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Is the Struggle for Livelihood a Criminal Offence?

Arrests in Orissa of activists taking part in protests over livelihood issues point to the high-handedness of the ruling administration in the state. The government, while clearly taking sides with big corporates, is bent upon using repressive measures to squash genuine people's movements.

COMMENTARY

special forces, have been overzealous in

Is the Struggle for Livelihood

carrying out this threat.

a Criminal Offence? A Repressive State

In Orissa, wherever people are opposing the entry of mining companies, they have Debaranjan been facing the wrath of the police and

Arrests in Orissa of activists taking part in protests over livelihood issues point to the high-handedness of the ruling administration in the state. The government, while clearly taking sides with big corporates, is bent upon using repressive measures to squash genuine people’s movements.

Email: debasar11@yahoo.co.in

Economic & Political Weekly January 12, 2008

T
he arrest of Saroj Mohanty, an activist of Prakrutik Sampad Surakhya Parishad (PSSP), on July 14, 2007, while on his way to Kashipur, yet again signals the true repressive intentions of the government in Orissa towards peoples’ movements. It is clear that it is the intention of this government to intimidate all those who oppose its decision to hand over natural resources to corporates in the name of so-called “development”, against the willingness of the people of the state.

Saroj Mohanty, a poet and editor of a socio-political magazine Anwesa, along with this writer, has for many years been active in the ongoing local adivasi resistance to the entry of Utkal Alumina International Limited (UAIL), now wholly owned by Hindalco. In late 2004, as the government became keen on moving ahead with the UAIL project, false cases were foisted upon a number of PSSP activists. Saroj Mohanty now faces several serious charges, including attempt to murder, dacoity and trespassing.

Before the cases were slapped on Mohanty, over 50 people from the small taluka or block of Kashipur were arrested after December 2004 because of the resistance to the bauxite mines and alumina plant of UAIL. Earlier the company Alcan (from Canada) which was part of the UAIL joint venture withdrew from the project in April 2007. This was when the second round of repression – after the infamous Maikanch firing of December 16, 2000 in which three activists were killed (EPW, March 26, 2005) – was unleashed by the Orissa state government. Those arrested and others who have been raising their voices against the process of mining in Kashipur, have been labelled “anti-social”, “anti-national”, “anti-development”, and “extremists” by the state bureaucrats and cabinet ministers and “would be punished severely”, threatened chief minister Naveen Patnaik in the state assembly. The state police force and admini stration in nearly every instance. Police have picked people from public areas and there have been several instances of lathicharge, use of tear gas, arrests, and of people being threatened with arrest. Flagmarches by the Central Reserve Police Force and the Indian Reserve Battalion forces are becoming common phenomena in the state. Here are a few incidents in Orissa of repression on resistance movements in recent years.

The Kalinganagar firing in which 14 people were killed is well known. Earlier in the same area, because of sustained opposition to the forceful land acquisition and specifically the ‘bhoomipuja’ by Maharashtra Simplex, on May 9, 2005, police went on a rampage in the nearby villages. The protestors, mostly women, were roughed up and at least 25 of them were arrested. The attack by the police caused the death of two children and an old man, who was severely beaten up by the police. (PUCL report on Kalinganagar.)1

Those protesting the operations by the firm Vedanta (from UK), in Lanjigada, Kalahandi district, were also attacked. Villagers from Lanjiguda-Bandhguda who were not interested in leaving their land earmarked for the construction of a boundary wall were sitting on a dharna before the company’s office. In April 2006, 36 tribals among them were arrested. Even as these villagers were put in jail the company constructed its wall with the cooperation of the police and the district administration.

In Lanjigada itself in April 2003, nearly 300 people who went to oppose and also to lodge an first information report (FIR) against highhandedness by company hirelings were chased away from Lanjigada police station by the very same goons. The police remained silent spectators. A year later, in April 2004, 14 activists were arrested in Lanjigada on a false case of arson, while returning from a rally. And most tragically, in 2005, three tribals

COMMENTARY

including Sukru Majhi, leader of the organisation against the Vedanta project, Niyamgiri Surakshya Samiti were killed by company hirelings. Yet not a single case was registered in Lanjigada police station. The project has now been halted due to the intervention by the apex court which is considering as to whether the lease to mine in the Niyamgiri hill area, home to the Dongaria Kondh community and which also has a highly sensitive ecosystem, should be given or not.

The South Korean company Posco, which is involved in the largest FDI project in India, ever happens to be the subject of an issue that is of great concern for the local people in Orissa. The people of Paradeep in Jagatsingpur district, where the project has been identified for location, are now in the midst of protests against the state government and its industrial policy. Jaswant Jethwa, severely condemned by the Justice P K Mishra Commission for his role in the Maikanch firing of December 16, 2000 has been posted as the superintendent of police for Jagatsingpur district. Pramod Meherda, IAS who earlier was posted in Rayagada district and who led the second phase of repression in Kashipur, has been posted in the same district as collector. It is a situation ripe for further repression.

Regime of Fear

The situation in Jagatsingpur district worsened when the state government attempted to fulfil the requirement of organising a so-called “public hearing”, needed for environment clearance, on April 15, 2007. A week before the public hearing, 19 platoons of the Orissa armed police were mobilised to supposedly check “disruptive elements”. The public hearing was finally held in the presence of police at Kujang nearly 20 km away from the project site and without the participation of the villagers who would be affected by the project. In the meantime, nine anti-Posco people have already been arrested on false cases filed by “project supporters” in April 2006. They are afraid even today to come out of their respective villages.

In Sundergarh, the people have been waging a bitter battle against the mushrooming of sponge iron plants. Hundreds of sponge iron factories are mushrooming illegally in West Bengal, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand because of their high deposits of iron ore, non-cooking coal and assured water supply from river systems in this region. But this industry is highly polluting. Emissions from sponge iron plants contain cadmium, nickel, hexavalent chromium (most dangerous through air and water), arsenic, manganese and copper. Suspended particulate matter (SPM) in the air containing heavy metals are lethal and can cause cancer. The oxides of sulphur in these emissions and heavy metals affect human lungs in particular and also cause quick damage to plantation crops (fruit trees), and other agriculture produce. Usually, even if a complaint about this potential damage is registered, the matter is either not investigated by the State Pollution Control Board or suppressed. Residents have been protesting about the causes of heavy pollution by

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COMMENTARY

these factory units and also protesting land acquisition under coercion.

Nepaz, in connivance with the police and administration, tried to acquire more cultivable land in Kuarmunda block, in Sundergarh district. People opposed the move vehemently. On March 24, 2006, around 4,000 local people participated in a rally and when local police tried to overpower them, the protestors reacted and damaged factory property. In retaliation, the police chased them and beat them severely. The next day, 118 people were picked up, most of them were women and children. They are charged with dacoity, tresspassing, attempt to murder, destroying property and rioting, etc, under numerous sections of the criminal procedure code.

There are protests going on against the construction of the Lower Sukhtel Dam in Bolangir district. If constructed, it would supply water to the proposed alumina plant coming up soon in the Gandhamardan area and also would irrigate the lands of a few influential local politicians and other large landowners. On May 11, 2005, when villagers of the submergence area opposed erecting the foundation stone of the dam, the police entered their villages the next day, pulled them out, beat them severely and arrested 70 people.

Targeting of Resistance

There are other examples of this targeting of resistance movements by the government in the interest of big corporates. In Dhenkanal district, because of their opposition to the company, Bhushan Steel, 26 people were picked up by the police in December 2005 on false cases and were sent to jail. One activist, Amit Nath, was arrested merely because of a fiery speech against Bhushan Steel. Increasingly, people are being targeted not because of what they do but because of the politics they profess. In 2007 itself, six people were arrested in an incident because of their opposition to Sterlite industry in Keonjhar district. Slum-dwellers in Bhubaneswar city faced the wrath of the police because they have been resisting the slum demolition plans of the government for providing their occupied land to the multinational companies. On the one hand, the state government is repressing its own people and on the other, in the name of special

Economic & Political Weekly January 12, 2008

economic zones (SEZs) it has handed over resources to innumerable companies.

When Latra Majhi, one of the senior leaders of the Kashipur struggle, was surrounded by police and picked up from a village road in February 2005, he was ignorant of the fact that he had been branded as a dacoit in two different cases. He spent six months in jail as an undertrial and finally got bail from a high court. But when the final judgments of the two cases came to light, it was learned that in one case the informant admitted “he does not know the contents of the FIR and he has not been examined by police” and in other case the informant stated, “police came to her village and took her left thumb impression (LTI) on a paper”. The case is based on completely fabricated allegations. It is even more distressing considering that Latra Majhi had a spend six months in jail along with six others, causing irreparable damage to the movement.

When the informant admitted no knowledge of the incident and when the police could not substantiate the arguments provided in the chargesheet the cases should have been quashed. It is the irony of the Indian judiciary system that the cases were not thrown out while only Latra Majhi was acquitted. Saroj Mohanty has now been sent to jail under the same charges in the same cases and “others” in future could also be arrested. Hara Bania of adjacent Baragada district, an activist of a farmers’ organisation in those areas, expressed solidarity with the people of Kashipur during the repressive days. That was enough for him to face the ire of the police. He was sent to jail in December 2004. These are only a few examples of many such arrests in Kashipur.

But when Subarna Jhodia, wife of Damodar Jhodia, who was killed in Maikanch firing in 2000 (EPW, October 25, 2003), filed a FIR against the police taking the facts from the Mishra Commission Report, a copy of that FIR was not given by the local police station of Tikiri. The law specifies that due permission from the state ministry is necessary before any case against a police officer or a government officer is filed. Permission is not given to civilians to file cases against government officials if the case directly affects the interest of the state government. Naveen Patnaik’s ministry is hell-bent on encouraging mining for the interest of corporates. In essence, there has been a nexus between corporate officials, the police and the local admini stration.

Besides the use of state repression and false cases, nowadays a different strategy is being adopted. A few people either inside or adjacent to the project areas are identified as “supporters of the project”. These “supporters” of the project tend to be none other than members of the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and henchmen of BJD leaders and its ministers: in Kalinganagar (for the Tatas) state finance minister Prafulla Ghadei, in Paradeep (for Posco) BJD state secretary and former minister Damodar Rout, in Lanjigada (for Vedanta), former minister and BJD leader Balabhadra Majhi. These henchmen are termed “project supporters” and are hand in glove with the police and administration in repressing local people and are instruments in filing false cases against those resisting these projects. And this goes on as a private-public-partnership basis.

The Root Cause

Orissa has the highest percentage of India’s total deposits of chromite, bauxite, graphite, manganese ore, and dolomite; fourth in total deposits of coal and fifth in the case of iron ore deposits. Within the last few years, as many as 56 memoranda of understanding (MoUs) have been signed with different companies just for the mining of natural resources. The present government has invited Hindalco (Aditya Birla group), Alcan (Canada), Vedanta (UK), BHP Billington (UK), Rio Tinto (UK), etc, with a proposed investment of nearly Rs 53,000 crore in order to extract a total deposit of 7,330 lakh tonnes of bauxite from the state. It has also contracted the extraction of 35,670 lakh tonnes of iron ore by TISCO, Vedanta/Sterlite, Bhushan Steel, Jindal, Essar, Mittal, BHP Billington, Rio Tinto and Posco, with an investment totalling Rs 1,30,000 crore, to extract and utilise the state’s entire deposits of iron ore. In the case of manganese and coal too, there are large companies waiting to get in.

These projects are estimated to displace nearly 2.5 lakh families, perhaps up to one million people. Even the government claims that if all these projects are

COMMENTARY

implemented only 50,000 jobs would be created. As per a government report, out of 56 MoUs, work has been started on 10 projects. Of these, it is known that Vedanta is facing criticism for violation of forest laws as per the Central Empowered Committee report, set up by the Supreme Court. UAIL in Kashipur has no environment, mining and forest clearances from the central government.2 But both are carrying on construction with virtual impunity. The Tatas in Kalinganagar did not have the environment clearances when land acquisition was done and during the course of which firing took place. Bhushan Steel does not have the required gramsabha resolution but is going in for construction illegally. Sterlite in Jharsuguda and Posco in Paradeep, Jagatsingpur district organised its mandatory pubic hearing in the presence of heavy armed police, which is illegal and inhibits opposition to the projects. These are completely in violation of the state’s own procedures and existing laws.

The present government is taking particular interest in favouring mining companies, whereas all those opposing the large projects – the movements and their leaders – are branded as anti-nationals, extremists, Naxalites, anti-deve lopment, etc. Even as the state government is hell-bent on pushing projects through, the repression by the state has increased manifold in adivasi areas during the last three years; and even constitutional rights have been violated in Orissa. The present bias and interest of the Orissa government and consequent overzealousness of the police only suggests that more arrests, torture, lathicharge and grievous incidents of police firing would take place in the state.

Thousands of adivasis, dalits and poor peasants who, as part of people’s movements, constitute a stumbling block against the looting of people’s resources are all facing the ruthlessness of Naveen Patnaik, the “democratically elected” “CEO” of Orissa. Saroj Mohanty is only the latest in a long list of those facing such harassment in a state, where development is a “myth”.

Notes

1 The Kalinganagar industrial area, established in the 1990s in Jajpur district in the coastal region, has become a steel hub of Orissa, one, because of its proximity to Sukinda Mines, Asia’s larges iron ore mines and two, because of the SEZ status granted to many steel companies. The companies that would prosper from the nearly 25,000 acres industrial area include Nilachal Ispat Nigam, MESCO, Jndal, VISA, Tatas, Uttam Galva, Orion, Mithal, Rohit and Dinabandhu. A few companies had started their operations but the shocking Kalinganagar firing (January 2, 2006) has halted the progress temporarily. It is estimated that nearly 5,000 families who have settled there for generations would be thrown out once this industrial area is fully developed. The Brahmani river which flows nearby would work as a natural sewage to carry pollutants, causing death to and affect the lives of thousands of peasants and fishermen residing downstream.

2 Indian People’s Tribunal, Kashipur: An Enquiry into Mining and Human Rights Violations in Kashipur, Orissa, October 2006.

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