Kalindi Das, 48, a labourer in this region where Korean giant Posco has proposed to set up its mega steel project, earned Rs 250 per day as wage till June last year. Today, he has no regular source of income.
Kalindi worked in a betel vine plantation for his living. But this and 641 others were pulled down by the authorities between May and September last year, to facilitate land acquisition for the project. The owners of the vines got compensation. But workers like Kalindi were left in the lurch. Every morning, he looks for odd jobs, sometimes far away from his village, to maintain his family of five.
Kalindi’s story is repeated across villages in Nuagaon and Gada Kujang panchayats, though the third panchayat hit by the project, Dhinkia, has managed to stay out of the menace of livelihood loss to an extent, thanks to its stubborn opposition to land acquisition. The dismantling project was discontinued in September last year, as it hit a wall of stiff opposition at Gobindpur, on the boundary of Dhinkia panchayat.
“The betel vines on the other side (Dhinkia and Gobindpur) were saved because of the protests. But we (people in Gada Kujang and Nuagaon) cooperated with the authorities and dismantled our vines. Now, we are paying the price for this”, rued Anadi Rout, a retired school teacher.
About 80 per cent of the population in the project-affected area depended on betel cultivation for their livelihood. Betel leaves produced in these vines travel to Mumbai and Varanasi through a chain of traders and middlemen. While the owner of a betel vine earns Rs 0.60 to Rs 1.20 per betel leaf, depending on the season of sale, a labourer working on the vines earns Rs 200 to Rs 300 per day, depending on his skill level.
The Posco compensation package prescribed Rs 11,50,000 per acre of betel vine area for the owners and earmarked 20 per cent of that amount (over and above the payment to the owners) for distribution among the landless labour working in these. The Rehabilitation and Periphery Development Advisory Committee (RPDAC) of the project had also approved a maintainance allowance of Rs 2,250 per month for the vine workers till they were absorbed in the project construction.
But the landless workers, numbering about 2,000 in the three panchayats, are not getting any of these benefits. Even the process of their identification, a requisite to access the benefits, has yet to begin in the area.
The vine owners who received compensation for their property last year are also no better off. Says Sarbeswar Bhuyan, 62, of Gada Kujang, “Last year, I got Rs 2.5 lakh compensation for my betel vines. I spent Rs 2 lakh out of it in my daughter’s marriage. I am old and have no regular income now. I do not know how to sustain myself.”
According to Tamil Pradhan, a pro-project activist, many people who willingly dismantled their vines or prawn gheris (breeding enclosures) and received compensation, had gone on a spending spree, hoping project work would soon begin and their regular income restored through some engagement in it. But with no sign of the project work, they are feeling restive and it would not be long before this band of project supporters turn hostile and start reconstruction of the betel vines or prawn gheris on the cleared land for their sustenance.
Posco had brought in some containers to start a site office at Nuagaon last November, raising the hopes of locals about start of project work. But these containers, equipped with work stations and air-conditioners, now lie abandoned following the violence in December during the construction of an approach road to the site, which claimed a life.
After the violence, the local administration has put restrictions on Posco officials visiting the site. “No government official has visited the area in the past few months. So, whatever little project-related work, such as tree cutting or ground levelling was going on has come to a standstill since the last six months,” says Pradhan. “Now, with the National Green Tribunal suspending environment clearance of the project, there is no hope of starting project work in the near future.”
These developments brought cheer to the anti-Posco brigade, but for the people who were overwhelmed by the promise of economic prosperity from this Rs 52,000-crore project and willingly dismantled their betel vines and prawn gheris to make way, this is turning into a nightmare.