?

“The Jindal company’s demand for water has been approved ‘in principle’,” says Harish Behera, Engineer in Chief (Water Resources) for Orissa. “But the technical parameters are to be worked out. No permission has been granted for any pipeline, and as of now, no project work has begun!” Behera is responsible for the allotment and allocation of water resources for the entire state of Orissa, but seems to be unaware that the pipeline work has not just begun, but in fact, is nearing completion. On being confronted by photographs on project work taken by this correspondent (see pictures), he admits that “the matter is currently under litigation?” What sort of litigation? For answers, one is directed to C.V. Prasad, Chief Engineer PPF for the Water Department (Irrigation) of Orissa. Prasad is more forthcoming. “Jindal has been allotted 1500 cubic metres of water per hour, drawn in a phased manner, from the Baitarani River Project,” he explains, “But the project is still awaiting technical clearance. As of now, the construction is in violation of the law.” Prasad’s office has written to company several times, asking them to stop construction – most recently in a letter dated 16 January 2007. “We were under the impression that construction has stopped.”

It is important to note that granting a project approval “in principle” is no indication of its merits or demerits; those are only evaluated in the technical approval stage when a detailed project report (DPR) is submitted. “In principle” approval only indicates that the company may go ahead and prepare a DPR. If Jindal’s pipeline does not pass muster they shall be forced to remove it. By going ahead with the project, the company obviously believes one of two things – that government approval is either a foregone conclusion, or is of no importance. Neither inspires much faith in the government.

The Baitarani pipeline also begs a further question. At present, where is Jindal drawing its water from? Deputy General Manager Saraswat admits that Jindal is currently drawing water from bore-wells in their area, but is unwilling to quantify the volume of water drawn every day. “It is only used for domestic purposes.” However, officials at the State Pollution Control Board office in Keonjhar reveal that Jindal uses a 10 kilolitre truck to carry out water sprinkling three times a day in the mining area; or 30,000 litres of water a day just for sprinkling. Apart from which a mining operation on the scale of Jindal, with most permanent workers living on the mining area, suggests a reasonably high rate of water consumption – even for domestic purposes. Of course, the beauty of it all is that even Jindal probably doesn’t know how much water they use because none of their tube wells is metered! However, one group of people has a fair idea.

Down the road from the mines, the villagers of Deojhar village have seen their streams dry up; their water table fall and their soil lose its fertility in the six years since Jindal began operations. “The very basis of village life has fallen apart since the project began,” says Sridhar Nayak, a local leader in Deojhar. The crops have died, there is no place to graze cattle, villagers cannot collection firewood in the project area and the hand-pumps yield foul, yellowish water. Nayak says the inevitable dust that any project breeds has severely affected the health of the villagers, particularly the young, who show increased cases of lung congestion. When the project first began, protests were quelled by a combination of cajoling and coercion. Significant police presence was backed by promises of jobs, economic regeneration, security and “progress”. Needless to say, none of it has materialized – except the police of course, who regularly show up in impressive numbers to threaten errant villagers.

The promise of prosperity – schools, hospitals and jobs –is usually the classic argument used to justify the well-documented horrors of mining. Minerals are a country’s natural wealth; a gift from Mother Nature; a precious resource crucial to a nation’s progress. As mentioned earlier, the booming international market for metals has also cast mines and minerals as earners of valuable foreign exchange. The money earned by mining allows the government to invest in more industry, which brings more schools, hospitals and jobs, which leads to further prosperity. It is hard to unpack the cold hard logic of capital without sounding like a hopeless idealist, or worse still, a bleeding heart journalist unaware of the big picture. However, it is still possible to contest the sanitized, rarified vision of the mining industry by empirical evidence on the ground. What if mining didn’t bring any benefits to the people it affected the worst?

The village was originally called Jalhoni, but it’s a name that few remember. It has been over thirty years since it ceased to exist. It seems that all the inhabitants suddenly left around the time that the Essel Mining Corporation came to the Joda province to establish their iron ore mine; no one really knows where they went. The new settlement that came up to serve the mine is called “Crèche hutting” by its new residents who were drawn from all over the state. Chaitanya is one such resident, who grew up in Crèche-hutting, and has lived there his entire life.

Just like his father and mother, Chaitanya and his wife, Priya (who also grew up here) have been working with the “company” for almost 20 years now. And just like his parents, he and wife are contract workers who break stones for a living. He used to be called a “temporary worker” earlier, but “temporary” has an aspiratory element to it. It carries within itself the possibility that after five, ten or twenty years of “temporary work”, a worker might one day become “permanent”- a position that would entitle him or her to health care, insurance, a six day week and even an occasional bonus. But, ten years ago, the company stopped hiring permanent workers, and so Chaitanya and others like him were renamed. Now they are simply “contract workers” – a phrase that carries no false promises.

Like most other industries in India today, mining too has discovered the great utility of contract workers – a designation that frees the company from a whole host of entanglements like worker safety, over-time payments, health insurance, pensions, maternity leave for women, and regular working hours. Tasks that do not require “technical skills” are therefore farmed out to contractors for a fixed amount. The contractor brings his own labourers and pays them as he pleases. Often the contractor doesn’t even have to find his own labour – existing labour is simply transferred to him, and he employs a foreman to supervise the workers.

Chaitanya and his team break stones for a living. The ore arrives in trucks and is manually sorted and broken down to the size that can be processed by machine. Each person is allotted a fixed amount of stone and paid accordingly. Every week Chaitanya breaks 18 tonnes of ore. He is paid Rs 300 for the lot, which works out to about Rs 16 per tonne. Priya breaks a similar amount, but she takes longer to get through a share. She is paid every week and a half. Contract workers aren’t even entitled to leave their tiny children at the crèche that gives the settlement its name. The crèche is reserved only for children whose mothers are permanent workers – a category so rare, that it doesn’t exist in most mines.

Every morning, Priya tells her ten year old daughter to be a good girl and look after her three old brother and to remember to put out all the vessels in case the tanker brings fresh water for the settlement. Priya then puts on the bright yellow plastic hardhat issued by the company and goes off to the mines to break stones.

It can, and has been, argued by mega-project supporters that cases like Chaitanya and Priya are precisely the reason why accelerated industrialization is important. Industrialization is perhaps the only way for the State to raise sufficient funds to provide quality technical skills to the local populace, and ensure that local people are competent enough to handle jobs higher up in the employment chain. The idea behind training youth for industry is not new. The Industrial Training Institute model has been implemented across the country by the Directorate General for Training and Employment for since the early 1980s.

As of 2002 -03, Orissa had 24 ITI’s with a total of 6400 seats and another 131 privately owned Industrial Training Centres (ITC) with an additional 11,950 seats. Over the last few years, the Orissa government has signed MoUs with a number of mining companies, including Tata Consultancy Services Ltd., for the setting up to several Industrial Training Institutes across the state in the hope that adequate training shall enable larger numbers of workers from the “unskilled” and low paying categories of work, to higher paying “skilled categories”. However a study published by the International Labour Organisation in 2003, titled “Industrial Training Institutes of India: An efficiency study”, stated the Orissa’s industrial training programme had been severely affected by successive austerity drives and were presently under funded. The study notes that “In 2001-02, out of 467 sanctioned posts, there were around 156 so-called vacant positions for which funding was not secured… Due to the budget shortfall, the capability of the public training system to enroll students has been effectively reduced. As a result, admissions were not made in 96 units with 1,288 seats. This means that the public training system’s capacity was underutilized by some 30 per cent,” and went on to state that, “In Orissa, the ITI principals interviewed acknowledged that the current occupations offered by their institutes provided very little, if any, job opportunity.” Another flaw with the ITI system, as many other education systems in the country, is that enrollment into the publicly funded system is based on competitive entrance exams, and so privilege those who already have access to some form education. Chaitanya and Priya never went to school, and at present, their children too have no access to any form of education. They are thus ineligible for the ITI’s, and are effectively priced out of the more expensive private institutions. The ILO report also reveals that only 2.8 per cent of the total workforce (both permanent and contractual) in the Orissa’s steel processing sector have graduated from an ITI, 10.3 per cent in the Ferro plant sector and another 3.5 per cent in the General manufacturing sector – statistics that suggest that ITI courses are yet to offer their graduates any assurance of employment, and that at present, the mining and employment link is tenuous at best.

Another argument that could be contested is the “revenue” argument put forward by the Orissa Government. Every MoU that is signed between the Government and corporate mining companies is usually described as landmark in the history of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in India. But how much does the government really make from such plans? Does mining really benefit the government in the form of taxes or does just boost the earning of a few, already wealthy, individuals?

A perusal of the Orissa government’s statistics on iron ore extraction and revenue makes for impressive reading. According to the latest Directorate of Mines figures, Orissa produced 46.07 million tonnes of iron ore in 2004-05 and earned revenue of Rs 72.85 crores as royalty. To put things into perspective, in the same year (up to December 2005) the Orissa government earned Rs 223.63 crores – almost three times the amount earned from iron ore – from excise duties on alcohol alone.

The reason for this imbalance is not hard find. Unlike royalty on most other minerals, that operates on an ad valorem basis where the royalty is calculated as a percentage of the market price, royalty on iron ore is calculated on a per tonne basis at rates affixed by the Mines and Minerals Act. As per the second schedule of the MMDR act, the royalty for a tonne for premium grade haematite of iron content greater than 65 per cent is Rs 27 per tonne. While the market prices of iron ore vary on the basis of grade, size and type, so glaring are the notional losses made by the ore producing states that the Chief Ministers of Jharkhand, Orissa and Chattisgarh recently issued a statement saying that the royalties collected on iron ore worked out to between one and two per cent of its sale price. So, apart from providing limited employment to people displaced by mines, the iron sector contributes less to Orissa’s economy than the excise department – not the entire distillery sector, just excise on bottles sold.

*

Unfortunately, stories like Crèche-hutting and Deojhar village aren’t new. The effects of mega-projects on small villages have been well documented all over the country, as have the outright exploitative deals signed between governments and corporate agencies. Yet, this doesn’t seem to have slowed down the pace of slash and burn industrialization, and nor has it made mining companies, or even governments, more accountable or responsive to the people directly affected by such projects. What it has done, is alert other communities to the threat of displacement, and has provided them with the information necessary to help each other unravel the language of state and capital alike: a language that is almost entirely comprised of numbers.

Forty Three new MoU’s signed. Arcelor-Mittal pledges 40,000 crores for a new integrated steel plant. Recent estimates peg Orissa’s total iron ore reserves at 5428 million tonnes. In 2004, the area in Joda block classified as “wasteland” grew from 8294.82 hectares in 1989 to 1, 8540.86 hectares. However, one figure is conspicuous by its absence. “There are no government reports for the number of people displaced by mega-projects in Orissa,” says Dr Walter Fernandes from the North-Eastern Social Research Centre, and the author of one such study. Fernandes and his team complied a report on displacement in the eastern states back in 1995, and prepared what could be the only reliable figures on the displacement. In the absence of any government data, Fernandes and his team visited each affected district and looked at the land records in the District Collectors office. “Our study covered between 60 and 70 per cent of all projects in Orissa between 1951 and 1995, and suggested that mines, dams, and other projects had displaced an estimated 1.5 million people during the period. Since then no more data has emerged, but we would peg the current figures at about 3 million people.” Unsurprisingly, no government data is available on re-habilitation either, but Fernandes says that only those affected by dam construction and international donor funded projects have been rehabilitated – those affected by mining have received nothing. In 2006, the Orissa government finally declared a Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R&R) policy in an attempt to quell the growing resistance to mining projects, but it might have come too late.

An eight hour bus ride away from the dusty interior of Keonjhar, perched on the edge of the Bay of Bengal lie the grams panchayats of Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gadakujang. Encompassing 11 small villages and home to about 4000 families of farmers and fisher folk, the three gram panchayats are at the centre of a Rs 51,000 crore (USD 12 Billion) controversy. Hailed as the largest ever FDI project in India, the MoU for an integrated steel plant between the Orissa State Government and Korean steel giant POSCO has created ripples ever since it was signed in June 2005. The sheer magnitude of the project ensured it reams of coverage in the press, and it soon became another key character in the grand mythology of mass media. POSCO was now more than a project for a steel plant – it was latest example of India taking its rightful place in the world, of the state of Orissa finally living up to its potential, and a test case for future investment in not just the state, but the entire country. So, it was a cause of some embarrassment when the three panchayats rejected the proposal, cordoned off the villages and refused to let any representatives of the company, the state government or the local administration, enter the area.

Sitting with his support group in Dhinkia Panchayat, Abhay Sahu, the leader of the POSCO Pritirodh Sangram Samiti, explains their opposition to the plant. “The government says that a major portion of the land to be acquired is government land, but the people depend on the coastal belt for their livelihood.” According to the MoU made available to this correspondent, the company shall require approximately 4,000 acres of land for the project itself and an additional 2000 acres for township development, recreational facilities etc. Over the two years since the MoU was signed, the project has changed shape many time. Current information suggests that about 475 families shall be displaced in all, and the villagers shall lose about 800 acres of private land and 3200 acres of government land that is presently under betel vine cultivation.

It is said that the life of coastal Orissa is run by paan, dhaan and meen, or betelnut, rice and fish- and the POSCO area is no different. The deltaic plains of major and minor rivers are ideally suited for growing rice and the high groundwater table and sandy soils of the beach provide perfect conditions for growing betel nuts. Villagers estimate that the combined earnings for an average family with a small rice farm and a betel vine patch along the beach earns between Rs 10,000 and Rs 12,000 every month, and no one in the village ever goes hungry. “The project shall destroy our livelihood,” says Shantilata Behera, a resident of Gadakujang, “They say they bring jobs, but we already have jobs, we have fields and we have boats.” Shantilata points out that POSCO shall only be able to provide one job per family, but farming and fishing keep the entire community employed. “They say that the compensation package is generous, but what will we do once the money runs out? None of us have ever run a business, and I don’t think we can run one.”

While the details of the compensation package are yet to be publicly released, sources suggest that the villagers will only be compensated for private land. The land under betel nut cultivation is registered as government land, and so will in all probability will not be compensated for. However, the ownership of the land is far from clear.

Judged as revenue collectors and petty zamindars by history (and historians), the scions of the Bardhaman Raj were nonetheless one of the largest land owners in the east in post-Mughal India in the period from 1657 to 1955. While their territories waxed and waned over the 300 year period, there are few places in present day Bengal, Jharkhand and Orissa that do not have some link to the famous estates. The Orissa coastline is no exception. If local accounts are to be believed – the coastal stretch in the POSCO identified area was all originally land owned by descendents of the Bardhaman zamindari, and villagers had been cultivating the land, and paying taxes for the last 150 years. The situation changed in the mid 1970’s when Indira Gandhi abolished the privy purses of the Maharajas, and the land was taken over by the state. No move was made to transfer the land in the name of those who had tilled it for more than a century, and instead the villagers continued to farm the area and pay “encroachment” tax to the government. Villagers also continue to buy and sell land amongst each other.

At present, the POSCO project seems to be in a state of limbo. A flurry of news reports over the last two weeks have reported a waning interest on the part of POSCO, assurances by the Orissa government that the issues shall be sorted out in three months, and finally a rumour that Arcelor-Mittal might actually assume control of POSCO through a hostile takeover.

In the meantime, several other gram panchyats across the state have begun to question the land acquisition process of the government. On the 9th of March 2006, the residents of nine villages situated just outside Keonjhar town were surprised to find the local Revenue Inspector, Tehsil Supervisor surveying the lands just outside the village. A mass agitation and an RTI application later they were informed that their lands were to be acquired by the Sterlite Iron and Steel Company for a steel plant. The land’s proximity to the mining areas was cited as a major advantage for the industry. “We all gheraoed the officials and refused to let the survey continue,” says Purushottam Mehra, “and the officials left in a hurry.”

A year later, the schoolmaster of the local school awoke one morning to find a pile of schoolbags, covered with prominent “Sterlite” stickers, just outside the school premises. Since then they haven’t heard from either the company or the local administration, but rumours suggest that land acquisition shall begin soon. Anti-Sterlite meetings have begun Kadagarh, and the villagers are preparing themselves for a long battle ahead.

Village after village, panchayat after panchayat, community after community, the story of forcible eviction, displacement, shattered livelihoods and exploitation repeat themselves with mind-numbing continuity. Every settlement in Orissa exists in a state of almost permanent insecurity, suspicious of every move made by governments or companies. Back at the Hotel Arjun on National Highway 215, the muddy darkness of twilight has given way to the certainty of night; our policeman at the crossing stands ram-rod straight, wearily directing the economy of an entire state as the trucks rumble past.

2 thoughts on “Welcome to Ore-issa”

  1. ‘An excellent depiction of past, present and future of Orrisa’s mining industry, making it an unputdownable masterclass in descriptive writing’

  2. A nice description of how man has gone blind in the wake of inflow of plenty of money. A patient will die on the road as he/she can not reach hospital due to road jam. The price of essential commodities have sky roceketted due to unavalability of the same. If U do not see the condition of roads, U can not believe the dire stata they are in. No bus is plying from Raurkela to Barbil. The NH 215 is a death trap from Koira to Bhadrasahi and has been long abondoned by users. The recent economic blockade by BJP is justified. The government should wake up to the condition of the roads and take immediate remedial measures for repairing of the same before resuming trasportation of ore to various destinations.

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