Rural Unrest in India over Steel Industry

Farmers in the eastern Indian state of Orissa are at risk of losing their land to a growing steel industry. The Indian government says the steel plants will bring jobs and tax revenue, but critics say the poor won't benefit.

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We have a report, now, from India where the economy is booming. This sounds like good news for a nation that still has hundreds of millions of people living in poverty. But fast economic growth can bring complications, as China's peasant uprisings proved. In India, it's pitted the giants of big industry against some of the country's most marginalized people.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

Standing by a thorn tree, beneath a warm afternoon sun, Chandrika Hybru(ph) flips open a notebook and reads out a list of names.

Mr. CHANDRIKA HYBRU (India): (foreign spoken)

REEVES: There are twelve in all. These are twelve people who stood in the way of India's steel rush and lost. A few feet away, a collection of charred logs and withered yellow marigolds marks the spot where they were cremated. They were killed by the police, here in the eastern state of Orissa. They were trying to stop bulldozers from clearing their paddy fields to build steel plant for the Indian industrial giant Tata.

The work's been stopped before by protests. This time the authorities were determined it should go ahead. They sent three hundred policemen. Telha Chan Tu(ph) says he saw the shootings.

Mr. TELHA CHAN TU (through interpreter): The police lined up here, and you can see the (unintelligible), that's where they were. So they fired from there, and when they fired, the bullet went as far as the village over there, on the other side.

REEVES: Tu walks across to a pond and points out some patches of discolored earth.

Mr. CHAN TU (through interpreter): See, can you see this blood here? This is tribal blood.

REEVES: Exactly what happened is in dispute. The people in the crowd were what's known in India as Adivasis, tribal people who live off the land in much the same way as they have for centuries.

Police say the mob was armed with bows and arrows and scythes. They say that officers opened fire only after the mob grabbed a policemen and hacked him to death, and after they'd fired rubber bullets and teargas. Tu, and others, say the police opened up without warning and shot people who were running away.

The killings sent a shockwave across India, where millions have been displaced by development over the years. They also re-ignited a fierce debate between two old adversaries; those who say some people must inevitably lose their lands to allow for economic expansion, growth that will ultimately benefit more people than those who suffer, and those like Sudhir Patnaik, an activist for tribal rights, who says the only ones who really gain from growth are the well-off.

Mr. SUDHIR PATNAIK (Indian tribal activist): The kind of growth that people are talking about in the state, if that growth doesn't have any meaning for 95 percent of our population, then how do you call that a growth?

REEVES: In Orissa's capital, Bhubaneswar, an elderly woman seeks alms outside a Hindu temple. About a quarter of Orissa's 37 million population are tribals. But the state also has the highest proportion of poor in India; almost half its people are below the poverty line.

Pahri Mohan Mohapacha(ph), a close advisor to the state's chief minister, says that's one reason Orissa must seize the challenge to develop.

Mr. PAHRI MOHAN MOHAPACHA (Orissa, India): We do desperately need, not only these industries, because these industries are not going to create a lot of employment, but the down streams and ancillaries out of these industries will. This will also give a (unintelligible) all around the (unintelligible) agriculture, because of the demand creation.

REEVES: Over the last decade and a half, Orissa has inked memoranda of understanding with more than forty companies to set up processing plants. Many of them are in Kalinga Nagar, where the shootings happened. It's a 13-thousand acre sweep of farms, hills, and woodlands. The state's planning to turn it into one of the world's steelmaking hubs. There are already two steelmaking plants; four more plants are under construction, and seven others are in the planning stages. If all of Orissa's planned factories are eventually built, a million people will be displaced.

Mohapacha says the tribal people have been though this kind of thing before.

Mr. MOHAPACHA: Tribals have been pushed around for centuries. Taking advantage of their simplicity, their ignorance, their lack of education, anyway this sad incident has also focused on the urgency of finding solutions. Orissa has been trying, everyone has been trying also, to keep them in much better (unintelligible).

REEVES: Some efforts have been made over the years to compensate people for being thrown off their land. They were also promised jobs, but many tribal people say that often these never materialized, and anyway, they add, they aren't qualified to work in factories. They're farmers who want to continue working the land.

In this village, men still fresh piles of rice, cleaning it by fanning it with palm fronds in the traditional manner. Yet this is a new community that can't survive off the land alone. It's a colony, established in Kalinga Nagar by the state authorities just under a decade ago, for tribal people displaced by a steel plant. One hundred and twenty families live here, including Mansing Purty(ph). Purty says leaving his six-acre farm to make way for the steelmakers was a big mistake.

Mr. MANSING PURTY (through translator): We got a little greedy because the government had promised us that they would build us a modern colony with running water for bathing and for drinking, with electricity, with a dispensary, with all the facilities, but obviously we were fooled.

REEVES: He's says there are just two water pumps, and no clinic. And villagers only have tiny pockets of land. Government policy for rehabilitating displaced people is now being reviewed. There's talk of providing housing and alternative employment. Much is at stake: a giant South Korean plant's plan for Orissa, the largest in India.

Krishna Swami Rafi(ph), of India's Statesman Newspaper, says the next six months could decide whether the steelmakers continue to move in.

Mr. KRISHNA SWAMI RAFI: It's kind of a do or die situation. If the government handles it properly henceforth in the next two or three months, then we're going to have a real good industrialization that is going to take place in the economic developmental area of the state. But if they're unable to do that, some of them may well back out and go away.

REEVES: Handling it properly won't be easy. Telia's(ph) 32-year-old sister was among the twelve killed by the police. Next to her sister's freshly painted white tomb, not far from the scene of the killings, she says after what happened, villagers would hardly be in a cooperative mood.

TELIA (Orissa resident)(Through translator): We want to live, paid with our lives, and at no cost, whatsoever, are we going to leave this land.

REEVES: For us, she adds, our life is the earth.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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