Even as the exit of Posco from Odisha has thrown up questions about the use of the land acquired for the company’s steel project, the intent of the state government to bring it under a land pool for forward transfer to another industry is likely to face a fresh round of resistance from anti-Posco group in the area. Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS), which spearheaded the agitation against land acquisition for the project for over a decade, has vowed to resist any attempt of the government to allot the land to any industrial house. “We will resist the move to hand over the land to another company after Posco’s exit. As was the case in Singur, the Odisha government should return the land to the villagers who were drawing their sustenance from paddy and betel leaf cultivation and fish ponds at the designated site, before it was snatched away from them for the Posco project”, said Abhay Sahu, PPSS leader. But unlike Singur, the 2,700 acres land acquired for the Posco project wasn’t in the name of the villagers, who mostly encroached upon the government land to build their betel vines and prawn ponds. The administration had paid them compensation for the assets to win their support for the land acquisition. “It didn’t matter if the land belonged to the government in official records. People were cultivating the land for generations and earning their livelihood. The villagers have a right on it.
So it should go back to them”, said Sahu, who is planning to hold victory celebrations after Posco’s exit.With the project being a non-starter for long, after the completion of the land acquisition process in 2013, some villagers — who had pulled down their betel vines in lieu of compensation to make way for the project — have started rebuilding their vines on the earmarked area. With no boundary wall and no watch-and-ward staff to protect the acquired area, the encroachers are back in action, said a villager. Nearly 300 betel vines have resurfaced in the acquired area close to Gobindpur and Polang villages and the process is on. It may be noted 1,592 betel vineyards were demolished as part of the land acquisition drive for the Rs 52,000-crore project. This fresh wave of encroachment is expected to create hurdles in handing over an encumbrance-free land to any other industry interested to set up a project at the location. The district administration is, however, nonchalant. “The act of rebuilding of betel vines amounts to forceful land grabbing and breach of law. The rebuilt vineyards would be demolished”, said an official. The police have registered 32 cases against the encroachers and criminal cases have been registered against the occupiers under provisions of IPC and Odisha Prevention of Land Encroachment Act (OPLE), he said. Mere registration of cases without any physical action to protect the Posco site, however, has little effect on the new spate of encroachments on it, particularly with the villagers who had received compensation already spending their money in last four years and unable to find alternate livelihood beyond betel leaf cultivation. JSW Steel, which is planning a 10-million tonne shore-based steel plant in the state at an estimated investment of Rs 50,000 crore, has shown interest to set up the project at the location. But going by past problems to clear the area for the Posco project, the administration may be faced with a Herculean task to take possession of the acquired land, if swift action is not taken to arrest the encroachments.