Steel Plant at Gopalpur: Why Do People Oppose It?

Prafulla Samantara

For the last two decades the demand for a second steel plant in Orissa has dominated the slogans of almost every political party. Even agitations have taken place under the aegis of these parties and the demand has been raised to tease the party in power. So, to save face, parties in power have hurried through, at least, the signing of MOUs with various steel manufacturing concerns and as a result, the Economic Survey, 1995-96 of the Government of Orissa boastfully mentions that thirteen steel plants are on the anvil - which, taken together, have the capacity to produce 24.05 million tons of steel per annum (including 10 million tons of steel that TISCO proposes to produce at Gopalpur). But the fact is that, as of today, Rourkela Steel Plant remains the only steel plant in Orissa. Rather, apprehensions exist that these plants may ultimately turn out to be plants on paper! The withdrawal of Larsen and Toubro adds another dimension to this scenario. TISCO, however, appears to be sincere to setup a plant at Gopalpur, though it carries the stigma of being utilised to facilitate the former Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao's victory' from the Berhampur Lok Sabba seat.

Yet, there is strong opposition to TISCO setting up its plant at the present site. The local people, notwithstanding the contemporary steel industry's much reduced potential for employment, are not opposed to the steel industry starting up in Ganjam district - if only TISCO moves a few kilometres away and spares the present site. Ms. Bhagyalaxmi of Badaputti village says, 'From ages we have been living here. Tata wants to construct steel plant here - on this land of gold. Are they not ashamed? As if there is no other place for the plant. We are showing you the site. You can set up your plant there. Where shall we go from this place?'

But TISCO's reluctance to change the site and the Government's failure to persuade TISCO has irked and agitated twenty five thousand people of the twenty five villages who are under threat of eviction. One wonders, when the Government is convinced about the suitability of an alternative site between Jagannathpur and Purushottampur (Chandipadar), why it is giving in to Tata's insistence on the present site? The Chief Minister, Mr. J.B. Patnaik, on the floor of the Assembly (24.7.96) stated: 'Two sites have been surveyed. Tata people were present. It was seen that 6000 acres of land would be available between Jagannathpur and Purushottampur. It is not that on this land no people will be displaced. The number of people displaced would be half of the number to be displaced from the original site. Further, it is not that cultivable land will not be lost, but not that much as in the original site. So, it was decided to have plant at the alternative site. But Tatas found that the site would be 25 km from the port. Their port-based plant cannot be economic. So, they did not select the site'.

Therefore, the tussle is: Should TISCO move its plant 25 km away from the port or should 25,000 people of 25 villages move out of their land which they have been inhabiting for generations? The tussle is about: who can afford the burden?

TISCO, if it moves its 10 MT plant, costing around 24,000 crores of rupees, twenty five kilometres away, has to spend about 1.3 paise more annually for every rupee of fixed capital. On the other hand, if 25,000 people are displaced and made to lose 6000 acres as required by the TISCO (hence, Rs. 60 crores worth of property calculated at Tata's rate of Rs. 1 lakh per acre), then they lose around Rs. 10 to 12 crore annually, that is about 16 to 20 paise annually for every rupee of fixed capital.

Thus, to save TISCO from losing one rupee annually, the local people have to lose 12 to 15 rupees annually, and that too for all times to come.

The income of the local people comes from agriculture, fishing, from the sale of coconut, banana, cashew and keora flowers besides employment in 50-60 korea scent distillation plants.

That the area is highly yielding can be inferred from the fact that the paddy yield rate of Chhatrapur block, wherein is situated the large part of the site TISCO proposes to acquire is 34.15 Qtl/hectare whereas that of Ganjam is 29.69 Qtl/hectare and that of Orissa is 14.53 Qtl/hectare (Ganjam District Statistical Handbook, 1993, Economic Survey, 1995-96, Government of Orissa). Further, that the area is highly dense with trees and groves can be reckoned if we take the following facts together. (1) Maximum area of the present site is in the Chhatrapur block. (2) The area is nearest to the coast. (3) In Chhatrapur block the land utilised for tree crops and groves is 3152 hectares - the highest in Ganjam district (Ganjam District Statistical Handbook, 1993) and which is about 25% of the net area sown. In fact, Kallipalli Panchayat which is going to be wiped out once the steel plant comes up at the present site, has the highest concentration of trees and groves in Chhatrapur block.

The human population is also dense in this area. 25,000 people in 6000 acres means that the population density is 1041 per square kilometre though NEERI (National Environment Engineering Research Institute) which was engaged by TISCO for Environmental Impact Assessment reports this density to be 537 per which, too, remains higher than the population density of Chhatrapur block (474.29 per whereas that of Orissa is 202 per

Thus, an area, which is densely populated, has the highest concentration of trees and groves, has a considerably high yield rate of rice, is going to be wiped out because of the reluctance of TISCO to bear an additional expenditure of 1.3 paise annually for every rupee of fixed capital. This is besides the adverse environmental impact on the sea and marine life which would affect the livelihood of thousands of traditional fishermen.

Against so much that the local people have to sacrifice, what TISCO shall give them? These 25,000 people inhabiting an area of 6000 acres shall be squeezed into an area of about 573 acres. And about jobs? TISCO does not give any guarantee. Even the Chief Minister, Mr. J.B. Patnaik has said on the floor of the Assembly: 'About employment given on priority no one can give guarantee on that. Whatever employment shall be given that will be based on qualification. Only on the basis of qualification, the people from the displaced families will be given jobs'. The local people, however, say that they do not need jobs; one acre of land is enough for a family as it gives an annual income of not less than one lakh of rupees. A woman of Kalipalli village, however, poses a very profound question, when she says, 'OK, they give jobs. Will they give a job to the one who is in her womb?' The question this woman asks reveals her fear that with her land, home and hearth being replaced by the steel plant, the 'options of unborn generations' of her village are going to be closed. With such apprehensions in the minds of the local people when one looks at the loss of the nature that has been sustaining the local population, it is hardly difficult to infer that the TISCO plant at Gopalpur, if set up at the present site, shall brazenly violate the paradigm of development, (which UNDP envisages in its Human Development Report, 1994) which 'protects the options of unborn generations', 'does not run down the natural resource base needed for sustaining development in the future' and 'nor does it destroy the richness of nature that add so much to the richness of human life'. It therefore appears that TISCO's burden of shifting 25 kms away is much lighter than what the local population, the natural environment, the marine ecology and the state as a whole has to bear in the short and long run.

Further, the local people are aware of the risks of landlessness, joblessness, homelessness, marginalisation, morbidity, food insecurity, loss of access to common property assets and social disarticulation that have to be faced once they are ousted. They appear to be convinced that TISCO under no circumstances can help them overcoming such risks. The experience of oustees of different projects like Hirakud, Upper Kolab, NALCO, and NTPC at Kaniha has strengthened their belief that to leave the place means to die. Therefore, they are raising the slogan, 'we shall rather die but shall not leave our place of birth'. A villager of Sindhigaon, another village under threat of eviction, says 'If force is applied, we shall rather die but shall not move. We have told the collector: bomb us, we will die but will not leave the place; they can build the plant after killing us'. They have demonstrated it by resisting the entry of the officials into their villages even though they had to sacrifice the lives of two elderly ladies who died after being hurt in the scuffle with the police.

So the agitation continues. The success of similar agitations in Ballapal, Gandhamardan and Chilka has strengthened their resolve to protect their land, home and hearth even at the loss of lives.

Ganasangram Samity is spearheading the agitation. Its president, Mr. Narayan Reddy has already suffered 52 days confinement under NSA. People of the villages have already been beaten. With each step to suppress them, they are found to emerge more and more resolute. Mahila Sena (Women's Front) has been formed. The call to form a Death Squad has been given. Hon'ble Legislators like Ramkrishna Pattnaik, Ananta Narayan Singhdeo, Amarprasad Satpathy, Prasanna Kumar Panda, Ramchandra Sethi and Ashok Das have spoken on the floor of the assembly justifying the agitation. But the Tatas have money. The Government is with the Tatas. The elites of Orissa are eager to be persuaded. The combination is heady enough to create a hallucination that the 'three P's of the Corporate world - Power, Payment and Persuasion' (as conceived by Sanjay Singh, Director of Corporate Communications, Tata Steel in Jamshedpur, Telegraph dated 22.7.96) are working and the goal is not far off. But there is a fourth P and that too a massive one, which stands for the highly committed, agitating people of Gopalpur. Can these three pygmy Ps of the Corporate world ever overpower the massive P of the people's world? An emphatic NO - is what one waits for as the answer.

Courtesy: Vikalpa Sandhani Manch

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