Friday, May 8, 2009

Anti-Posco stir gets panchayat seal

Anti-Posco stir gets panchayat seal
An anti-Posco protest at Dhinkiya village in Jagatsinghpur. Picture by Sanjib Mukherjee

Bhubaneswar, May 7: Victory of a member of Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS) in the recently concluded panchayat election has fuelled speculation regarding the fate of the proposed steel plant slated to come up in Jagatsinghpur.

The proposed Posco project has been pending for over four years now.

While pro-Posco groups have been left wondering, the anti-project group, PPSS, is now upbeat after its secretary, Sisir Mohapatra, was elected as the sarpanch of Dhinkia gram panchayat — at the epicentre of the anti-Posco agitation — yesterday. Another PPSS member Prakash Jena was also elected as the panchayat member from the same area.

Panchayat polls were held in the area after a gap of two years. On February 21, 2007, when the rest of the state voted for its sarpanch, widespread violence by anti-Posco agitators in the area kept poll officials at bay.

Talking to The Telegraph the new sarpanch reiterated his committed to the anti-Posco stand. “It’s a question of livelihood of the locals. I will definitely stand by them,” Mohapatra said.

The proposed project, for which Posco signed an MoU with the government in June 2005, has been a non-starter due to consistent resistance by locals under the banner of Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti. Not a single acre of private land, identified for the Rs 51,000-crore project, has been acquired so far because of the agitation.

The three panchayats to be affected by the project virtually blocked themselves from the government, the Posco staff and the police officers as villagers erected bamboo blockades. The area also witnessed series of bloody clashes between anti and pro-project groups.

Though the anti-Posco agitation had lost its momentum following the arrest of PPSS chief Abhay Sahoo in October 2008, the victory of the samiti leaders in the panchayat poll has obviously given members a moral boost. Also, the present sarpanch and the PPSS second-in-command, Mohapatra, has sworn to prevail upon the government and relocate the project.

However, even cynics see a silver lining in the matter.

With the Lok Sabha and Assembly poll right around the cornet, the stand taken by local CPI, a party that furiously backed the anti-Posco movement, has softened. Every party has now adopted a wait-and-watch policy to deal with the matter. “If BJD comes to power again after May 16, we will try to resolve the issue (relocation) through negotiation,” said CPI state secretary Dibakar Nayak.

He, however, admitted that the release of PPSS leader, Abhay Sahoo, would be the first precondition for the negotiation.

Posco authorities are also hopeful that the project would eventually take off.

“That the panchayat election was conducted shows that things are moving towards normal. We will now try to strengthen our relation with the displaced people,” said a senior official of the South Korean company.

Posco is also looking forward to receiving a Centre and Supreme Court clearance to divert 2,900 acres of forestland that constitutes the a chunk of the total land requirement (4,004 acres). “For us, the transfer of forestland is important,” conceded an official.