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Will ArcelorMittal's steel plant come up in Jharkhand?
Pradeep Gooptu in Torpa (Jharkhand) | February 04, 2008 09:37 IST
For two decades, National Hydel Power Corporation (NHPC) proposed, and some local tribal groups opposed, the setting up of the Koel-Karo hydro-electric project there, and it was finally abandoned last year.
Today, the pro-developers are looking forward to ArcelorMittal's proposed 12-million-tonne steel plant to transform what can best be described as a struggling hamlet.
Arraigned against them are some tribal groups, organised under a religious community who see the inevitable acquisition of land and the steel plant as a process that will change the face of Torpa for worse.
Locals say that part of one village will be displaced to make way for the plant though the actual plant site has not been indicated yet. In any case, much of the area is already devastated by sand mining and brickfields.
The Koel-Karo project involved the construction of a dam ahead of the confluence of the Koel and Karo rivers. This would have created a huge lake for drawing water for year-round cultivation, generated 710 Mw of power and prevented flash floods common in this hilly area.
It would have required up to 50,000 acres of land (depending on the depth of the reservoir) and displaced three villages and around 1,500 people.
When abandoned, 239 acres had been acquired. This displaced 169 people and their nominees were employed at the project site first. After the project was shelved, they were shifted to other NHPC projects.
If it had come up, the project would have provided direct employment to 10,000 people and indirect employment to 50,000.
"It was a huge shock for us and we were condemned to live in a village. Torpa would have become a town," said a top officer at the block headquarters in charge of the revenue department.
The Koel Karo project ultimately came to be dropped because of strident opposition by the Torpa sitting MLA Koche Munda of the BJP. Munda's supporters said it was because the people felt the reservoir would help people downstream and not them. Koche Munda could not be contacted for his response.
In February 2001, police firing on a crowd protesting the Koel Karo project resulted in the death of eight people, including a policeman.
The opposition then was led by N E Horo, former MP and former minister of undivided Bihar and president of the Jharkhand Party. His Jharkhand Party has renewed the struggle against the land acquisition and will be staging protest meetings at Torpa against the Mittal steel project, he said.
Proponents of development -- and this includes several locals -- point out that the area has no irrigation and manages to raise one crop dependent on the monsoon. Locals are forced to migrate for the rest of the year to subsist.
Locals say tribals here have to fetch drinking water from the river miles away, live with prolonged power cuts even if they can afford a power line, and survive as migrant unskilled labourers elsewhere for six months.
"This so-called noble life is being preserved by the opposition," the locals complained.
"The tribal lifestyle is mere subsistence because nothing grows here and this subsistence is being maintained to serve the interests of some who fool gullible local people," the revenue department official alleged.
This sentiment was echoed by Satish Sharma, a local who also ran the local phone booth and camera and photography shop rolled into one. He pointed out that a steel plant in the area will require literate people, but the presence of several local schools, meant such resources were available.
"Those who are opposing the plant are doing so because we all realise that the focus of local life will shift from the religious congregation to the factory and the trade unions," he said.
Everyone in the shops and in the shacks selling rudimentary food and sweets grumbled about the brand of the congregation-led opposition politics that had blocked development in the area over the years.
Evidently, the optimism of Sharma is not universal. This resentment could well grow into a conflict unless steps were taken to reach a solution, in the way such divisions have led to communal violence in neighbouring states like Orissa, they admit.