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Steel town under land siege

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By DEBABRATA MOHANTY in Bhubaneshwar
  • Published 10.01.06

Bhubaneswar, Jan. 10: The flare-up in Kalinga Nagar has fanned unrest in Rourkela with hundreds of armed tribals blocking the lone railway entry point to the steel town since this morning.

The tribals are demanding that 4,000 unused acres at the Rourkela Steel Plant be returned to the original owners, claiming that the project has not been able to expand operations and does not need the surplus land.

Land was at the centre of the dispute in Kalinga Nagar, too, where 12 people were killed last week after clashes broke out over complaints of inadequate compensation by the government for plots acquired for a Tata Steel plant.

The Rourkela blockade paralysed train traffic on the busy Mumbai-Howrah route. Several long-distance trains to and from Howrah, including the Geetanjali Express, were stuck midway.

In the fifties, the Orissa government had acquired about 15,000 acres spread across 33 villages for the SAIL-owned Rourkela Steel Plant, the state’s first such project.

For over a decade, the steel plant had made losses and the tribals allege that the venture did not expand operations significantly, which spurred the displaced families to demand the unused land.

But Rourkela Steel did make a spectacular turnaround last year by posting a net profit of Rs 1,045 crore. Company spokesperson J.C. Mohapatra said the plant would need the surplus land as it plans to expand capacity from the current 1.7 million tonnes a year to 3 million tonnes by 2012.

The Local Displaced Persons’ Association has been demanding the surplus land for over a year, but the call for the indefinite economic blockade came in the aftermath of the Kalinga Nagar firing.

The association is also seeking jobs for over 3,200 people displaced during the construction of the steel plant. Officials said that over 6,600 displaced persons have been given jobs at the plant.

Mohapatra said 400 people were yet to be given jobs. “We never gave any written commitment that we will employ all the oustees,” he added.

Buoyed by the state-wide political support to the cause of those uprooted by land acquisition, the agitators today burnt down three trucks on the outskirts of the town. They were led by a ruling Biju Janata Dal leader and a JMM legislator.

If the railway blockade continues for more than three days, production at the steel plant is likely to be hampered as iron ore stocks will start dipping. “We will be in big trouble,” Mohapatra said.

Local BJD leader George Tirkey said the economic blockade would continue till the administration conceded the tribals’ demands.