Bhubaneswar, July 27 (IANS) The Orissa government Tuesday began acquiring land for the $12 billion steel project South Korean steel major POSCO has planned in the state’s Jagatsinghpur district despite opposition, officials said.
A team of district officials began the acquisition in Bhuyianpal village. They acquired two plots of land from two villagers and provided them the compensation money, Additional District Magistrate S.K. Choudhury told IANS.
‘It was government land which they were using for betel vine cultivation. They demolished the betel vines on their own and received compensation of Rs.1.15 lakh each,’ he said.
But the Posco Pratirodha Sangram Samiti (PPSS), which has been spearheading protests against the project, said the government move was illegal. ‘They are doing it violating the forest right act,’ PPSS spokesman Prasant Paikray told IANS.
He said that the villagers are traditional forest dwellers and the government cannot take over the land without the consent of the gram sabha (village council). ‘We will intensify our protest in a bigger way in the coming days,’ he said.
A central team of the environment and forest, and tribal affairs ministries had visited several villages in the region June 24.
Ashish Kothari, one of the members, also expressed his surprise over the government step. ‘It will be illegal to acquire land until the Forest Rights Act is implemented properly,’ he told reporters.
Posco, one of the world’s biggest steel makers, signed a deal with the Orissa government June 22, 2005 to set up the project near the port town of Paradip by 2016.
But the pact was valid for only five years. The state government said it is likely to renew it soon after some modification.
The steel maker requires about 4,004 acres, mostly government land, for the project of which 2,900 acres are forest land. The project has been delayed for over three years due to various reasons, including protests by locals.
Thousands of villagers have been protesting the project, saying it will displace them from their homeland and ruin their betel-leaf farms. Posco and the government maintain the project will bring prosperity and employment to an impoverished region.
There has been no progress on the ground despite the state receiving final clearance from the union forest and environment ministry for acquiring forest land for the project.
A senior official of the state steel and mines department said the government may ask POSCO to exclude about 300 acres from its plan where villagers are not willing to give up land.
POSCO requires 20 million tonnes of iron ore per year over 30 years for steel production at its planned Orissa project at full capacity.
The state government had granted permission to POSCO last year for prospecting over 2,500 hectares in the Khandadhar hills in the district of Sundergarh but it faced a setback after a court set aside the decision.