(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
June 19, 2011
Anti-POSCO Struggle and UPA govt’s Dual Politics
LAST week the national and international media flashed images of villagers lying in the scorching heat to prevent the Odisha (Orissa) police from entering their villages. The creation of this human shield in Dhinkia panchayat has been a result of the Orissa government’s intent to acquire land for the controversial POSCO project despite long years of protest from local people and the Left and democratic movements active in the state. Such opposition to corporate penetration in resource rich areas of Odisha is not new as the state has been the target of corporate giants like Vedanta, POSCO and other companies in the pro-reforms period. Neither has the state government been circumspect in using force to crush democratic movements in the area as was first evident in the Kalinganagar police firing of 2006. Since then the state has seen a rainbow coalition of Left and democratic forces that have been fighting for the protection of people’s rights and also raising larger issues about the process of land acquisition in the age of corporate capitalism.
The public outrage against the police action on the protesters in Dhinkia panchayat of Jagatsinghpur district needs to be seen in this context. One of the most publicised statements on the confrontation has come from the minister of environment and forests who stated on May 12, 2011 that he did not intend the forest and environmental clearances granted to POSCO to “be used to forcibly acquire land” from the farmers. Instead, he called upon the state government to uphold the spirit of “discussion, dialogue and democracy” while acquiring land. This statement is nothing more than political opportunism of the UPA government in the wake of the clearances granted by the ministry to this project.
AND CURRENT CRISIS
The forest and environmental clearances granted to the POSCO steel project by the ministry of environment and forests on January 31, 2011 are at the heart of the current debate. This clearance was granted only after the state government gave an assurance to the ministry that all procedures required to fulfil the conditions of the Forest Rights Act would be completed before any land was acquired. The obtaining of this assurance was especially important because 70 per cent of the area to be acquired for this project was classified as forest land. In its assurance of October 21, 2010, the state government contended that no claims were filed from the affected Dhinkia, Gobindpur, Nuagaon and Polanga villages and all due processes were followed. It further added that not a single claim had been filed under the category of “other traditional forest dwellers (OTFD)” under Section 2 (O) of the Forest Rights Act. It should be noted that the section explicitly stated that claimants had to be residing and dependent on forests for at least 75 years before December 13, 2005 if their recognition of their rights were to be considered under this category. The state government’s assurance clearly stated that since the entire land to be acquired by POSCO was declared as a “forest area in 1961 the matter in respect of individual and community claims (under section 2 (O)) does not arise.” As far as the claims by scheduled tribes were concerned the state government claimed that no “scheduled tribes (STs) existed in the area.”
Such a claim by the state government has to be evaluated in the light of the social composition of affected villages. The majority report of the POSCO enquiry committee submitted to the ministry in October 2010 held that “a large number of documentary and oral evidences have been found to support the presence of forest dwelling scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers in the area.” It claimed that “the voter list of 2006 mentions 21 names of ST community living in one of the villages, Polang, included in the project area. A number of non tribal people living in project affected villages have produced documents of 1920s showing their relationship, dependence on forests/forest land thereby clearly establishing the existence of OTFDs and STs in the project area.” Further, anti-POSCO activists also claimed several villagers had records to show that they had been cultivating their lands since 1930. Thus even though the land may not have been legally declared as “forest land” fisher folk and other people had been living there since pre-independence days.
The second objection to the assurance of the state government concerned the consent of the palli sabhas (gram sabhas) and their resolutions regarding the process of settlement of forest rights. The state government assured the Minister that the process of filing claims was a transparent one and widely publicised. The people involved in the struggle contend that the palli sabhas held by the government were invalid since there was no quorum for them. They gave instances wherein they said only 34 out of 1900 people attended the palli sabha held by the government. This in fact made a mockery of the public hearings that are essential to clear impact assessment of any projects. Hence the process of providing clearances to the POSCO has itself been contentious and full of loopholes. It is clear that the central government has also acted as a catalyst for fast tracking and propelling the undemocratic land acquisition process in the POSCO case by overlooking these objections.
The POSCO clearance is also a part of a larger strategy where environmental regulations are being eased to give advantages to big projects in mineral based industry. Thus the coal ministry has been pushing for introduction of private players in 71 per cent of the mining area. Further, the number of “no go areas” with respect to coal mines has been reduced by the environment ministry. Hence it is possible that the environment ministry will keep providing clearances to big projects and POSCO like situations will keep emerging.
DUAL POLITICS OF
CONGRESS LED COALITION
The minister’s comment on democracy, dialogue and land acquisition in the POSCO case needs to be understood in the light of the debate on environmental and forest clearances. His flip flop on POSCO also reflects the dual face and politics of the Congress party with regard to big projects like POSCO in resource rich areas. By granting forest and environmental clearances despite serious reservations, the UPA has appeased the corporate lobby that provides both the capital and the social basis of its government. At the same time, by voicing his concern on the process of land acquisition the minister has tried to feed into the Congress party’s populist strategy of opposing land acquisition in non-Congress ruled states. In this way the Congress is attempting to capture the oppositional space in the larger debate on land acquisition. It is also attempting to prepare the ground for a pro-corporate land acquisition law that its allies have already approved. The interventions of the party in attempting to take the credit for the limited success of the Vedanta struggle and the case of land acquisition in Uttar Pradesh recently are pointers towards this factor.
Hence there is an urgent need to demystify the strategy of the Congress which the ongoing anti-POSCO struggle has achieved in doing with some success. The basis for this has been provided by the broad alliance between the Left and democratic forces and the rights based organisations. The Left has been advocating that no land acquisition should take place without the consent of the people and alternative sites should be found for the POSCO project, if at all it is to be implemented. It has also been consistent in opposing acquisition without proper compensation and rehabilitation and voiced its opposition to forcible acquisition in Orissa. However, this argument needs to be extended if right lessons are to be learnt from the POSCO case. The environmental clearance and land acquisition processes should be linked to each other. No project should be provided clearances if the local consent does not exist for land acquisition processes. In this sense the fate of the anti-POSCO struggle may also determine the extent to which a socially just law for rehabilitation and land acquisition is enacted.