POSCO and the People: Ayush Ranka and Arati Choksi

This is a guest post by ARATI CHOKSI with photographs by AYUSH RANKA

01. Odisha is scarcely known to most people as the state of rich agriculture. It is more famous for it's floods and droughts which occur once in a while. However, the entire state, barring a few small regions, is rich with fertile soil and apart from betel leaves and cashew, food grains like rice, wheat, jowar and pulses are also grown

POSCO catapulted out of nowhere into the periphery of my imagination last year. On May 15, 2010, in a brutal show of aggression and violence, armed police battalions attacked unarmed protesters at Balitutha opposing a forceful takeover of their lands by the state for a POSCO steel plant. Members of police force set fire to shops, eateries and thatched homes, including the dharna site of people’s peaceful protest. Police fired upon unarmed protesters with rubber bullets. One person died, and hundreds were severely injured in this firing, many of these were women and the elderly.

This year, the POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS), the primary people’s movement against the establishment of the POSCO steel plant, re-emerged to haunt the national conscience when children and women joined the front lines of this battle.They successfully staved off armed battalions of police from entering their territories when they lay in thousands, rows upon rows, of children-women-old and finally men, on sand dunes braving sun, rain and elements in an an extreme show of strength and resolution to not give up their lands for a corporate takeover.

On July 22 to 24, this year, I travelled to the POSCO effected area of Govindpur, Dhinkia and Patna in solidarity with, and to show support for PPSS in their struggle against the State’s agenda. What I found was both unexpected, and ordinary. I found an extraordinary and resolute people’s movement behind a cloak of perfect normalcy. It was monsoon time. The river was swollen at Govindpur, rice fields were verdant and a vibrant green, pan-khetis in opulent blocks stood lush and erect on bamboos – a backbone for the whole local economy. Mud homes with thick walls designed in white rice paste lined open mud lanes of red soil; clusters of hen clucked and crossed small village lanes, people bathed in rivers, bright eyed children laughed and ran, older people sat in groups with cracked skins and toothless mouths. It really seemed an idyll of old world rural, agrarian charm. That is, only before we sat down with any of them and spoke – and asked and wondered… then dams broke loose; words spilled out in torrents – in heartbreaking stories of burning their paan plantations, of families fractured and separated, of building and guarding their bamboo gates to keep the gigantic and armed state machinery – off their lands and lives. They showed marks of violence on their bodies from last years police beatings, and firings – bullet wounds had gouged their flesh and sealed. Young children of still tender age spoke with un-childlike intensity, enraged at what they had witnessed of police brutality, lathis-charges and firings on their parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, neighbors. One after another they spoke, women, men, young, old, with unwavering conviction that they would die rather than forsake what was their life and the future of their children – they referred to their land as their mother. They saw little attraction in the developed world outside, and asked for nothing more than to be left alone. They demanded their right to not be sacrificial goats for a nonsensical “larger-common-good” of those who had little right to insist on such sacrifice.

02. An early morning scene in Govindpur village, Odisha. The villagers here, among others like Dhinkia and Patana, are at the risk of complete displacement because of land being forcefully aquired by the State and being sold to South Korean steel major, POSCO. They have been sustaining the forests and its lands and maintaining a ecological balance for more than a century.

At the transit camp, where the evacuees of those who had left their ancestral lands, communities and homes resided, the stories were even more pitiful. Flimsy cramped shelters of concrete and tin roofs replaced their mud homes, flowering courtyards, paan plantations. They spoke of unfulfilled promises by the State, lack of finances or resources to sustain life, and of loss. With empty eyes they spoke of wanting to return and pursue their old lives…they spoke while rains clattered on their roofs and buckets collected from drips into their living spaces.

On the way back, at Nuagaon, five police vans and four jeeps were overseeing a large scale tree felling exercise for the POSCO project. Their purpose was to maintain law and order, while they wrecked gigantic environmental havoc, destroyed the local ecology and maimed communities dependent on this crucial environmental balance for their livelihoods.

I have returned without reducing doubts, clearing any questions, and more haunted than before. Which democratic nation would allow, legitimately, police firing on its own citizens, destroying thousands of acres of coastal ecology, razing and burning down lucrative and green paan plantations that sustain local economy – to assist a corporate takeover? Is our democracy really a cloak for a corrupt and despotic state that assists systematic plundering of our lands, and national resources for globalised, corporate interests and personal gain. And why have we, the people, so distanced ourselves from the sorrows, tears, tragedies of our brothers and sisters? When will we all, the citizens of this nation, join hands and collectively determine our common good and determine the path of our combined destinies? When will we finally awake?

03. A heavy downpour in the backwaters of the village of Govindpur. Bamboo stalks are tied in a bunch and made to soak in the water for a few days to give them extra strength. They are then brought out and cut into thin long strips which serve as the "pillars" on which the next round of betel vine roots are tied up for cultivation.
04. A fresh, yet to be plucked betel leaf inside a vineyard in Govindpur village. Betel leafs are considered good for digestion and also have certain medicinal properties.
05. An old man plants fresh betel leaf vines inside a vineyard in Govindpur village. Most tasks for the cultivation of betel leaves are not very physically demanding and suitable for old men as well. The labourers earn around Rs.200/- (over $4) for a half day's job, plus a meal, which is more than the governments minimum wage of Rs.125/- per day.
06. A group of villagers sit in the daily silent protest against the government's plan to give their land away to South Korean steel company POSCO for extraction of iron ore.
07. An old woman sits in silent protest against the government's plans to aquire forest land for setting up a iron ore extraction plant by South korean steel major, POSCO. She and other villagers in the region have been cultivating betel leaves and cashew on this same land for more than a century and sustaining the ecology.
08. A child outside the government school in Patana village, Odisha. Classes have started again after months due to the police using schools for camping.
09. A school in the village of Bailatutha, Odisha. This school among others were used by the Police as temporary "camps" for months together, hindering the education of most children in the area. The schools have only recently started regular classes. The ratio of children Vs teacher is abyssmal, sometimes at 100:1, and the same teacher teacher various subjects from math to language.
10. The transit camp of POSCO, India that has been set-up for the few villagers who are so-called "Pro-POSCO". However, interviews revealed that they have been kept here forcefully since they have nowhere to go and are given Rs.20/- (50 cents) a day per head by the government for all their expenses, including food and other ration. The condition of the camp is abyssmally low. There are about 52 families sharing around 20 toilets and bathrooms. The huts leak when it rains and conditions are extremely unhygienic specially for old people and children.
11. Clothes put out to dry outside one of the huts in the transit camp setup by POSCO-India. The transit camp of POSCO, India that has been set-up for the few villagers who are so-called "Pro-POSCO". However, interviews revealed that they have been kept here forcefully since they have nowhere to go and are given Rs.20/- (50 cents) a day per head by the government for all their expenses, including food and other ration. The condition of the camp is abyssmally low. There are about 52 families sharing around 20 toilets and bathrooms. The huts leak when it rains and conditions are extremely unhygienic specially for old people and children.
12. An old woman inside the transit camp of POSCO-India. The transit camp of POSCO, India that has been set-up for the few villagers who are so-called "Pro-POSCO". However, interviews revealed that they have been kept here forcefully since they have nowhere to go and are given Rs.20/- (50 cents) a day per head by the government for all their expenses, including food and other ration. The condition of the camp is abyssmally low. There are about 52 families sharing around 20 toilets and bathrooms. The huts leak when it rains and conditions are extremely unhygienic specially for old people and children.
13. Police and paratroopers (armed with tear gas shells and rubber bullets) arrive outside Gudkujang village, Odisha. The police have been illegally and covertlyy supervising forest clearing and felling trees despite court orders and protests by villagers. Over 2000 acres of forest land and proposed forest land are at risk if South Korean steel giant, POSCO, sets-up it's unit in this region.
14. Trees that were felled in the forest near Gudkujang village, Odisha. The police have been illegally and covertlyy supervising forest clearing and felling trees despite court orders and protests by villagers. Over 2000 acres of forest land and proposed forest land are at risk if South Korean steel giant, POSCO, sets-up it's unit in this region.

(Arati is secretary of the Karnataka chapter of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, and Ayush is an independent photojournalist.)

8 thoughts on “POSCO and the People: Ayush Ranka and Arati Choksi”

    1. With respect, this is not about money alone. It is about livelihood, self esteem and the right to say No to someone who wants to snatch your land away.
      We – Urban educated India – has a responsibility to speak up for those who cannot speak our language and for those who will be tomorrow’s dispossessed. Thank you, Ayush and Arati, for a well written, poignant article that carried the fragrance of village life and the tones of angst.
      Gopakumar

  1. The writer asks “Is our democracy really a cloak for a corrupt and despotic state that assists systematic plundering of our lands, and national resources for globalised, corporate interests and personal gain. And why have we, the people, so distanced ourselves from the sorrows, tears, tragedies of our brothers and sisters?”…

    But is it not a section of ‘we, the people’ who also benefit from globalisation and corporate interests? After all, corporations are made up of people, and it is the people who buy their products/services, thus keeping them in business. It is a section of ‘we, the people’ who are gung-ho about ‘9% economic growth’ and ‘development’. So this necessarily means that this section (perhaps I should include myself?) have to distance themselves from the ‘sorrows, tears, tragedies of our brothers and sisters’ if we want to sustain our counsumerist, materialistic lifestyles.

    1. KP… Your thoughts and questions are very valid indeed. I had my brother ask me much the same thing. Yes, people like us who live in urban spaces do utilize these conveniences of 24 hr electricity (a myth in Bangalore I should confess) and stuff like that. This is what I believe for this particular story –
      1. The fact that most of the iron ore that is going to be extracted is going to be exported by POSCO and NOT be of any use for our own purpose.
      2. Even if it were, there is no proper R&R in place.
      3. Even if there were proper R&R in place, why should entire villages of people who do not want to move out be forced to? This is in no way a NEED for urban India. They do have their rights, don’t they?

      Sorry for the late reply and thanks,

      regards,
      Ayush

  2. I wonder how much of this State sponsored land grabbing was made easier by the removal of the right to property in the constitution?
    Without property rights, doesn’t it just get easier to force people off their land in the name of development?

  3. it is this mad race towards so called “western modernity” which makes states in this part of the world as brutal as as possible.

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