| End of the road: The highway blocked by the agitating tribals
Photo: Sanjib Mukherjee
Where shall I go
Leaving this land,
For which I am only a trustee
As a tribal, I am duty bound
To pass it on to the generation next!
Chakradhar Haibru has no time for ' or patience with ' poetry. Not even when a stirring verse is penned about the plight of his people by Bishnupada Sethi, a Bhubaneswar-based official crusading on behalf of the displaced.
The last time the 38-year-old tribal leader of Kalinganagar ' where 12 tribespeople were killed in police firing on January 2 ' opened a book of poems was in school years ago. Poetry, says the engineering college dropout, means nothing to him when the rhythm of tribal life is being torn asunder in a relentless government campaign to turn the mineral-rich eastern state into an industrial powerhouse.
To be sure, Orissa ' caught in a quagmire of poverty ' needs industry for jobs and revenues. But the questions increasingly being asked are “for whom and at what cost'” It’s perhaps a supreme irony that the very people ' the tribals ' the Orissa government is trying to lift out of poverty through rapid industrialisation are becoming victims of it.
Orissa has made remarkable progress over the last few years. According to Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), Orissa accounts for the highest total investment ' about 11 per cent ' reported in the country last year. “The state’s performance on the investment front is outstanding,” notes Aniruddha Chatterjee, business development manager of CMIE in Calcutta.
Yet as investors flock to the state to take advantage of an “industrial resurgence”, thousands of people (mostly tribals living in mineral-rich districts) face displacement.
Orissa is no stranger to displacement. Some two million people have already lost their homes to make way for mega projects since the 1950s, says Sethi, an Orissa-cadre IAS officer working on the rehabilitation and resettlement of the displaced for the United Nations Development Programme. Most projects ' from the Rourkela steel plant to the Balimela hydroelectricity venture 'have come up on tribal land.
Still, what sets Kalinganagar apart is the grim determination with which the state administration sought to clear the area for a Tata Steel plant. The orders came from the Naveen Patnaik government, which has so far been tom tomming its “pro-tribal” image. And therein, many believe, lies a web of politics that involves land acquisition. The poor, who wind up displaced, are often pawns on a shifting political chessboard.
Take J.B. Patnaik of the Congress. As chief minister, he cleared large tracts of farmland from Gopalpur in the late Nineties to make way for a mega steel plant that never came up. Now, as an Opposition leader, he is leading the Kalinganagar agitation. On the other hand, Naveen Patnaik, when in Opposition, was against large-scale displacement in the bauxite-rich tribal heartland of Koraput and Rayagada to set up aluminium plants. In power, he is backing the aluminium companies. “It’s hard to believe that he is the same chief minister who in his first five-year term did so much for the impoverished tribals,” says Achyut Das, director of Agragamee, a Kashipur-based NGO.
Naveen Patnaik was the first chief minister to prohibit the sale of tribal land in the state. He also banned village moneylenders from charging high interest rates and helped tribals get a better deal on non-timber forest produce. “As many as 5,000 minor cases against tribals have been withdrawn on the order of the chief minister,” says state information minister Debasis Nayak.
And while Nayak points out that the chief minister transferred senior local administrators and announced monetary compensation after the Kalinganagar firing, activists are dissatisfied with the way the government is trying to “explain away” the incident. “It was a calculated massacre of tribals,” says Rabi Behera, secretary of the Jibika Banchao Andolan, an anti-displacement NGO. The authorities, he holds, went ahead with the construction of a boundary wall for the steel plant, knowing well that tension was running high in the area.
In small settlements scattered across what is now the sprawling 12,000-acre Kalinganagar industrial complex in Jajpur district, many accuse the government of shortchanging them. The state-run Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (IDCO) acquired the land in 1992-1994 after paying villagers Rs 37,500 per acre for farmland. But when Tata Steel bought 1,970 acres of land to set up its six-million-tonne plant in November 2004, IDCO asked for Rs 3,35,000 per acre. “The government acted like a developer. It forced us to sell our land cheap and then made a whopping profit,” says Haibru.
Industry, too, feels shortchanged. Though in the Nineties, the government acquired the 12,000 acres of land that constitute the industrial complex, the transfer is mostly on paper. “People continue to live there as the recent face-off between the police and locals demonstrates,” an industry source says.
Within the government, too, there are rumblings of discontent. Orissa BJP president Juel Oram was so enraged by the killings that he even met party leader L.K. Advani in Delhi and sought permission to withdraw support from the government. It’s not purely out of concern for the tribals, though. The BJP holds sway over much of the tribal areas in the state, with 13 of its 32 MLAs and three of its seven Lok Sabha MPs belonging to the Scheduled Tribes.
The political shadows over displacement keep lengthening. But slowly, the trusting tribespeople are waking up to all this. At Kalinganagar, for instance, villagers have barred politicians from meddling in their affairs. “We don’t want to be used as a political tool,” says Debraj Balmuch, a 20-year-old art college dropout with the Visthapan Virodhi Manch, spearheading the agitation.
Manch secretary Haibru smiles as he shoos away a cow munching on a marigold garland lying on a square of burnt cinders, where all the 12 bodies of the locals were cremated. “Tribals do have a right to live on their land like others, don’t they'” he asks.