NEW DELHI: Two developments took place on January 26, 2017.

Unfurling the tricolour in Jamshedpur, Tata Steel Limited (TSL) Managing Director T.V. Narendran announced that TSL is likely to seek the Tata Board’s nod to expand its Kalinganagar greenfield integrated steel plant in the coming months. Its second phase of expansion will increase output capacity to 8 million tonnes per annum (mtpa) against the 6 mtpa proposed earlier. Together with Jamshedpur, Kalinganagar will push up TSL India’s aggregate output capacity to 19 mtpa.

In Kalinganagar in Jajpur district of Odisha, a Ho ritual was underway the same day to rehabilitate the memorial stones of the tribe’s ancestors.

“This ritual is not just to relocate the memorial stones of our ancestors, but to resurrect the cultural identity of Adivasi people that the company and the Government are trying to destroy,” said Chakradha Halda, a member of the Bisthapan Birodhi Jana Manch (BBJM).

“The new struggle is not going to be just about our right for land, it will be about our cultural and socio-economic rights.”

Resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) is a policy that even departed ancestors cannot escape today in Kalinganagar.

On January 12, 2017, BBJM leader Sini Soy was forcefully evicted from her land after her home was demolished and the memorial stones of her ancestors desecrated. She was told to relocate to the visthapit colonies, the residential complexes built by TSL for the displaced as per its R&R obligations.

Sini Soy’s 24 year old son, Bhagwan Soy, was one of the 14 Adivasis killed in police firing in Champakoila village on January 2, 2006 when construction of the boundary wall for the first phase of TSL’s Kalinganagar project began in the presence of 12 platoons of armed police personnel.

After being arrested in 2012 on charges of sedition, Soy was acquitted of all charges by the Cuttack High Court a year and a half later. Today, she leads close to 50 families in Kalinganagar who have rejected compensation and R&R for their land and now live under the perpetual threat of eviction.

In the aftermath of the 2006 firing, the Government of Odisha appointed three separate inquiry commissions to look into the incident. The last of these, led by retired High Court judge Justice P.K. Mohanty, was appointed on September 9, 2009. Its report is yet to be tabled in the state legislative assembly.

As per a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between TSL and the Government of Odisha on November 17, 2004, 3,040 acres in Sukinda and Danagadi blocks in Kalinganagar acquired by Odisha Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (IDCO) were to be transferred to TSL in a phased manner.

IDCO is the state’s nodal agency managing the acquisition of Private land and alienation of Government land. Private land refers to the land which is owned by individual patta-holders while Government land refers to the ‘surplus’ lands transferred to the Government of Odisha under the Orissa Government Land Settlement Rules, 1983.

IDCO began land acquisition and alienation in Kalinganagar in 1992. According to a People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) report published in 2006, IDCO acquired the land in phases at rates ranging from ₹15,000 to ₹30,000 per acre, with ex-gratia payments of ₹25,000 per acre made in certain phases.

The same lands were sold to TSL at a rate of ₹3.5 lakh per acre.

The report goes on to state that the indigenous population of the area who had never been issued pattas had nonetheless been cultivating the Government lands up to 2004 and had been doing so for generations. No compensation was provided to those who had depended on Government land.

The Land Acquisition Act, 1894 in operation at the time did not give the owner of the land the right to contest the acquisition of her land as it was acquired in the ‘public interest’. Ironically, the PUCL report notes, this land was then transferred to TSL, a private entity.

On November 18, 2015, more than a decade after the initial MoU was signed, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik of the Biju Janata Dal inaugurated the first phase of TSL’s Kalinganagar plant.

At a cost of ₹25,000 crore, he claimed that TSL had generated direct employment for more than 3,000 people and indirect employment for over 22,000. Cyrus Mistry, then-Chairperson of the Tata Group said “Kalinganagar would be the largest single location greenfield steel plant in the country,” producing world-class flat, lighter, high-tensile strength steel. Commercial operations commenced in May the following year.

“But the resistance to Tata’s presence has been growing,” claims Prashant Paikray. Along with Sini Soy, Paikray is on the All-India Chairing Committee of Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan.

“It is growing because the peoples’ discontent is growing. What Tata had promised, it has left unfulfilled,” he claims.

“More than 1,500 people have been displaced already but only 400-500 have been rehabilitated. This is why the people from the colonies recently organised a roadblock.”

On December 28, 2016 close to 150 residents of the visthapit colonies blockaded the gates of TSL’s plant. They were protesting the discontinuation of water and electricity supply in the colonies as well the unexpected imposition of heavy bills. A number of grievances regarding the promised permanent jobs, ‘land for land’ and other R&R obligations were voiced.

“It is not the kind of protest that one had seen in Kalinganagar where people were militantly stopping construction work and chasing off construction workers. Now people are contacting government authorities, filing complaint letters and so on,” says Bhubaneswar-based filmmaker Surya Shankar Dash who has been working in Kalinganagar to enable its residents to document the changes around them.

After the 2006 killings, a spate of ‘Maoist-backed’ agitations held off the project for close to a year. The locals used tribal weapons to halt construction and attack state and corporate authorities. Organised by BBJM, they blockaded the busy Daitari-Paradip expressway.

“From 2006 to 2011, Tata could not physically acquire much land. There was a lot of resistance. In 2009-10, they [TSL] managed to get some land, upon which they built a factory. But a large part of the land, such as in Chandia, Gobarghati and Baligotha villages, they were unable to acquire. In 2015, it seems, they were able to pressurise the key leaders of these villages to give up their land, after which the expansion has started,” Dash adds.

BBJM members claim that their complaints regarding allegedly illegal construction and felling of trees by TSL in Kalinganagar have gone unheard.

Written applications submitted to the Additional District Magistrate, Jajpur and the Revenue Divisional Commissioner (Central Division), Cuttack failed to elicit a response.

In December 2016, a petition was filed by four residents of Kalinganagar before the Eastern Zone Bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT), Kolkata against TSL and the Government of Odisha. The petitioners sought an injunction on all construction and tree felling, alleging that the requisite forest clearances had never been acquired by TSL on the basis of a RTI request to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC).

“We have been saying that there is forest land involved for which the clearances have never been obtained. In the meantime, they [TSL] have been felling the trees and effecting the boundary wall,” claimed Advocate Sankar Prasad Pani who represents the litigants. “Our petition is not raising any individual grievances.”

On January 3, 2017, citing that no forest clearance certificate had been produced by the respondents, the NGT issued a stay order on all further construction and tree felling until they managed to do so.

Two days later, on January 5, 2017, the bench vacated its previous stay order in light of a notification issued by the MoEFCC in January 2005.

This notification had modified a letter from the Assistant Inspector General of Forest, MoEFCC to the Government of Odisha dated February 6, 1993 clearing 1,419.95 hectares for acquiring and establishing iron ore-based factories by removing a clause which read “No Forest land will be utilized for construction of factory, township etc.” The respondents claimed that this, in effect, had served as a forest clearance.

The litigants refuted this by claiming that the MoEFCC’s letter did not mention TSL and could not be regarded as a forest clearance granted in its favour.

However, the NGT upheld a separate clause in the original clearance which directed that “no tree cutting shall be done” in the area and that it “shall be part of a green belt.”

TSL stated that neither was the land “under [its] possession” nor had it felled any of the 1.13 lakh trees growing on the 76 acres in question. The NGT bench ruled that TSL as well as “any other person shall not be permitted to cut any tree in that area.” It further directed a District Forest Officer to inspect the area and file a “detailed status report on [its] physical features”.

Activists aware of the developments in Kalinganagar rubbish TSL’s claim. Dash has shared images and videos on social media of the allegedly illegal construction and felling underway.

TSL declined to comment on the status of land acquisition for its proposed expansion and its implementation of the ‘Tata Steel Parivar’ model R&R policy. On February 7, 2017, the NGT issued a notice to TSL and the Government of Odisha observing that no counter-affidavit had been filed by the respondents.

The next date of hearing has been set for March 21, 2017.

(Photo Credit: Surya Shankar Dash)