From the highway the gravestones were visible. Thirteen headstones, rough and blunt, carved with names of each dead tribal. Each stone was placed so that together they formed a semi-circle looking down at us. In front of the 13-stone platform was a fenced area with scattered burnt sticks lying as if for the picking. I realized I was looking at a cremation ground. I also realized in shock that this must have been the place where the tribals killed in police firing were consecrated to fire and that the place has been left intact as a grim reminder. Waiting as if for some relief or resolution.
We were in the village of Gobarghati, where the Kalinganagar firing happened. A village a few hours' drive from Bhubaneswar. A typical tribal village, thatched huts, surrounded by bamboo groves placed in the midst of paddy fields. But behind the hush we could feel the tension. Two years ago, protests against the takeover of village land for the Tata steel plant had led to an armed skirmish. The village is part of an industrial estate for which the state government had acquired land some years ago. In 2006, when the company started building its boundary wall the fight broke out. After the firing, villagers blockaded the national highway for well over a year. It was lifted when the chief minister finally met the village representatives and gave some ‘assurances’. But nothing has changed on the ground.
The villagers we met were angry and resolute. They said they would not give up their land. When asked if they would agree if they were paid higher compensation, they simply said no. “We are poor, but our land gives us enough for us to survive. If we do not have this, what will we do?” When we asked if they would agree if the company provided jobs, their answer was equally straightforward. “We have seen the factories that have come up around us, we have seen that they had promised our people jobs when they took away our land. But our people have no jobs and no land. The factories say they cannot employ us because we are not educated, they say they do not need so many people. Why should we believe them now?”
We were left with questions. We had no answers.
We then visited the rehabilitation colony set up to relocate villagers whose land had been acquired. Company officials said they were planning to give employment to a nominated family member. This would need skill development or education. They were beginning to train villagers in welding and other trades. In addition, the government had also agreed to raise cash compensation from Rs 14,000 per hectare (ha) to Rs 40,000 per ha; a 400 sq-m plot and Rs 1.5 lakh as aid to build a house. Within the family each adult son would be considered separate, which would mean benefits would multiply. A good deal is how company officials saw it.
We asked young men in the colony, why they had moved. “Because we had no land and we were given jobs.” But they also said, with obvious pain in their eyes, that since then they could not enter their village. They had been ostracized. Clearly, there was anger and however good the deal, there was resistance.
The question was why? Was it just the cussedness of few individuals; or the vested interests of competitors fuelling the unrest; or were the simple villagers we met Naxalites fighting an ideological war against the state and industry? The why question was even more incomprehensible if you thought that the people fighting change were poor—they lived in mud and thatched huts, which would be exchanged for brick houses; they were subject to the vagaries of rainfall, and crop failure, which they would give up for cash compensation. The agricultural fields for us, from the outside, certainly looked impoverished. In our eyes, the future looked only brighter.
But this is where we must understand differently. In Gobarghati, I could not see Naxalites or misguided people. All I could see were people fighting for all they have in full knowledge that their poverty is only going to be exchanged for greater deprivation and marginalization. They know they do not have the skills to succeed in the new world. They also know, after bitter experience, that the industrial world does not need many people to work its enterprises. It needs their land, water, minerals, but not their labour. Even if they get the promised homes, compensation for land, they won’t have work. Their land is marginal, they are poor but they survive.
Not far away, villagers who face displacement by the Korean giant Posco's steel plant have also set new terms. They want higher compensation for agricultural and homestead land; employment for every adult in this and future generations; houses and amenities; Rs 1,000 as monthly allowance for people too old to get a job and a share of profits. This, we must understand, is not greed, but the value the poor put to their land. We must also understand that modern industry cannot compete with agriculture in terms of livelihood security.
If we accept this maybe we will look for answers differently. It is clear that industry will need land, the question is at what cost and how much. Industry is greedy for land. Tata will get 1,000 ha for their steel plant. Their neighbour, Neelanchal Steel, has got a slice, too, where it has planted trees—a ‘green’ steel mill built on poor people's land.
The question is why Indian industry cannot be far more frugal in its demand for land as indeed it must be with its need for water? Why should industry not negotiate and pay the price people want for their land. In this case, it will also look for less valuable, less cultivable land. Most importantly how can market-believers justify the use of the land acquisition act, which allows government to takeover any land, without questions asked, for so-called public purpose. This is cheap and dirty industrialization. It will not work.