Retired Bombay high court Justice Hosbet Suresh -- who led a six-member human rights team that visited (between May 24 and 26) Balitutha, the entry point to the epicentre of the agitation that comprise Dhinkia, Gobindapur and Patana villages -- says the villagers had been waging a peaceful protest since January 26, 2010 when the Government of India reportedly promised South Korean President Lee Myung-bak -- this past Republic Day's State guest -- that work would soon begin at the Posco site.
The villagers, local journalists, academics and concerned citizens who the team met told them the Posco project that will bring in a foreign direct investment of Rs 52,000 crore (Rs 520 billion) will not only displace and ruin the livelihoods of 4,000 families but will also destroy the rich bio-diversity of the area and threaten water supply from the Mahanadi river to Bhubaneshwar and Cutack.
Posco will make about Rs 96,000 crore (Rs 960 billion) by selling 600 million tonnes of iron ore promised to them at today's market prices, locals told Justice Suresh's team.
Justice Suresh, 81, spoke to Prasanna D Zore about his findings.
Can you tell us about the situation in the villages?
We went to those villages where the police shot rubber bullets and lathi-charged the villagers. A large number of people, including women, were injured, but didn't receive any medical aid. The villagers around Balitutha are apprehensive about the situation prevailing there as of today.
There are two police vans stationed at the entrance of these villages and whoever goes out or comes in is under surveillance. They (the police) can stop anyone from entering or exiting their villages or even arrest them. Most of the villagers fear to move out of their villages now.
Now even women folk of these villages have joined the protest in large numbers. They want to fight and they say they will continue to agitate.
Agitate peacefully despite the state government's alleged repression?
Of course, fight peacefully.
Nobody is saying that they will pick up arms. It is not easy for them to not agitate against Posco's plans. It is a question of their livelihoods.
Where will they go once they are displaced?
How will the government give them their paddy fields, their bio-diversity rich land from which they derive their sustenance and livelihoods at some other place far away from where they are settled today?
What kind of atrocities did people from the villages you visited report to your team?
The atrocities include beating the protesters, taking them to the police station and threatening them to stop their protests. There were no cases of molestation excepting for May 15 when women were in the forefront of these protests and policemen roughed them up.
Kindly tell us about the facts you discovered.
The inhabitants of these villages took us through how they earn their livelihood out of the land on which they live and how they will be ruined once Posco establishes their plant.
The people also told us about how the state government was trying to pressurise them to give up their lands and committing atrocities on the peaceful protests since June 2005.
People here are very angry, sad and disappointed that the government is not addressing their grievances.
Do you fear this anger may take a violent turn or the people might lose their faith in peaceful demonstrations and resort to violence after five years of peaceful protests?
Did you see any hint of the Maoists trying to take over the protests?
At the moment there is nothing (no signs of Maoists). But we didn't go to the forest areas where Posco's proposed iron ore mines are spread over 13,000 acres.
We only went to the villages where protesters were beaten up by the police and those areas that will have Posco's steel plant.
I don't know how the conditions in those forests are. But I didn't see any feeling amongst the protesters to resort to violent agitation against the government.
Did the police restrict your movement?
No. The police stopped us at the entrance of a village where they had burnt down shops belonging to local villagers and tribals to check us.
Once they learnt that a retired high court judge was part of the fact-finding team they let us in. They didn't stop us from talking to the protesters and villagers.
Please tell us about the scenes that you witnessed once you entered these villages.
Today, the place where 4,000 protesters were squatting is swamped with water after cyclone Laila. We saw a lot of shops owned by people -- who told us they were neither for or against the project -- burnt down by the police.
Did these shopkeepers or protesters who were manhandled file any first information report against the police?
Yes, that's the point. Which police station will they go to and file the FIRs? And this happens everywhere in India.
Take Chhattisgarh, for instance. People there too want to lodge FIRs against the injustice done to them. But the police will not listen to them. They will prevent these people from lodging complaints. The same situation prevails in Dhinkia as well.
Did you witness State repression?
Yes. Everywhere in India states are using their might and authority telling people what they should do and what they should not.
If people want to talk to the authorities, if they want to protest peacefully, the State doesn't allow them to do it.
The demand for the right to live peacefully on their own land is met with lathis. Every public hearing meeting is a farce because the people who are actually affected by development projects are not allowed to attend such meetings.
When governments fail in their persuasion they resort to suppression.