After South Korean steel giant scraps Odisha project, villagers resume betel leaf cultivation.
Bhubaneswar: After the South Korean steelmaker Posco gave back the land it had acquired for its project in Odisha, betel vine growers have reoccupied it. The steel giant had signed a deal with Odisha government in 2005 for a 12-million-tonne-capacity steel project in Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur district for which it was given 2,700 acres of land. The Rs 52,000 crore project was the biggest Foreign Direct Investment in India at the time. But after it could not start work, the firm asked the Odisha government to take back the land.
The sand-filled landscapes of Gobindpur, Nuagaon, Noilasahi, Polang, Gadakujang — which not so long ago wore a barren look following razing of 1,592 betel vineyards during the land acquisition process — has once again started witnessing the green returning to the place.
The land acquisition process was completed by the state-run Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (IDCO) on July 4, 2013. Subsequently, Posco had built the project boundary for the country’s largest ever FDI project on the acquired land.
Despite the government’s claim that the acquired land is under the safe custody of IDCO land bank, landowners are back on the job to put in place betel vineyards for what they say is for their survival. Though vast stretches of land are still unoccupied, strategic spots where vineyards once flourished before being pulled down have come under reoccupation. But the government denied it. “The land acquired for Posco project is intact in IDCO land bank exclusively for industrialisation,” says Odisha industry minister Debi Prasad Mishra.
The villagers say that they have acquired the land because the promised project is not coming up. “We had to part with our land virtually at gun point. The state government had put immense pressure on us to cede land, saying that the steel plant would generate a lot of jobs for the locals and boost the state economy. Everything has now come a cropper. As steel plant is not coming up, we have all the right to begin cultivation at the acquired land. We are ready to pay back the money that had been paid to us as compensation,” informs Basudeb Behera, a land loser from Polang village.
Officials called it illegal. “Land reoccupation is an illegal act. People who had given away their land after receiving compensation have no legal right over the land. IDCO owns the land on legal parlance,” officials said.
“The police has registered 32 cases against the encroachers of steel company land. Criminal cases have been registered against the occupiers under provisions of IPC and Odisha Prevention of Land Encroachment Act (OPLE),” said a senior revenue official.
The Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS), which spearheaded the anti-Posco movement, has also appealed to the land-losers to reoccupy the land for cultivation purpose. “Villagers of Polang of Gadakuganga Gram Panchayat have reoccupied the land and started restructuring their betel vines after Posco backed out. People here are left with little option for livelihood after the government razed down their betel vines. In other areas also, landowners have built vineyards for sustenance,” said spokesman of PPSS, Prasant Paikray.
Sources said, of the 2,700 acre land acquired for the steel project, more than 600 acres has been reoccupied.
In fact, it was assured by both the Posco authorities and the Odisha government that those who lost their betel vines and labourers working there would be paid `4,500 and `2,250 per month respectively till a permanent solution for their rehabilitation was reached.
However, as the agreed compensation amounts were discontinued after six months, resentment among the betel vine owners and labourers grew.
One acre of land accommodates at least 20 betel vines. Similarly, one betel vine creates employment generation for at least five people who earn between `7,500 to `15,000 per month depending upon the season and demand.
Betel leaf of Paradip, known for its special taste, is in high demand in Mumbai, Kolkata, Benares and some cities in Uttar Pradesh.
Posco had on June 22, 2005 signed an MoU with the Odisha government for setting up the project.
Although Posco authorities have not cited any reasons for abandoning the project, sources said delay in land acquisition process, fall in steel prices and adverse market conditions forced the steel behemoth to back out of its FDI commitment.