This is a guest post by ARATI CHOKSI with photographs by AYUSH RANKA
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.
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?
(Arati is secretary of the Karnataka chapter of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, and Ayush is an independent photojournalist.)