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The People Vs. POSCO

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Jade green Betel leaves shimmer in the early morning sun, fisher folk return from an early trip to the near by Jatadhar River, others start their daily work in cashew plantations and rice paddies. This scene in Jagatsinghpur, in the Eastern Indian state of Odisha may soon disappear behind a cloud of factory smoke.

The area has been earmarked for projects by South Korean steel giant POSCO -- an integrated steel plant and captive port. At $12 billion, the project stands to be the largest ever foreign direct investment in India.

The native residents of the area -- landowners, farmers and fisher folk-- have been vociferous in their opposition of this project. They have led an eight year-long people's movement resisting the forced acquisition of their land for it.

The reportage of the movement so far is glaring in its omission of an explanation of why there is an opposition in the first place. The documentary by Video Volunteers is an attempt to shed light through articulations of the affected people themselves. It was filmed during a fact-finding mission carried out by ESCR-net and IHRC- NYU in November 2012*.

"This project is a classic example of the sort of development we're pursuing. Just because they live in villages there is an assumption that their economy is not developed whereas it is far more developed than what POSCO proposes," says Stalin K, Director of Video Volunteers.

"The struggle against POSCO is not just about fighting illegal acquisition but questioning the very method of non-consultative development that destroys existing local economies at the name of a notional prosperity", he says.

Residents of the area have time and again pointed out the failure of the Government of Odisha and POSCO to meet their obligations to safeguard and respect the human rights of the people who will be affected by this project.

"The POSCO hired people always keep an eye on me so I cannot go out to get treatment for the rubber bullets inside me. Many other women have health issues; some have rubber bullets inside their bodies" says Manorama Khatua a leader of the Women's Wing of the POSCO Pratirodhak Sangram Samiti. She is one of hundreds who faces the threat of arrests under false cases for opposing the project.

In early October 2013 a group of eight United Nations independent human rights experts issued a statement that reiterated this. They asked for the project to be halted until adequate safeguards are ensured and rights of the people are guaranteed.

"People in the project-affected area have reportedly been subjected to violence, harassment and intimidation, as well as arbitrary detentions and false charges, as a result of their activities to assemble peacefully and collectively defend their human rights", said the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, Maina Kiai.

For human rights groups who have been following the developments of this movement closely, the verdict seemed to be a potential turning point for authorities to take notice.

POSCO has issued an open letter in response the above recommendations claiming that no forced evictions have taken place. Mr Navin Pattnaik, the Chief Minister of Odisha and the South Korean Ambassador to India, Mr Joon-gyu Lee have also issued statements disclaiming the findings.

They are determined to carry on with the project saying that the UN expert recommendations were based on incomplete knowledge and that the POSCO project does not threaten the local community.

For the 20,000 women, men and children the struggle for their lands and livelihoods continues. They are living in siege like conditions, treated as encroachers on their own land.
"We will fight for our lands till we die. It will be easier for the company to take over when we are dead. Anyway the government does not value life here", says a resident says a resident who stands to lose his betel leaf plantation should POSCO's mega-steel plant come through.
Development with democracy or development without democracy -- that is the question that begs to be asked of India's race towards economic growth.

*Read the report that came out of the fact-finding mission titled 'The Price of Steel'.