Land Grabs and Corporate Steel
For the past six years, forest dwelling peasant communities in the Indian state of Orissa have been living under the threat of dispossession by the largest proposed foreign direct investment in the history of the country. Pohang Iron and Steel Company (POSCO), a South Korean conglomerate and third biggest steelmaker in the world, has set its sights on acquiring over four-thousand acres of land and access to rich mineral deposits of the region. If realized, this twelve billion dollar project will displace a community of 22,000 tribal people for the sake of a steel plant, strip 20,000 fishermen of their means of support to allow for a captive port, and cause long-term environmental damage through unsustainable mining of iron ore. The stakes of this project extend beyond simple tabulations of those whose lives and livelihoods are under immediate attack; because of the sheer size of POSCO, its outcome may determine the conditions under which foreign capital is allowed to enter the subcontinent in the future.
The devastating power of global finance capital, brought "home" by the recent wave of austerity measures across the Western world, has been an aspect of daily life in the global south since well before the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers. While protests against corporate greed in the Western world have been successful in building solidarity with uprisings in the Middle East, it is important to connect these movements with anti-capitalist campaigns being waged in the south. While anger and discontent against corporate capital has led to global uprisings to an extent not seen since the 1990s anti-globalization movement, corporations are still finding places to capture profit across the world. This is nowhere more evident than in the case of POSCO. JP Morgan Chase and Citigroup, primary targets of U.S. occupy movements, are two of POSCO's largest shareholders.
The logic of neoliberalism is being used to justify POSCO's investment as a solution to the economic woes of the state. This is in blatant disregard of the thriving agricultural economy that has provided sustainable income to the local community. Company officials have made the claim that their investment will provide over 800,000 jobs per year to the region over the next 30 years. However, third party observers estimate the total to be not more than 10,000. This discrepancy is further mitigated by the fact that the skills required for POSCO jobs will likely place them outside the reach of most of those in the affected community. The government of Orissa has eased the way for POSCO by holding critical public hearings regarding the project far from the affected community, forcing residents to forfeit their daily wage in order to attend. In bypassing its own laws in order to accommodate a corporation that will ultimately disenfranchise and displace thousands of villagers, the government of Orissa has shown a willful disregard for the people and for the ecology and sustainability of the land.
The POSCO project highlights a troubling trend in India of national and state government favoring the interests of corporations over the well-being of communities. Since liberalization in the 1990s, India has actively sought to increase foreign direct investment and embark on repressive land grabs for so called Special Economic Zones (SEZs). With the passing of the Special Economic Zones Act in 2005, countless SEZs have been sprouting in states across India, with the largest number approved for Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Facing enormous repression from the local and state government of India, peasant communities have been forced to engage in their own struggles against the encroachment of their land. Non-violent and democratic resistance has emerged in places from Nandigram, West Bengal to Raigad, Maharashtra.
Shortly after the passage of SEZ Act, the government of Orissa signed a Memorandum of Understanding with POSCO, advertising it as an endeavor which promises to “bring prosperity and wealth” to its people. The deal with POSCO explicitly states that the government will assist POSCO in providing all clearances from a list of institutions and laws that recognize the rights of forest dwelling communities and support the preservation of forest land. Despite intense local popular resistance, the Indian government has subverted many of its own laws in order to clear the way for POSCO plans. The most controversial of these subversions occurred in response to a progressive law passed in 2006 that recognized fundamental rights to control over forest land for forest dwelling communities. Commonly referred to as the Forest Rights Act, this law states that "no member of a forest dwelling Scheduled Tribe or other traditional forest dweller shall be evicted or removed from forest land under his occupation till the recognition (of rights) and verification procedure is complete." Supporters hailed the law as empowering local-level village assemblies to protect the forests and "regulate access to community forest resources." However, the democratic accountability and legal protections afforded by this law were disregarded in the case of POSCO. The Ministry of Environment and Forests, tasked with evaluating the compliance of the project, provided clearances to POSCO against the findings of its own appointed regulators. The reality is that the project will deplete forest cover, and increase air and water pollution, giving rise to numerous public health concerns and further endangering the lives of already threatened wildlife and aquatic animals.
For the past five years, the PPSS (POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti, an Anti-POSCO Mobilization Committee), among several other people’s groups based in the area, have developed strong campaigns to stop the illegal encroachment of POSCO onto their land. Already skeptical of the Orissa government because of its previous unfulfilled promises, the local communities organized marches, blockades, and round-the-clock protests. Using non-violent resistance methods, the women, men, and children of these communities landed under siege of the police and paramilitary forces. In clear opposition to the message of the local community, the police have remained an intimidating presence—from filing cases and imprisoning demonstrators without any legitimate cause, to burning down shops and homes, executing all-out violent attacks using tear gas, rubber bullets, shotguns, and badly beating villagers who are doing nothing more than peacefully exercising their democratic rights. The extra-legal violation of both the rights of forest dwellers and environmental laws for the sake of foreign capital is a troubling development in the world's largest democracy. While India has a strong tradition of non-violent, popular resistance at the local level, whether this will be enough to counteract the growing power multinational conglomerates without fundamental transformations in state government remains to be seen.
As conflict between POSCO and the people of Orissa becomes entrenched, the next front to this battle is poised to open up over mining rights in the Khandadhar region. This will bring with it another round of questions over forest-dwellers rights and concerns over air and water pollution. This time around, however, the contestations will take place within the heightened context of land that is rich in mineral resources. The extent to which PPSS and other resistance groups will be able to translate the stubborn successes of Jagatsinghpur to the indigenous people of Khandadhar may well decide the fate of the POSCO project as a whole.
The economic crisis in the West has exposed for its citizens the hypocrisy of these governments and the consequences of neoliberalism on people's every day lives. As the U.S. touts itself as an example of true democracy, taking liberties to police and wage war against other nations, its citizens are catching on to the disparities that arise as profits come before people on their very own soil. The Occupy Wall Street movement, now in its second month, has put these disparities on display, raising a united slogan: “We are the 99%”. Demonstrators are ready to put corporate greed on trial, claiming that the banks and corporations who own the top 1% of the nation’s wealth are doing so at the expense of rest of the population. In their letter of solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement, Egyptian activists involved in the uprisings said, “Living under structural adjustment policies and the supposed expertise of international organizations like the World Bank and IMF, we watched as our resources, industries and public services were sold off. The profits and benefits of those freed markets went elsewhere, while Egypt and other countries in the south found their immiseration reinforced by a massive increase in police repression and torture.” Permeating across the globe, uprisings such as these are resonating the power of community and social movements. It is because of the unrelenting defiance of the people of Orissa that the POSCO project has been at a standstill for the past 6 years. As the machine moves ahead and amplifies the forces against them, these communities continue to stand together. People in the west have joined the global south in putting corporate greed on trial. We can only hope that this unified voice will strengthen the ongoing resistance of those on the periphery to bring about some real victories to the people directly affected by the crimes of corporate capital.