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Sunita Narain: Posco: take the land but give life

We have forgotten that development cannot be development if it takes the lives of the very people for whom it is meant

Sunita Narain  |  New Delhi 

The sight on television was heartbreaking: children lying in rows in the searing sun to be human shields against the takeover of their land for Korean giant Posco’s mega-bucks project. Facing them were armed police sent by the state government to assist in the operation. The steel plant and port project, located in a coastal district of Orissa, has been in a six-year-long eyeball-to-eyeball battle with the people whose land will be acquired. Now, with clearances coming through, the state government wants the land acquired, at whatever cost it seems. It has put a financial offer on the table, which even pays for encroached government land. It believes this is a once-in-a-lifetime offer people should now accept. Move on, let the project be built and precious foreign investment come to the shores of this poor state.

The question we need to ask once again is: why are people who clearly look poor fighting this project? Why won’t they accept a financial compensation that gives them an opportunity to start a new life and spare their children the drudgery of growing betel nut? Is it growth and development versus environment or just uninformed, illiterate people or even politically motivated agitators? Is it really as simple as that?

I am afraid not.

is about growth versus growth. People here are poor but they know this project will make them poorer. This is a fact that we in the modern economy find difficult to comprehend. This is an area of betel farming done on mostly forest land belonging to the state. Of the 1,620 hectares needed for the project, 90 per cent, or 1,440 hectares, is this contested forest land.

When the project site was selected, the government did not consider that it would have to pay compensation for this land — it was encroached upon by the people and the government would simply take it back for the steel giant. But it was forest land and the people who lived there had cultivated on it for as long as they could remember. This then raised the tricky matter of the conditions under the that require people to give their consent to the project. The overruled its own dissenting committee to say it would have to trust the state government’s version that all procedures were followed in determining that people in these villages were not entitled to this right to decide because they were not a traditional forest-dwelling community.

With this sorted, the environmental and forest clearance was granted. for the project could proceed. But people who were not asked still said no.

Why? After all the state government says it has accommodated all demands in its offer. It has agreed to limit the acquisition of private dwellings and village land. People will still have homes; they will only lose livelihood. But even for that, they will be compensated. It has agreed to pay for the loss resulting from the use of forest land, even though, technically, people have no right over it. According to field reports from Orissa, the farmers will be paid some Rs 28.75 lakh for each hectare of the “encroached” betel farmland. The package also provides for payment to wage earners who will lose livelihood when betel farms go away. The severance pay has a sweetener. The government will pay a stipend, limited to a year, for the period during which people look for “jobs”. In addition, the 460-odd families who lose homes will be resettled in colonies. So why is the generous offer being rejected?

Even the villagers who have accepted the offer are rethinking. My colleague who visited the residents of the displaced villages, waiting in a transit camp for their new houses to be built and handed over, found discontent brewing. Where is our livelihood, people asked.

These questions are at the core of the battles raging across the country wherever land is being taken for development but people are losing livelihoods. In yet-to-be land, betel farming earns Rs 10 lakh to Rs 17.5 lakh per hectare a year. The compensation is equal to two or three years of earning. Add to this the earnings from paddy, fish ponds and fruit trees. This land-based economy is employment-intensive. The iron and steel plant, however vital for the nation’s economic growth, cannot provide local employment. For one, local people are not “employable” in such a plant. And two, this modern state-of-the-art plant needs only a limited number of people in its operations.

is then about growth versus growth. It is just we who have discounted this economy of the land for so long in our understanding of what works and what matters. It is just we who have forgotten that development cannot be development if it takes the lives of the very people for whom it is meant. The message is clear: if we want their land, we will have to give them a life.