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Behind Steel Bars

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Who fuelled Orissa’s uproar against steel major POSCO? SHRIYA MOHAN uncovers local hero Abhay SahooTHE INDIAN police force is counting the feathers in its cap. They have acquired many in recent times. Dr Binayak Sen, Lalit Mehta, Kameshwar Yadav, Ajay TG, to name a few — all firebrand activists who have fought in the trenches for the masses, and have been thrown behind bars or shot down by the men in khaki. The most recent feather, however, is Abhay Sahoo. On the evening of 12 October, 2008, Abhay Sahoo, President of the POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS), the organisation leading the agitation against POSCO, the South Korean steel major in Jagatsinghpur district, Orissa, was arrested by the Paradeep police at about 8 pm while returning with his family from Vishakapatnam to Dhinkiya. Sahoo went to get treatment for rheumatism, diabetes and high blood pressure. He hired a car for the journey to escape the eyes of the police, but as he approached Dhinkiya, he found them lined up, ready with handcuffs. They arrested him for 23 cases of criminal acts including attempt to murder and kidnapping.Abhay Sahoo, 52, graduated from SDM College, Jagatsinghpur. He was elected General Secretary of the students’ union in the late 1970s. He did his Masters degree in English Literature from Regenshaw College, Cuttack, where he was State Secretary of the All India Students’ Federation (AISF). In 1977, he joined the Communist Party of India (CPI) and, in the early 1980s he became part of the trade union movement, working with Paradeep’s port workers. Later, he went home to his village in Kimilo, Jagatsingpur, Erasama block, and worked with agriculture labourers. In 2003, he became a member of the Orissa CPI’s state secretariat. He also worked on rights-based issues at the Bharatiya Khetmajdur Union as its state General Secretary until 2005.IN MID-2005, POSCO-India Private Limited, a subsidiary of POSCO, the world’s fourth-largest steel producer, signed an MoU with Orissa to set up a 12-MTPA steel plant near Paradeep, Jagatsinghpur, with an estimated investment of $ 12 billion (Rs 52,830 crore), making it India’s largest FDI. The plan was to build a 4-million-tonne-perannum capacity steel plant during the project’s first phase, and expand to 12 million tons per annum. POSCO-India began operations on 25 August, 2005.Sahoo’s constituency was among the areas to be displaced. Three villages from his block (Ersama) — Dhinkia, Gadajujanja, and Nuagaon — were affected. The villagers pleaded with Sahoo to support them. When the matter was discussed at a CPI forum, the party decided to support the anti-POSCO struggle, and asked Sahoo to lead the movement. In mid- 2005, Sahoo founded the PPSS.

THE POSCO project has three highlights:

Captive iron ore mines in Keonjhar and Sundargarh districts.

a steel plant in Jagatsinghpur district

Private port at the mouth of the Jatadhari river

The present proposal requires 1,253.255 hectares of forestland, which will require felling about 2.8 lakh trees, and this does not include the forestland required for linkages such as mines, railways, road, and corridors.

MANSHI ASHER, a Delhi-based activist who has followed the anti-POSCO movement since the MoU was signed, says, “It is important to look at the word ‘captive’ in the MoU. What it means is that the entire land will be under the complete control of POSCO. India cannot monitor, in any way, how much iron ore is extracted there. POSCO has the right to export this directly.”

Mining activity — about 600 million tonnes of iron ore over 1,200 hectares — in the Khandahdar forests of Sundergarh will destroy the forest-based livelihoods of several villages of the Paudi Bhuiyan Primitive Tribal Group. Madhumita Roy of Action Aid, Bhubaneswar, says, “For families who have lived in Kandadhar’s forests for generations, there will be no alternative livelihood. POSCO factories will be highly mechanised. And ancillary factories will not happen. How will it? If there are barely 300 people employed? There won’t be the townships that POSCO assures us will come up. With POSCO gaining SEZ status, they will have more control; labour laws will not be applicable.”

Since 2005, Sahoo has been in the forefront, mobilising the anti-POSCO movement. He organised Dhinkia, Gadajujanja, and Nuagaon panchayats in protest movements. For the last three years, the police and the Orissa government have tried to suppress the movement’s gathering momentum. Search warrants were issued to find Abhay Sahoo. On hearing this, Sahoo started living in hiding, while building a strong base of anti- POSCO campaigners. The three panchayats refused to allow POSCO or government officials entry by creating barricades and sealing the villages. Even women guarded the gates at night, while he continued organising rallies.

Ramakrishna Panda, a member of the national council of the CPI, says, “I’ve known Abhay personally for 20 years, ever since I joined the AISF. He is a very good orator. His way of talking inspires the common man. These allegations against him are false. The police arrested him to get him out of the way. They think the movement will die without Abhay Sahoo. But the people are not going to back down. After his arrest, other PPSS leaders organised a huge rally of 8,000 people, just to tell the government we are still strong enough to lead this movement without Abhay Sahoo.

I visited him at Choudwar Jail, near Cuttack. He looked at me and said, ‘I knew they would arrest me. I was even prepared for these POSCO goons to kill me. So, don’t be worried about this. I am worried about the movement. Give my message to the villagers: they should create hundreds of Abhay Sahoos to carry this on without me’. We have constituted a defence committee. Senior advocates from the High Court and many others are fighting this case,” says Ramakrishna.

Abhay Sahoo’s family is waiting anxiously for his release. His wife, Bharti Sahoo, is a school teacher, and his two sons, Abhijeet and Arijeet are engineering students. His older son, Abhijeet, says, “For my father, it was always first the people, then us. That’s how it has been for me since I was born. I would turn to my mother for anything because she was there, but my father was always for the others. Now, my mother is really worried, but I tell her it’s just 23 cases pending, and even those who are against him know that all the cases are framed. He will be out of jail soon.”

According to Madhumita Roy, “When the MoU was signed, POSCO came out with leaflets and brochures with beautiful pictures of schools and institutions that would come up in the area. They would send officials to speak to the villagers about all these benefits, but give nothing in writing. To control the media, they took all the local media people to South Korea. They were given lavish hospitality. Ever since, there has only been silence from the local media. That’s why this is such a hidden issue.”

SAROJ SARASWATI, an advocate in Orissa’s High Court, who is defending Abhay Sahoo, says, “We are preparing to move for bail. Most of the offences are false cases that have been framed just to keep him at bay. The court hearing will be in a day or two.”

Radhakrishna Sharma, the SP of Orissa, tells another story. “Abhay Sahoo is a criminal. Since 2006, he has had 23 cases against him. He has been charged with criminal intimidation, kidnapping, abduction and various criminal acts. On 4 October, he had gone sightseeing to Hyderabad, not for a medical checkup. We have got all the documents. When we arrested him, he was medically fit.”

Inspector-in-charge Anil Mishra from Kujang police station told TEHELKA that the POSCO issue has caused much violence. Everyone is divided, sometimes by force, into either pro- or anti-POSCO groups. Speaking of Sahoo, he alleged, “Except for murder, Abhay Sahoo has done every single act of violence. He has kidnapped POSCO’s Korean employees. There was a POSCO-supporter, Babaji Sahu, an inhabitant of Mahala village. Around 100 people from Abhay Sahoo’s campaign set his house on fire and brutally assaulted him with lethal weapons. All his crops were damaged. We have this on record. He will be summoned at the court hearing.” Mishra explains that there are 85 charges against anti-POSCO people and about eight or nine against pro-POSCO activists. Both are at fault: violence will not solve the issue. He explains that Sahoo uses five mobile phones and owns a lot of property. In Hyderabad, Sahoo stayed in “five-star hotels”, spending allegedly Rs 3,000 per night. “Where is he getting all this money from?” Mishra guesses there must be some anti-industrialists supporting his violent activities.

Prakash Paikrey, PPSS spokesperson, in a press release issued after Sahoo’s arrest, writes: “They [the police] wanted the people to believe that Abhay Sahoo had built a bungalow in Bhubaneswar, had amassed huge properties and was leading a luxurious life…. When I met him in jail and shared all these, he had a big laugh and said, “If there is house which I don’t know of but they know, please ask them to dispose it and give the money to the anti- POSCO fighters.”



From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 43, Dated Nov 01, 2008

Written by janjagriti

October 25, 2008 at 5:34 pm

Posted in Articles

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