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Tribes in india die over industrial development clashes { January 20 2006 }

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Fatal Clash at Mill Site Shows Perils of India's Rise
January 20, 2006, Friday

On the first Monday morning of the year, four bulldozers, accompanied by nearly 300 police, arrived on a rocky patch of farmland on the edge of a wooded village and began levelling the earth. It was meant to be the first step in the construction of India’s third-largest steel mill.

Soon came an army of resistance. Armed with scythes and swords, stones and sticks and - according to the police, bows and arrows - the indigenous people who live on these lands advanced toward the police line by the hundreds. Exactly what happened next is a matter of contention, except that by the day’s end, the land was littered with the gore of more than a dozen dead and a fury that lingers.

“We will not leave our land,” Chakradhar Haibru, a stern-faced leader in Gobarghati village, vowed. “They are trying to turn us into beggars.”

Reminiscent of the peasant uprisings in China, the standoff here has reverberated across the country and snowballed into a closely watched political storm. The confrontation is effectively a local territorial dispute over whether and how one of India’s most prominent industrial conglomerates, Tata, will build its proposed plant on land that its current occupants, mostly indigenous villagers, now refuse to vacate. But the dispute also raises a far wider challenge for India - how to balance industrial growth against the demands of its most marginalised citizens.

Mineral-rich Orissa is among the country’s most stellar examples of the economic boom of recent years, just as it is among its most left-behind states, and its unprecedented growth spurt has mirrored the two faces of India’s ambitions.

In 2005, Orissa attracted the largest foreign investment ever in India, with the promise of a $12 billion steel plant by Posco of South Korea. The same year, Orissa also held the record for the highest rate of poverty in India, which included nearly half its population, or 17 million people.

How Orissa deals with the current crisis bears broader lessons for other states. As in much of eastern and central India, the land here is chock-full of iron ore, coal and copper and is also home to tribal people or adivasis. But today, the area’s defiant villagers are blocking a major road that connects iron mines to the state’s main port on the Bay of Bengal, and it is no longer safe for the police to venture into tribal villages.

On paper at least, the government has acquired the land that makes up the Kalinganagar Industrial Area. On paper too, the government has awarded varying amounts of compensation to some of the roughly 1,800 families who have been displaced, though the state’s industrial development agency now says an estimated 1,500 families are yet to be fully compensated. All plants in the industrial area are obliged to employ one member of each family displaced, but not all those jobs have yet materialised, the agency adds. In Tata’s case, the company says over a year ago it paid the government $16 million for the 2,000-acre property to build its mill. That land now officially belongs to the company.

The government says compensation was granted to eligible villagers more than a decade ago. They were allowed to continue to live and work on the land, while negotiations went on with a number of companies that expressed interest in setting up in the area, but then backed out.

The villagers acknowledge that some of them were paid. Haibru reaped $26,000 in compensation for his 28 acres. But those without legal claims to the land - and there seem to be a great many among the villagers here - got little or nothing. Some seem unaware that the land now belongs to Tata. Others are not entirely sure exactly what benefits they are entitled to.

However, most here seem convinced of three things. First, that whatever relief they have received is not enough in exchange for abandoning their land forever. Second, that considering Kalinganagar’s ambitions, their sorry patches of land will soon be worth a great deal more than what they have been offered. And third, that the factories that have mushroomed across their lands have delivered few opportunities to their communities. But if the people here were once open to negotiation, the January 2 incident has now left them seething. “If we die, we die,” spat Amba Tiria from Champakoila village. “We will not leave our land. We’re dying anyway.”

For now, Tata’s Kalinganagar project has been delayed. But neither the Orissa government officials nor Tata seem particularly deterred. Tata’s chief of communication, Sanjay Choudhry, blamed ‘extremist activity’ for instigating violence and said that the company had no plans to pull out of the project. He maintained that Tata seeks to aid the community in which it works.

“Industrialisation is the best way to improve the quality of life, especially that of the tribal people,” Choudhry said. “We’re not thinking of backing out. We’ll work with the government and tribal people and see if there’s a way out, a proper way of doing this.”

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