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How the steel was tempered.....Madhumita Dutta / New Delhi April 8, 2008
From a distance the barricades did not seem so ominous, even though a blur of khaki loomed nearby.

People marched on. Women and men, aged and young. The air was resonant with ululations of defiance as hundreds of villagers from Dinkia, Patna, Nuagaon, Govindpur rallied towards Balitutha.

One could sense ripples of grit and determination mixed with rage surfing through the crowd. But the fear of what will happen next was palpable as people surged forward shouting “Posco hatao, Orissa bachao”.

A h undred metre short of the barricade the quiet ripples of protest suddenly turned into a tsunami of rebellion. Women broke into a run, screaming and charging towards the barricade.

The big posse of policemen hovering near by at once moved closer menacingly. But it was too late. Within minutes, the four-month-old 20-feet high bamboo barricade was brought crashing down by this massive outburst. The beefed-up security cordon and the district administration stood around watching helplessly.

Balitutha, a nondescript village square in Ersama block of Jagatsinghpur district off the east coast of Orissa, was ground zero of action on April 1, 2008. It witnessed something that the Pohang Steel Company (Posco) or the Orissa state government will not forget easily.

The day was Utkala Diwas or Orissa Foundation day, which marks the formation of the Oriya state and an affirmation of the Oriya identity. Significantly, this day was also chosen by Posco, a South Korean steel major to perform its ground-breaking ceremony for setting up a 12-million tonne steel plant in Jagatsinghpur.

In response, Posco Protirodh Sangram Samiti, a people-led struggle group, called for “Vikalpa Vikas Samabesh” (Alternative Development Meeting) to oppose any such moves by the company or the state. Few days before April 1, Posco decided to call off its programme on flimsy grounds.

Ever since the Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the company and the state in June 2005, the project has seen intense opposition from villagers of three panchayats—Dinkia, Nuagaon, and Gadkujang—who stand to loose their livelihood, land and homesteads if the project goes through.

Peoples’ barricades had sprung up at every village to stop the entry of the state administration after their demand to scrap the project was rejected.

The Orissa Government is notorious for its intolerance for dissent, as witnessed in the police firings and killings in Kashipur of Rayagada district in 2000, in Kalinganagar of Jajpur district in 2006 and Raighar of Koraput district in 2002.

True to its reputation, it has used its armed machinery to crush all resistance to the project in the “Posco area”. From November 2007, the area has been under siege from 16 platoons of armed Orissa Police force. They have even occupied the school buildings of Govindpur, another village which is threatened with oblivion.

Charges have been fabricated against activists and villagers. The company officials have even tried to sneak into the area to bribe and buy over villagers, which had sparked off fresh tension in the area. Frustrated, the state has resorted to draconian measures like imposing IPC Section 144 to curtail assembly, free movement and speech in the area.

On November 29, 2007, about thousand hired henchmen from Paradeep attacked the peoples’ barricade at Balitutha with arms and country-made bombs, injuring several seriously even as a district administration watched in apparent collusion. Following the incident, a paranoid administration had erected barricades to stop anyone entering the villages from Balitutha, a key entry-point to the three affected panchayats. Worse still, they have even choked essential supplies like food grains and kerosene to the area for past four months.

The state has used all kinds of dirty tricks to quell the opposition, but in vain. People have resisted valiantly and not given an inch of their land. What we witnessed on April 1 was not just an act of defiance of section 144; it was a courageous assertion of people’s right to dissent and justice.

The author is an environmental activist working with the

Chennai-based Corporate Accountability Desk which is part of the human rights group, The Other Media.

URL:  http://www.business-standard.com/search/storypage_new.php?leftnm=3&leftindx=3&subLeft=2&autono=319341