Posco hostage to land backlash

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By OUR CORRESPONDENT in Bhubaneshwar
  • Published 11.05.07

Bhubaneswar, May 11: Orissa villagers who have threatened “a Nandigram” to protect their land today held three steel officials hostage for several hours, increasing the uncertainty over the largest-ever FDI project in India.

Rosalin Parida, the lone woman among the three junior executives of South Korean steel-maker Posco had been freed by evening, but the hostage drama involving the two men stretched almost till midnight.

For the past 20 months, no government official or policeman has been able to enter the panchayats of Dhinkia, Gadakujang and Nuagaon ever since the villagers learnt that Posco wanted their land to build its Rs 51,000-crore plant.

Today, senior executive Debasis Swain and PRO Pranabananda Das were released around 11.45 pm only after giving a written undertaking never to come to any of these villages again to convince them to sell their land.

Posco India general manager Y.K. Kim, too, spoke to the land protesters over the phone and assured them that the company would not send executives to the villages again.

The release of the captives defused the tension that had built up, with the protesters warning of “another Nandigram or Kalinga Nagar” and planning to use their children as a human shield in case of a police raid.

Earlier, Posco had reacted to the abduction by saying it was “open to any dialogue” but its officials must be released first.

“The company, however, will still pursue direct negotiation for land acquisition, but with a cautious approach. We will seek the district administration’s advice before the next move,” the statement from Posco had added.

The Naveen Patnaik government, blocked from the villages by bamboo barricades erected at their gates, had asked Posco to directly acquire land from the villagers. The company, which had signed the MoU amid huge publicity in 2005, needed 371 acres of private land for its 4,004-acre, 12-million-tonne plant.

This afternoon, Swain, Das and front office executive Parida had driven to Dhinkia from Kujang, 15 km away, to explain the social projects the company planned to carry out, Jagatsinghpur police chief Y.K. Jethwa said. Their car was surrounded by hundreds of angry and suspicious villagers.

“We asked them why they had come. They could not give a satisfactory reply, so we didn’t allow them to go,” said Abhay Sahu, president of the Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti, over the phone in the evening.

Subash Mohapatra, another member of the Samiti, which has been spearheading the agitation for the past two years, said the two captives were safe. “We are giving them food and water.”

He had added: “At least 200 people and children will guard the eight different gates erected by villagers to prevent the entry of officials and police tonight.”

Some 12 platoons of armed police have been stationed at Kujang for some time, but the officials said the government had sent them mainly to frighten the villagers and didn’t want a bloodbath.