In the latest blow to the people of Jagatsinghapur's fight to keep their homes and livelihoods in the face of development, the South Korean and local Indian governments behind a massive steel plant slated to be built there rejected a UN panel recommendation to halt the land-grabbing project.
The residents of Jagatsinghapur, a town and a municipality area in Jagatsinghpur district in the Indian state of Odisha, have been resisting the POSCO project, a plan to construct a steel plant worth 12 billion US dollars, for eight years. In June 2005, the state government of Odisha and the Korean conglomerate POSCO signed a memorandum of understanding for the project, which would initially need 4,004 acres of land, of which 2,900 acres is forest land and the rest is private land.
But rights over that forest land to be used for the project is claimed by the locals, who have made their living there for decades.
If the project is implemented, over 22,000 people could be forcibly evicted thanks to the acquisition of land, destroying a thriving economy dependent on betel leaf cultivation, cashew plantations, and fisheries.
On 7 October 2013, both the Republic of Korea and the Odisha government stated that work would begin on the proposed plant in 2014, despite the UN Human Rights panel's recommendation that moving ahead with the project would mean the displacement of thousands of people and the disruption of many more livelihoods.
Commenting on the situation, Terra Lawson-Remer, an assistant professor at The New School and Fellow at Council on Foreign Relations, noted on Kracktivism blog that:
the tension between aggregate economic growth and the property rights of vulnerable groups is a longstanding development challenge. Often, growth-enhancing land acquisitions financed by foreign investors forcibly displace the original resource users and ignore their property rights claims, intensifying property insecurity and resource scarcity — even while bringing macroeconomic growth.
Delays have bogged the proposed facility since its inception. A large portion of land have been already acquired by the state, but construction has been delayed by regulatory hurdles and public protests against plans to clear more than 1,600 hectares of mostly forest land.
The project has attracted controversy not only for its impact on the local people and the environment, but also for how police have dealt with protesters against the plant.
There have been numerous protests, and a recent one in March 2013 claimed the lives of four anti-POSCO activists, reported Subhash Gatade at Kafila blog, when bombs thrown at the group exploded. Police allegedly dragged their feet in responding to the violence.
The protesters demands included:
1. Ongoing forcible land acquisition for POSCO plant be immediately stopped.
2. Police force be withdrawn immediately from proposed POSCO plant area.
3. Suspend the District Collector and Superintendent of Police of Jagatsinghpur District immediately.
4. False criminalisation of the protesters be stopped immediately.
With the steel plant project forging ahead, Video Volunteers, an international media and human rights NGO, has released a documentary film highlighting powerful testimonies from the residents stating how their livelihoods will be adversely affected:
The documentary was shot by Video Volunteers’ community correspondents during a fact-finding mission carried out by a number of human rights organizations in November 2012. The mission also resulted in a report (pdf) titled “The Price of Steel”.
From the film's YouTube page:
The film evidence comes at a critical juncture as the affected areas and protest are recovering from the aftermath of cyclone Phailin. The people of the affected area have shared concerns that the destruction of 170,000 trees by POSCO and the Odisha Government made them extremely vulnerable to effects of the cyclone. In previous years the forest cover had mitigated the worst effects of cyclones. [..]
“People in the project-affected area have reportedly been subjected to violence, harassment and intimidation, as well as arbitrary detentions and false charges, as a result of their activities to assemble peacefully and collectively defend their human rights”, said the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Maina Kiai.
More UN special rapporteurs have given their opinion, calling for the project to be stopped:
The construction of a massive steel plant and port in Odisha, India, by South Korean steel giant Posco must not proceed as planned without ensuring adequate safeguards and guaranteeing that the rights of the thousands of people are respected.
He was arrested on 3rd February 2013 by the police on false charges, taken to Kujang prison where he stayed for 26 days and released on bail on 01 March 2013.
For its part, POSCO India has strongly denied having any role in the abuse of human rights:
Posco has always urged the government of Odisha to first safeguard the human rights and livelihood of innocent villagers and rejects/deplores any unlawful violence against them.