May 15: Orissa police today cleared the entry point to Posco’s proposed factory site for the first time in five years, evoking images of the Nandigram land war but so far without the body count that changed the course of Bengal politics three years ago.
A 1,500-strong police team fired rubber bullets to disperse “bomb-throwing” land protesters gathered under the banner of the Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti.
The clash at Balitutha near Paradip, 110km east of Bhubaneswar, injured at least 15 of the 1,000-odd anti-land acquisition agitators — mostly women and children — who had been on a dharna at the site since January 26. Officers claimed the mob had hurled crude bombs, injuring five policemen.
South Korean steel major Posco had signed a pact with the Orissa government in June 2005 for a $12-billion plant — one of the largest foreign direct investments in India — near Paradip in Jagatsinghpur.
But the project failed to take off because the residents of Dhinkia, Gadakujanga and Nuagaon — the gram panchayats covered by the proposed plant site — blocked the entry of Posco officials.
Today’s police action — perhaps prompted by Posco’s decision to explore opportunities in neighbouring Jharkhand — has given the Jagatsinghpur district administration access to the proposed plant site for the first time since 2005. Sources said the administration now planned to enter Dhinkia and Nuagaon to free up the entire site.
“We will not allow land acquisition at any cost. We are prepared to lay down our lives,” said Sangram Samiti chief Abhay Sahu.
The Orissa dispersal raises the question whether the Bengal government could have averted the Nandigram flare-up by either waiting out the protesters or launching action only after putting in place crowd-control measures.
Bengal police had claimed they did use rubber bullets on March 14, 2007, but the day ended with 14 bodies on the field. Modern crowd-management equipment were absent, not to mention lack of planning.
In Orissa today, 1,500 policemen cleared 1,000 protesters. In Nandigram, less than half — 700 — were deployed to tackle a crowd of 5,000. “We had given a long rope to the people,” said Jagatsinghpur collector Narayan Chandra Jena.
Unforeseen events can still take place in Orissa. But the key factor that differentiates Bengal and Orissa appears to be politics.
A year before Nandigram, 14 people were killed in Kalinga Nagar while resisting the construction of a boundary wall for a Tata project. The number of casualties in the Nandigram March 14 firing and that in Kalinga Nagar was the same but the fallout different.
Nandigram became a national issue, Kalinga Nagar remained a local problem — so much so that a section of the state BJP that wanted to withdraw support to the Patnaik government was cold-shouldered by the party’s national leadership.
“There was no Mamata Banerjee in Orissa. The Congress, the main Opposition party in the state, did not pursue the issue,” said a leader of the ruling Biju Janata Dal.
The CPI has taken up the cause of the villagers protesting against the Posco project but the party has so far not whipped up the rebellious mood that marked the Nandigram agitation.
The party, whose MP was arrested today to prevent him from heading to the trouble spot, has now threatened to launch a statewide agitation.
The Left parties, including the CPM, condemned the police action.