The Curse of Displacement: how to become a beggar

posco india

Dhinkia, in the eastern Indian state of Odisha (formerly Orissa) (India)  is a hub of protest. The women, one from every village family, are staging… a sit-in. Sisir Mohapatra, a former sarpanch or village head, makes a rousing speech. He seems respected, though his police record would suggest he is a mafia don: he says he faces 35 criminal charges, and of his 60-strong extended family in Dhinkia, 40 are also wanted by the law. They claim that the charges are all trumped up. Their real crime is to oppose the biggest single foreign-investment project India has ever attracted.

Estimated to cost $12 billion, the project, promoted by POSCO, a South Korean firm, is eventually to produce 12m tonnes of steel a year for export. It will have its own power plant, port and, 200 kilometres (125 miles) inland, its own iron-ore mine. Since an agreement on the project was signed in 2005, it has been mired in controversy—a case study in why

Environmentalists worry about air pollution, coastal erosion, the endangered olive ridley turtle and much else. Many, including the Communist Party of India (CPI), which holds the local parliamentary seat, complain that the ore will be sold too cheaply, at a royalty to the government of just 27 rupees (currently about 40 cents) a tonne. Meanwhile, residents of Dhinkia and nearby villages fear for their livelihoods.

So the project has been delayed, probed by countless committees and subjected to repeated litigation. Just this week it faced hearings in Delhi at the National Green Tribunal, an environmental court. But as so often in India, one of the biggest delays has been acquiring the land. In theory, this should be easier for POSCO than for many other investors, since most of the 1,600 hectares (4,000 acres) it needs are designated as forest (even the scrubby sand dunes) and thus government land.

The residents of Dhinkia, however, claim legal rights as people whose families have been making their living from the forest for at least 75 years (which the government disputes). Some, indeed, make a very good living. Devendra Swain, like many villages, maintains betel vines, from which he earns 50,000 rupees a month selling the leaves. Mr Swain also grows rice, mangoes, cashew nuts, bananas and papaya. He claims not to be against industrialisation—except in his fecund backyard.

The villagers’ resistance to the project has seen ugly violence. In 2010 police fired rubber bullets to clear one dharna. In February there was another clash as police entered a neighbouring village, Govindpur, and started dismantling betel vines. In March three people died in a bomb explosion—victims of pro-project goons, say the villagers. The police allege the victims were blown up while making bombs themselves. Involvement in this incident is one of 61 charges facing the CPI’s Abhay Sahoo, the protesters’ leader, who is now in jail for the third time and trying to secure his release on bail. Fearing arrest or an attack by thugs, the 1,400 others in Dhinkia facing criminal charges dare not leave the village.

Of India’s million mutinies, many involve the emotive issue of land. That is one impulse behind a new law covering land acquisition and the resettlement and rehabilitation of those affected. This week it passed through Parliament’s upper house. Few disagree that some new legislation is needed to replace a much-abused British-era law from 1894.

The new bill, however, has drawn fierce criticism. Business is predictably aghast at what it sees as a populist law timed ahead of looming elections.. Some businessmen think it is simply “unworkable”.

Even some who support the principles behind the bill think their implementation has been botched. N.C. Saxena, a former senior civil servant who sits on a National Advisory Council [claims]  that it does not even cover government land. In other words, it would have no relevance for projects such as POSCO’s. Even if it did, legislation would not solve the fundamental difficulty, a total distrust of government.

“After 66 years of independence,” says Mr Mohapatra, the former sarpanch, “no one has ever been compensated properly. Whoever gave his land and his home later became a beggar.” He points to what he says is the unhappy lot of those displaced by two other projects in Odisha. One is the Hirakud dam across the Mahanadi river. It is India’s longest dam, for which Jawaharlal Nehru poured the first concrete in 1948. As many as 180,000 people had to move. Another is just down the road from Dhinkia, where a big oil refinery has been under construction since 2000. An empty field outside Dhinkia has drains and electricity, put in when plots were offered as compensation to those forced to shift. People found it so unappealing that the field is still empty. Moreover, 52 families who supported the POSCO project, many forced out of Govindpur in 2008, are still in reportedly miserable conditions in a transit camp. Add in heavy-handed police, and those agitating against the project have plenty of ammunition. Even the best-drafted law would find the going tough

This Land is Whose Land? A new law may do little to break India’s land-acquisition logjam, Economist, Sept 7, 2013, at 44

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