MAC: Mines and Communities

Fatal Clash at Mill Site Shows Perils of India's Rise

Published by MAC on 2006-01-13

Fatal Clash at Mill Site Shows Perils of India's Rise

by Somini Sengupta / New York Times

13th January 2006

On the first Monday morning of the year, four bulldozers, accompanied by nearly 300 police officers, arrived on a rocky patch of farmland on the edge of a wooded village and began leveling the earth. It was meant to be the first step in the construction of India's third-largest steel mill.

Soon, from the bowels of the wooded village came an army of resistance. Armed with scythes and swords, stones and sticks - and according to the police, bows and arrows - the indigenous people who live on these lands in eastern India advanced toward the police line by the hundreds. Exactly what happened next is a matter of contention, except that by the day's end, the land was littered with the gore of more than a dozen dead and a fury that lingers. "We will not leave our land," Chakradhar Haibru, a wiry, stern-faced leader of the indigenous people, vowed in an interview. "They are trying to turn us into beggars."
Reminiscent of the peasant uprisings in China, the standoff here has reverberated across the country and snowballed into a closely watched political storm.

The confrontation is effectively a local territorial dispute, over whether and how one of India's most prominent industrial conglomerates, Tata, will build a plant on land that its current occupants, mostly indigenous villagers, refuse to vacate. But the dispute also raises a far wider challenge for India: how to balance industrial growth against the demands of its most marginalized citizens. Orissa, the mineral-rich state where the clash took place, is one of India's most stellar examples of the economic boom of recent years, just as it is among the most left-behind states, and its unprecedented growth spurt has mirrored the two faces of India's ambitions.

In 2005, Orissa attracted the largest foreign investment ever in India, with the promise of a $12 billion steel plant by Posco, of South Korea. The same year, Orissa also held the record for the highest rate of poverty in India, which included nearly half its population, or 17 million people. How Orissa deals with the current crisis bears broader lessons for other states. As in much of eastern and central India, the land here is chockful of iron ore, coal and copper and is also home to tribal people known here as adivasis.

But today the area's defiant villagers are blocking a major road that connects iron mines to the state's main port on the Bay of Bengal, and it is no longer safe for the police to venture into tribal villages. The Congress Party, which rules the central government but plays opposition here in Orissa state, has seized on the episode, flying in its party president, Sonia Gandhi, to console grieving tribal villagers - an important constituency for the party. Orissa authorities privately grumble that Maoist guerrillas, resurgent across the tribal belt, had a hand in the troubles.

Since the Jan. 2 confrontation, Naveen Patnaik, the Orissa chief minister, has promised to revise the state relief policy for villagers displaced by new industry. In an interview in his office in the state capital, Bhubaneshwar, he repeatedly called the incident "tragic," but declined to comment on how it developed, or how it could be calmed. He said he would visit the affected area once "normalcy is restored." "I certainly hope it will not affect industry that wish to come up here," he said.

Orissa began grooming itself as the country's steel hub in the early 1990's, shortly after the Indian economy opened up. Within a few years, steel makers began pouring in to what the government demarcated as the 13,000-acre Kalinganagar Industrial Area, drawn by the rich deposits of iron and chromium in the nearby hills, an abundance of water, a nearby seaport and a web of railways and roads. The new investments have already given Orissa a radical makeover. New buildings have been erected in the capital, potholed highways in the interior have been repaired and widened, and the smokestacks of steel and aluminium factories have sprung up across this hardscrabble land.

The blueprint for future development envisions an airstrip and a new township here in Kalinganagar, along with two new ports on the coast. Tata's would-be plant at Kalinganagar is slated to produce six million tons of steel a year. Further east, the proposed Posco mill would generate double that amount.

A report by Morgan Stanley predicts that the state could draw $30 billion to $40 billion in new investments over the next five years. But that industrial boom has not yet brought new schools and hospitals to the subsistence farmers who live here. One village that sits on the Tata land still has no electricity. Not least, at the heart of the industrial surge has been a high-pitched contest over rural lands.

On paper, at least, the government has acquired the land that makes up the Kalinganagar Industrial Area. On paper, too, the government has awarded varying amounts of compensation to some of the roughly 1,800 families who have been displaced, though the state's industrial development agency now says an estimated 1,500 families are yet to be fully compensated. All plants in the industrial area are obliged to employ one member of each family displaced, but not all those jobs have yet materialized, the agency adds. In Tata's case, the company says it paid the government a handsome $16 million for the 2,000-acre property where it wants to build its mill over a year ago. That land now officially belongs to the company. The government says compensation was granted to eligible villagers more than a decade ago. They were allowed to continue to live and work on the land, while negotiations went on with a number of companies that expressed interest in setting up in the area, but then backed out.

The villagers acknowledge that some of them got paid. Mr. Haibru, the village leader in Gobarghati, reaped $26,000 in compensation for his 28 acres, for instance. But those without legal claims to the land - and there seem to be a great many among the villagers here - got little or nothing. Some seem unaware that the land now belongs to Tata. Others are not entirely sure exactly what benefits they are entitled to. Most here seem convinced of three things, however. First, that whatever relief they have received is not enough in exchange for abandoning their land forever. Second, that considering Kalinganagar's ambitions, their sorry patches of land will soon be worth a great deal more than what they have been offered. And third, that the factories that have mushroomed across their lands have delivered few opportunities to their communities.

But if the people here were once open to negotiation, the Jan. 2 incident has left them seething. "If we die, we die," spat Amba Tiria, in the village of Champakoila, on the edge of the battlefield. "We will not leave our land. We're dying anyway." To anyone following the currents here, what ultimately unfolded here should not have been unexpected. Industrial projects have faced increasingly militant protests over the last year. Tata's plans to build a fence around its property, for instance, encountered furious villagers last May, and in the confrontation, a local government administrator's front teeth were knocked out.

In the latest standoff, the residents of Champakoila saw the first bulldozers on the horizon. Word quickly spread from village to village. Men, women and children streamed out of their homes and marched toward the bulldozers. "Shut it down, shut it down," they yelled, and they advanced toward the police line. Several villagers, interviewed separately, said they had wanted to lay down before the bulldozers, to persuade Tata to withdraw its machines. They said they did not imagine the police would fire, killing 12 people, including a 12-year-old boy and a woman who had gone to the fields that morning to relieve herself.

More than 30 villagers were injured; some had been shot in the back. One police officer was hacked to death; 32 others were injured. A few days later came a macabre coda: it turned out that the hands of six corpses had been chopped off. The police blamed doctors performing the autopsy. The superintendent of police has been suspended, pending a government inquiry, though the police insist they had been prepared to act with restraint. Each 30-man platoon was allowed only three rifles. Protesters were warned to step back. Tear gas, followed by stun grenades, followed by rubber bullets were fired to disperse the crowd. The villagers said they had no idea these things were precursors to gunshots.

The police say they fired in "self-defense" and only after coming under attack. The villagers dispute this. Some say they were shot as they turned around and tried to flee.

For now, Tata's Kalinganagar project has been delayed. But neither Orissa government officials nor Tata seem deterred. Tata's chief of communication, Sanjay Choudhry, blamed "extremist activity" for the violence and said the company had no plans to pull out of the project. He maintained that Tata had aided other communities in which it works and would seek to do the same here.

"Industrialization is the best way to improve quality of life, especially of the tribal people," Mr. Choudhry said. "We're not thinking of backing out. We'll work with the government and tribal people and see if there's a way out, a proper way of doing this."

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