A silent revolution is brewing in a remote corner of Odisha against corporate interests, and the tribals in Sundargarh are leading it. This comes when the Rajgangpur town-based cement producer OCL India Ltd. - the flagship company of Dalmia Cement Bharat Ltd. (DCBL) - seeks to invest over Rs. 2,000 crore in the region, expanding its footprint across nine districts in the state.
Speaking with NewsClick, Sundargarh Congress leader George Tirkey said, “The OCL factories are hoping to access the area worth of approximately Rs. 2,200 crore. This means that it will easily cover land over five panchayats, making this a question of the livelihood of over 50,000 people.”
OCL’s ambitious plan is to increase its cement and clinker production capacities to 6.25 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) and 5.9 MTPA, respectively, by 2019. To fulfil this vision and its vested interests, the state government is adopting a ‘no holds barred’ approach in ensuring that the process of land acquisition is made easy for them. Tribal rights activist, Rashmi Ekka, based in Sundargarh, explained, “The situation on the ground is extremely critical. We have been resisting this acquisition day in and out, but there is massive pressure from the state.”
The PESA Act (1996) mandates the government that prior to the clearance of any new development project, negotiations must be initiated with the locals through a palli (gram) sabha. The first attempted public hearing was scheduled in February this year, however, due to the apprehensions over law and order, the hearing was rescheduled to August.
Public hearing a formality?
A local journalist Sudarshan Chhotaray said, “The collector has scheduled the upcoming hearing on October 3, which coincides with a tribal festival in the region, meaning that the hearing may not yield a huge turnout.” Adding to the problems with the public hearing process, Tirkey said, “The location of the hearing is not consistent, it keeps changing.” He added, “We have written to the collector in the past, but they are all working hand in glove to somehow provide clearances to the group.”
Many in the region allege a deliberate attempt by the local machinery to ensure that people do not participate in large numbers in the hearing and only engage in it as a formality, The administration in the area is making all possible attempts to manipulate the hearing to make it easier for OCL to conduct its operations, they add.
Jagdish Pradhan, a tribal rights activist working in the region said, “The public hearings are being stopped amid fears by the tribals that their lands will be acquired and they will lose their land.” He added, most people in the region are forest dwellers and are heavily dependent on forests for their livelihood. This acquisition would mean that they will have to switch to becoming wage workers which is unlikely to yield them any returns. Besides this, a greater fear among the tribals is of not getting adequately compensated for the land they will lose. He also said, “It is not merely a question of land acquisition, it also has to do with the catastrophe that the acquisition will bring with it, be it environmental pollution, the threat to livelihood and more.”
In March, Tirkey who was then with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, and Congress MLA Prafulla Majhi took to the streets with other activists at Sundargarh district headquarters town, demanding full implementation of the PESA Act and other constitutional provisions in the tribal-dominated district.
The tribals in the region have already fought a long battle to come under the purview of the PESA Act and to assert their rights. Now, with this agitation in Sundargarh, the tribal population has been forced to fight yet another battle to stake claims to their genuine, constitutional right of the land and their right to live.
Chhotaray added, there are also deliberate attempts being made to create a narrative to show that the righteous demands by the tribals are a threat to the investment and the business in the state. It is the tribals who are being termed as ‘Vikas Virodhi’. He asks, “How can they be vikas virodhi if everything that they have ever owned is being taken away from them.” He added that this is being done with a clear agenda to support the big corporates and to sideline the legitimate demands being made by the tribals. This narrative has gained momentum as, given the situation on the ground, the CST had previously recommended the Governor of Odisha to stop OCL’s public hearing on grounds of violation of the provisions of the PESA Act and the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. Separately, acting on a petition of displaced persons of Rourkela Steel Plant (RSP), the NCST in February had ordered the State government to stop all projects on the surrendered land of RSP. Later, the Rs 98.45 crore Whole Market Yard Project of Regulated Market Committee was also stopped.
For the most of the last 10 years, the tribals have been at loggerheads with the government and have resisted pressure from all quarters- the state and the corporate interests. Even now they are making all attempts to resist this forceful acquisition of land by the Dalmia group. To them, it is also a question of not succumbing to the supremacy that the state machinery is trying to establish over the tribal population.