Battle Till Death: Journeys through the anti-POSCO resistance

The following article written by the International Coordinator of Tamil Solidarity and member of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), is based on a visit last year by him to Dhinkia and Gobindpur in Odisha, the epicentre of struggle against the multinational steel giant POSCO.

Exactly one year on, not much has changed except the struggle against POSCO has only intensified with the government not ready to give up yet and Abhay Sahoo (leader of the PPSS) once again been put behind bars very recently. But all the while, if there is one thing that has kept the movement going against all odds, as this article rightly points out, is the integrity of the villagers to struggle till their last breadth.

Editor

Battle Till Death: Journeys through the anti-POSCO resistance

Introduction

One of the Vedanta ads

“Mining happiness” – is the oxymoronic taunt of the Vedanta advert, the notorious mining company, at Bhubaneswar airport. Odisha is now one of the major sites for multinational corporations to loot its natural resources. Korean steel giant Pohang Iron and Steel Company (POSCO) is one in the long list of companies such as Vedanta and Lakshmi Mittal group, who gained a notorious reputation among adivasis and ordinary working people.

Vedanta poster’s jeer is everywhere in Odisha. Most show children who look like Adivasis posing with huge smiles. One would expect joyful youth dancing and singing in the streets of Odisha with happiness! Alas the poverty and hunger is a striking contrast to the billboards. You can hardly see anyone with a proper age to weight ratio. Most 25 year olds look like around 15. The scale of the poverty is inescapable.

This corporate land grab has devastated the lives of hundreds of thousands of some of the poorest people who have been living in these areas for centuries. This slow genocide on a grotesque scale is hidden by the Indian state and the corporations. Worse, they blame everything on those who dare to defend their rights.

Last year I traveled from Indian-occupied Kashmir to Sri Lanka in an attempt to understand the various struggles taking places across South Asia. These are excerpts from my field notes on a brief trip through poverty-stricken Odisha towards Jagatsinghpur district. There POSCO is planning to impose a massive steel plant; in fact it will be the third largest steel plant in the world. But the land they chose is fertile and source of livelihood for many who are refusing to leave. The struggle against Posco since 2005 has intensified. The POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS) has been organizing the resistance. PPSS correctly points out that those who visit this place cannot help but appreciate its wealth and beauty and the importance it holds for people who depend on it for their daily needs.

TU Senan (CWI)

First Glimpses

No one can enter the anti-POSCO area without prior permission from the anti-POSCO movement as the movement has to be ever vigilant against attacks by the government forces. We followed our contact to Ranjan’s house in the Gobindapur village. Ranjan greeted us on his small veranda and said “Abhay Sahu is waiting for you, come” and started walking. Abhay Sahu is the leader of the PPSS. I followed Ranjan through a corridor, passing the piled sacks of paddy and into his backyard.

Lemon, chilli, bitter gourd to ladies finger, you can find all kinds of vegetables here. Rajan claimed that he doesn’t buy anything other than sugar, salt and a few other items. It’s one explanation on how they were able to manage without going out of the village for more than five years! All villagers who protested against POSCO are targeted by the POSCO hired goons or arrested by the police if they dare to come out of their villages.

Meeting with Abhay Sahoo

We went into the backyard were Abhay Sahoo was sitting with a few aged active supporters of the PPSS around him. He has every look of being an important political leader in India. Thin moustache, two phones in his hand on which he constantly receives calls. After attending a phone call he said “See, I just spoke to this guy. This woman who lost her husband two years ago had not received any compensation. I have been trying to sort it out. I only just received a message that she will be given some compensation now.”

Abhay Sahoo’s fighting spirit was the principle reason behind the Communist Party of India’s (CPI) decision to back the anti-POSCO struggle. Within 15 days of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) being signed between the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government and POSCO, the PPSS was set up. The CPI already had some forces in the village area.

Abhay Sahoo was arrested in 2008 and many campaigners feared that this may mark the end of the anti-POSCO movement. But he was released on bail after several months. He faces around 150 charges in court. Abhay Sahoo said he faces the possibility of arrest any time or might even be killed. He only feels comfortable meeting people in the village, feeling secure in the protection of the villagers. I wanted to talk to him briefly about the campaign strategy.

Campaign Strategy

What if the state moves in or what if POSCO is forced to retreat – what will happen to the movement then? Abhay Sahoo’s simple answer after a brief pause is that the movement will continue. What if the state decided to force out the villagers? We are united and strong said Abhay Sahoo. Villagers won’t give up I repeat the question, hinting that the state is enormously powerful with the armed forces at its disposal compared to 30,000-plus poorly armed villagers.

Ranjan said that this is a democratic country. They cannot come here and shoot us! I wanted to say that is exactly what they will do if they get a ‘go ahead’ from the government to take the land. But there was no clear answer to this question

CPI and the PPSS

I moved to a critical question, on the key strategic difference between the CPI and the rest on the anti-POSCO movement. The others in the movement accused the CPI (especially the Central leadership) was merely calling for POSCO to move out of the village areas. The PPSS, they said, should spread the anti-POSCO campaign so that they will never be able to loot other places in India. They accused the CPI Central leadership of not caring what POSCO does anywhere else and that they just wanted POSCO to leave this particular area.

Tell me which land is not fertile ground in India. All land is fertile. Why can’t we say POSCO or any other corporation should not be allowed to loot asks Dhirendra Panda, an activist based in Bhuvaneshwar, when I met him the next day. PPSS leadership faced severe criticism when they accepted the invitation for negotiation with Chief Minister (CM), Naveen Patnaik. It did not stop the CM from later announcing that the POSCO project will go ahead.

In a way this betrayal by the CM that strengthened the campaign. The PPSS leaders now know that the villagers will even defy them to defend their land. They will have the final say. “The CPI is playing a dual role” according to Panda. How can they be in coalition with the BJD? When the CPI general secretary came to a meeting in Odisha, 90% of the state committee members opposed the alliance with the BJD. But the rest of the CPI national committee members forced the others to accept their stand.

They argued that the anti-POSCO struggle is different. But for electoral reasons we have to ally with the BJD to create a third force that can fight against BJP and Congress, they argued. For them electoral importance is a priority, accuses Panda. Then he made the most important point. “With this kind of approach it won’t take long for the state leadership to betray the anti-POSCO movement.” But he said that there are strong CPI personalities in the movement such a Prashant Paikray, spokesperson for PPSS, who he says will choose the movement over the party.

Meeting with the Spokesperson – PPSS

Prashant Paikray, who made my visit to the anti-POSCO area possible, is a charismatic personality. He also claims that they (through the PPSS) wrote to the state/national leadership of the CPI to argue that they should break from the BJD and start building independently. This is not published as it is an ‘internal party matter’. When I asked him about whether we could write about it he raised no objection, additionally he insisted that if the CPI does anything to damage the movement, he will consider leaving the party!

The CPI wants to lead the anti-POSCO struggle to show that they still have some ‘Marxist’ credentials. But they wrote to Prashant that they will support the PPSS against the BJD but cannot break away from the coalition because this coalition is of ‘national’ importance and it is important to build a third front against Congress and BJP! Prashant obviously has some reservations about that argument. But Prashant is a CPI man. His father was an MLA for CPI. He grew up in the party; has been a party member since the early 1970s. However, he is very well respected in all quarters. He is a very humble man – and now works full-time for the campaign, managing the family with his wife’s salary. These are the pillars of the movement, and the strength of the movement stems from it.

At the Epicentre of the Battle

One cannot understand the nature and strength of the struggle without visiting the area. The villagers I spoke to show no sign of giving up. It has been said that PPSS is the strongest anti-displacement movement in the country. Not all villagers are Dalits. Only 35 tribal families live in the village. However, it seems there are still no divisions in the movement along caste lines.

The area comprises well-established but hugely land-dependent peasants and agricultural labourers. There are pro-POSCO people around the village! There is also a small camp village of displaced people who accepted the compensation offered by the government. That village certainly looks worse than the place they lived before. POSCO claims it had already spent two crores, but apart from an office in Delhi, another in Bhubaneswar and another near the village, there is no sign of the money spent. They were not able to acquire any land. Everyone I spoke to said that the majority of the money was used as bribes for the CM, government officials and pro-POSCO village leaders. The CM is also living up to that claim and continues to keep the hope alive for POSCO.

Everyone from the CPI insisted that the PPSS is not a CPI campaign, but all are part of it. However non-CPI activists, such as Prafulla Samantara who considers himself a ‘Gandhian socialist’ or Dhirendra Panda have their reservations. They all support the movement. But they are so far not fully engaged due to the suspicions they have about the CPI Central leadership. Despite this it seems absolutely impossible to do anything in the village without the CPI.

Visiting the Beetle Vine Farms

Abhay Sahoo asked me to have a look at the betel leaf farming and to speak to some of the villagers. Ranjan – shows off – his betel vine farm. I struggle to hold my temptation to taste it and compare it with my memory of Jaffna betel leaves. He said one leaf is sold for 60 paisa now; during the season it is Rs. 1 a leaf. My memory said it is like the taste of Jaffna betel leaf. But the brain quite decisively stated it’s even better! The landscape and the taste is very familiar to me. “This place is like Sri Lanka” Ranjan said, walking out of the gate. How do you know I asked him with clear surprise. “I saw on telly. I know the land when I see it” he states confidently.

We then had a brief conversation and a coconut drink with one of the village leaders, the coconut was picked just then and tasted like heaven. They began to explain how the taste of everything is different here. Abhay Sahoo said “this sand is a sweet sand. The water is sweet.” As though I don’t believe it, he asked a little boy to run and get some water. “Taste this water” he confidently handed me the silver cup. Certainly it was some of the best water I have tasted! I had seen enough and needed no convincing on the quality of the land.

Meeting the Villagers

After walking through the village and having brief chats on the way we arrive at another charismatic village leader. He glanced at me confidently. After the usual introduction, he asks me a surprising question. “Tamil or Sinhala?” He was the first one to ask me the question in my time in Odisha. I was a bit excited by the question. He then explained to other puzzled faces. Nothing was translated to me. He probably had not been much away from his village. But satellite TV is everywhere.

I asked Ranjan to ask him how he knew about Tamils in Sri Lanka. Instead of asking him the question Ranjan answers me saying he is one of the local CPI leaders and has been active for 35 years. While Ranjan explains this, the leader intervenes and says proudly and loudly “Marxist”. ‘Marxist’ may be the only proper English word he was very familiar with. But he didn’t need the language. He was directing Ranjan when he is mostly talking to me in Oriya!

He explains that the struggle against POSCO is very hard especially as it involved a monstrous private corporation. His humble hut faces the danger of demolition if POSCO moves in. He could lose all that he had, all his history of several generations. There are no signs of worry in the man’s face. He smiles big.

The question, what will you do if the state decides to use force, did not have any impact on anyone. One of the villagers simply said: “I will rather die defending the land I work”. They are all very determined. It’s not so hard to understand why. How can they give everything they have for such a meagre compensation, losing their land and livelihood in the process?

We also very briefly met the women’s organizer of the campaign during the walk. The lunch I had at Ranjan house was also very different and unique. Ranjan sat for a while explaining the different vegetables in the brilliantly mixed vegetable curry and the different kind of dal they prepare.

Inspecting the Defenses

Finally we visited ‘The Gate’ that is supposed to protect the villagers from attacks by the POSCO hired goons. They had ruthlessly attacked a 70 year old woman who was quick to point out her broken leg. They lived in one of the rural roads that connected the village. Since the attack villagers had cut off the road and built a gate to protect the family and the village and the gate is guarded by the villagers day and night.

I was puzzled. “They could still enter through here?” – I posed that as a question. Ranjan strongly repeated, saying they had built ‘the gate’ as though they had built a ‘Chinese Wall’ kind of a structure. But it was a wooden gate. A small boy could jump through it. What they are actually relying on is the integrity of the villagers.

My Conclusions

The Indian state is not to be taken too lightly and will employ whatever means necessary to grab the land. I hope the villagers understood the mammoth fight they had taken on and they get the support of the workers and youth of Odisha, and throughout India and internationally. And I hoped they have a conscious and capable leadership that can prepare them for a decisive defence and inspire all the anti-land grabbing campaigns. Over 60 million people in India are displaced now and their numbers are only growing.

But surprising as this may sound, the struggling people in South Asia all have something in common, our enemy: capitalism and its cronies. We must find a way to unite together in our struggle against this enemy!

TU Senan (CWI)