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Tribal People Protest Land Acquisition For Steel Plant


June 04 2008

Local people including Christians are opposing a multi-billion-dollar steel plant a transnational company plans to set up in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand.

On May 29, tribal people and supporters demonstrated before the governor´s residence in Ranchi, the state capital of 1,160 kilometers southeast of New Delhi, saying the plant would displace thousands of villagers. The governor represents the Indian president in a state. 

ArcelorMittal, the world´s largest steel company, plans to set up the plant in Jharkhand and another in Orissa, Jharkhand´s southern neighbor. Media reports say it plans to invest at least US$20 billion in the two projects. 

People in Orissa have already held several demonstrations, some violent, to oppose the plant there.

In Jharkhand, the company plans to set up its plant in the Torpa-Kamdara region. Torpa, 60 kilometers south of Ranchi, is the site of the first mission station Catholic missioners opened in the region. Today, Ranchi is the nerve center of eastern India´s vibrant tribal Christian community. 

The steel giant plans to acquire 20,000 acres and has already completed surveying land for the plant, which it expects will produce 12 million tons of steel annually starting in 2012.

At the Ranchi rally, demonstrators shouted, "Go back Mittal," "We will give up life, but not land." Lakshmi N. Mittal, an Indian living overseas, is chief executive officer of ArcelorMittal. His family owns more than 40 percent of the company, which produces around 10 percent of world steel output.

Dayamani Barla, a rally leader, told UCA News during the event that they "will fight unto death" to prevent Mittal´s firm from acquiring "even an inch of land" that tribal people and other original settlers occupy in Jharkhand.

Barla, a member of Gossner Evangelical Lutheran Church, claimed the steel plant would displace about 100,000 people.   "Migration is inevitable, as the Jharkhand government has not yet come out with any rehabilitation and resettlement policy," added the convener of <I>Adivasi Astitva Rakhsa Manch</I>, a forum with the stated goal of protecting original settlers. She maintained that whenever such projects have been set up in Jharkhand, tribal people have been exploited.

According to the activist, middlemen acting on behalf of the proposed steel plant have threatened her and other villagers opposing the project.

Villagers armed with traditional spears, bows and arrows, and some holding placards sat in front of the governor´s residence for four hours on May 29. They demanded the government immediately stop ArcelorMittal from acquiring land and not interfere with a law that prohibits sale of tribal land to outsiders.

Their rally memorandum to the governor pointed out that tribal people have not received compensation for land acquired 40 years ago to build a heavy-machinery plant near Ranchi, and a steel plant in Bokaro, 125 kilometers to the northeast.

Asrita Samad, a young Catholic demonstrator, told UCA News they will block roads leading to the proposed project site day and night indefinitely to prevent "the middlemen and officials of Mittal´s company" from going there.

Joachim Surin, another Catholic youth, rejected the company´s promise to rehabilitate the displaced. He claimed less than 30 percent of those displaced in the past have received compensation. "We don´t want to lose our homes anymore. We will not allow this anti-people project," he told UCA News.

Praveen Kumar Jojo from one of the affected villages said company officials promised to set up an industrial training institute to offer free training to tribal youth. "When we heard it, we were happy initially. But we soon understood the conspiracy, when we learned about the plan to acquire land for the steel plant," he told UCA News.

Jojo said the company wanted to break tribal unity by luring the youth. "We will not allow them to succeed in their game plan," he asserted.

Earlier, as public protests against the steel plant began to surface, Arcelor Mittal Foundation organized a seminar on "Development initiatives for a better tomorrow" in Ranchi. It invited around 70 local NGOs to the April 17 meeting but kept away village chiefs and protesting groups from affected villages.