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The fight against Utkal is coming to a head

The fight against Utkal Alumina in the state of Orissa in India is intensifying. At the same time as the company, assisted by local authorities, is escalating the fight to force the indigenous people in the area to accept the compensation they have been offered, resistance is getting stronger, in spite of repeated police violence, and reporting to the police of children taking part in the struggle.
Artikkelen er mer enn to år gammel. Ting kan ha endret seg.
The fight against Utkal Alumina in the state of Orissa in India is intensifying. At the same time as the company, assisted by local authorities, is escalating the fight to force the indigenous people in the area to accept the compensation they have been offered, resistance is getting stronger, in spite of repeated police violence, and reporting to the police of children taking part in the struggle.

By Morten Rønning

The village of Kucheipadar in Rayagada district in Orissa is the largest of the villages affected by Utkal Aluminum's project in the area. The village is losing all its cultivated land. It is the citizens of Kucheipadar that have put up the strongest resistance to the company's attempt to take over the land. On August 10 last year, the villagers smashed a prototype house Utkal had erected in the neighborhood to show the people who will be forced to relocate what kind of houses they would be offered. In all 16 persons were reported to the police for having destroyed the house. (See NW 13/97). This January the inhabitants of Kucheipadar set up a roadblock to prevent access for Utkal employees and the authorities to the village land, thus effectively preventing the company from collecting information in the area. On January 5 this year, the police came to tear down the roadblock, but the villagers tried to stop them, and 17 persons were to some extent seriously injured by the police.

Nine persons from the village have filed a lawsuit against the Indian authorities and Utkal to stop the project. The lawsuit is based upon the right of indigenous people to their own land.

Other villages in the area have not been able to put up the same resistance to the compensation offers. In certain cases landowners have been forced at gunpoint to sign the papers "of their own free will".

NorWatch recently visited Rayagada district and talked to some of the people involved in the struggle against the project, in which it looks like Norsk Hydro now will end up with a 20% holding. NW also attended a seminar in Koraput where the future strategy for the efforts to stop Utkal was discussed, and where the working relationship between villagers and local organizations was strengthened. At the seminar it was once again made clear that the villagers' main objective is not to improve the forced relocation and rehabilitation program of the project, but to stop the entire project.

Lochhma Mahji, woman, 42.
- You blocked the road to the village at the beginning of January, why was that?

- We closed the road with a gate because we didn't want the company to come here to make surveys or gather information. The authorities very soon told us that we had to remove the gate, and that they wanted to talk to us.

- What happened?

- For four days we waited without leaving the village. Since nothing happened, we went back to work on our fields, and the village was almost empty.

At four AM on January 5, the few of us who were left in the village were told that a truck and four jeeps were on their way, and that the police were removing the roadblock. I immediately went there, and stood in front of it. Representatives of the local authorities and the police were there.

We asked: "Why are you removing the roadblock. We're trying to keep our motherland, we're trying to survive. Why are you removing the roadblock? If you remove it, we'll lose our land and our homes. The authority you have doesn't come from the womb of our motherland. You have your authority from us, and you're obliged to help us."

- Did the police use violence?

- Yes, at the same time the police grabbed the other women present by their hands and threw them down on the ground. I objected, saying that one cannot take a woman's hand unless one is married to her. And I asked: "Who has given you permission to attack us?"

The police used the butts of their rifles to push me back. I said: "Are you going to shoot me - are you going to kill me? I'm not scared. I stand for what I fight for, and I'm willing to die for that." The police gathered around me and hit me three times on my legs with sticks. I collapsed and fainted. At the same time the police attacked the others, and threw tear-gas grenades.

Seven police officers came over to me, tried to lift me up, and said they wanted to help me get home. I answered: "Who are you messing around with? How dare you touch me, I'm a woman?"

They stabbed me with iron pipes to get me up. A police officer pulled at my leg. I tried to stand up, and felt an excruciating pain in my legs when I stretched them out. I kicked the police officer who held my leg in his face.

When I managed to get up, two police officers grabbed my hair and pulled me over to the roadblock. I was dragged there practically on my knees.

- How many were injured in this confrontation?

- A total of 17 women were injured, plus 6 children and 7-8 men. Of these 7-8 were elderly people.

We brought the most seriously injured people to the police station in order to file a complaint, but the police said none of their superiors was present, so no complaint could be filed.

Then we went to a local medical center and explained that we needed medicines. We spent 1,140 rupees on medicines, pain-killers, shots and bandages. We were there all night. I and several others were unable to walk for three-four days.

- What has happened since?

- The local village police gathered information about how many were injured, what kind of injuries, if anybody had died, etc.

We also submitted a court notice on behalf of 38 persons after the incident on January 5 to the chief of police. He immediately tore it apart, and said that if we stirred up more trouble, they would kill us.

"The police gathered around me and beat me three times on my legs with sticks. I collapsed and fainted."
Lochhma Mahji on the confrontation with the police on January 5.

Dinabandhu Majhe, boy, 12. Ramakanta Majhe, boy, 10.
- Ramakanta, you and three other children were reported to the police for having participated in the smashing of the prototype house that Utkal erected not far from here on August 10 last year. What happened?

- We'd heard the older people in the village talking about smashing the house earlier that week. This particular Saturday I was at school from seven to one. The house was destroyed between ten and twelve. So I was at school when it happened. Later I heard from an uncle that I had been reported to the police.

- But who reported you, and why?

- We were reported by a man in the village of Dom Karala, which is close by the house that Utkal erected. The man keeps the company informed about what is going on, and they give him a couple of hundred rupees each time. He was there when the house was smashed. He reported us because they're trying to scare our parents. My father is one of the leaders of the struggle. And Dinabandhu's mother is in the woman group set up to fight the factory. Altogether 16 persons were reported after the incident.

- And what is the alleged crime?

- That we helped smash the house, and that we attacked the villagers of Dom Karala. Two girls, 10 and 12, were also reported.

- Does it scare you?

- We're not scared, our teacher can confirm that we were at school when it took place. And we know that we'll win this fight.

- You were also at the roadblock on January 5?

- I was beaten by the police once. I asked why they hit me, but they didn't answer. The roadblock is there only to control representatives of the authorities and the company. It's our land; that's why we put it up. We cut trees, carry rocks and stand guard at the roadblock.

Krushna Santa, man, 40.
- You're one of the nine who have filed a lawsuit against the authorities to keep your land; who have you filed this suit against?

- We've filed a suit against 8 different agencies: the national authorities, the state authorities, the local authorities, and Utkal Alumina. The lawsuit is based on article 226 in our Constitution and the Land Acquisition Act from 1894.

- And what is your resistance based on?

- We don't want to give away our land; we don't want this alumina project. If we lose our land, we'll lose our jobs. Now we work 4 months a year to produce food, and we're doing very well. If we lose our land, we'll have to find other jobs. Then we'll have to wait for our pay in order to buy food. We don't want to make money; we want to grow our own food.

- When will the case come before the court?

- It can take another 2-3 years.

- And what expectations do you have?

- We don't want to give away our land; that's our expectations. Maybe the court will put off the project for some years, and later maybe we'll have another delay. We'll end up keeping our land.

- You attended a seminar in Sundiguda at the end of January where the further struggle against Utkal was discussed. How do you feel after this seminar?

- The seminar made us aware that we're not alone in our struggle to keep our land. Before we were afraid of the future; now we feel strong. We learned that we are being suppressed, but that we have the right on our side. I hope people now understand that we who are affected by Utkal must stand together.

- How can external supporters help you?

- We have no access to information; we have no education. Other places where people are educated, they have a better case. But together with local NGOs and other groups we can utilize the existing information and documentation. When the company started their surveys of the area, we had no idea what was going on, and they told us nothing. Now we can get help from the outside to deal with the injustices inflicted on us by the authorities and the company.

"- The older landowners were physically forced to put their thumbprints on the piece of paper. The younger had to sign at gunpoint."
Banamali Majhi on how people in the village of Nuapara were forced to sign the compensation papers.

Banamali Majhi, man, 24.
Leader in the village of Nuapara, consisting of 45 families who cultivate 130 acres of land plus some additional land belonging to the authorities.

- You will lose all your land because of the Utkal project. When did the company first contact you?

- An Utkal representative visited the village in 1993. He said he represented the authorities and wanted to give us advice concerning agriculture. He tried to organize a youth group, he brought volleyball equipment, a net, etc. He promised to help the elderly women in the village, and talked about the possibilities of starting chicken farms, milk production and an aquaculture project. He promised us an irrigation ditch, roads, loans, and jobs. Then they started their surveys.

- What was your reaction?

- We asked why they were doing surveys. They said they were to survey the area, and monitor the weather and the spread of malaria. After the surveys, we were told that there would be a factory here. Then we reacted.

- Have you been offered any compensation?

- Yes, but we didn't accept the offer; we don't want to move. Then they sent the police to the village. A representative of the local authorities with responsibility for legal matters brought us the contracts, and asked us to sign. He now has a job with Utkal.

- But what happened when you refused to sign?

- The older landowners were physically forced to put their thumbprint on the piece of paper. The younger had to sign at gun-point.

- Who has received compensation?

- Only 6 families have received compensation, because they were the only ones with a title to the land. Altogether compensation has been paid for only 50 acres. The compensation was 21,333 rupees per acre, which is only 10% of what an acre costs in this area.

This is the second time we've been forced to move. We had to move 51 years ago, and this is the land we bought for the money we received then.

- How do you look at the future?

- We're not willing to move. We haven't asked for any compensation, we were forced.

The Utkal project
The Utkal project consists of a bauxite mine and an alumina factory in Orissa, and has an upper investment limit of USD one billion. The partners so far have been Norsk Hydro and the two Indian companies Indal and Tata Industries, each with a 33% holding. It is assumed that the Canadian company Alcan and the Indian company Tata Steel are about to become new partners, which will leave each owner with a 20% holding (see p. 4). The project is 100 % export-oriented, and the main source of power will be coal.

Forced relocation of three villages is a consequence of the development plans. In addition, about hundred villages will lose land or have living conditions negatively by the plans. Only a few of these will receive compensation from the company. Local resistance is massive, and far more villages than those Hydro admits to be affected, are now forming a united front against the project. Utkal and the authorities have used violent methods to force people to accept compensation.

Norwatch Newsletter 4/98