POSCO! Respect Human Rights in Odisha
– Tragic Stories of Odisha Villagers against POSCO Project
Dhirendra Panda (Indian Human Rights Defender)
I am a human rights defender based in Odisha. Generally, I have a little to say on political and economic decisions of the government or people or POSCO, but we are extremely disturbed when the human rights violations take place as the result of such decisions and related actions. Generally, there is a belief among many friends in Korea and India as well – ‘the land-acquisition is voluntary’ and ‘POSCO has no role in human rights violations that take place in proposed project site due to the actions of the Odisha government’. We could gather sufficiently huge evidences through rounds of fact-finding, documentation, reviewing of official records, research reports that clearly shows that the more than 80% villagers (within proposed project plant site) oppose the land-acquisition and ‘force’ is being used by the government and POSCO followers that leads serious human rights violations. We visited Seoul during 20th to 24th March, 2013 and informed the people, South Korea government, POSCO authorities, civil society and human rights defenders, about the situation of human rights as resulted out of POSCO operations and also appealed them all to create pressure on POSCO India to ‘respect human rights’. I am highly thankful for the solidarity expressed by various civil society organizations, human rights defenders, attorneys, teachers, students, trade unions, media and others in South Korea to the struggles of Odisha people for their rights. I’ll inform back to the people in Odisha that the demeaning image of POSCO in Odisha should not be identified with the image of Korean people.
On 4th February, 2013 an IDCO (Odisha Industrial Development Corporation) official with Odisha police was found beating the peaceful women and children demonstrating their resistance to POSCO project in their village with stick (which is completely illegal) in the presence of police Jagatsinghpur Superintendent of Police and District Magistrate while the police were forcibly occupying betel vines. On 8th February POSCO-India Chairman and Managing Director Mr.Yong Won Yoon said, “We are happy that the land clearance process has resumed again and hope it will be over smoothly with ‘the support of villagers’, without any further halt or obstruction. We hope to start land preparation work soon.”
▲ A villager who is arrested by the police. ⓒDhirendra Panda
The Administration started gathering more Police forces in the area since the evening of 1st March and began constructing a road between Patana and Gobindpur. On 2nd March, seven more platoons of police were there near POSCO transit colony, which is two kilometres away from Gobindpur village. In the evening at 6.30 PM two bombs were hurled on a group of villagers killing 3 villagers on the spot and injuring many while standing near a pond at the backside of one village leader’s house at Patana village, where usually the President, POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti stays. Neither the police nor the Medical team came to the spot for the next 15 hours. Even they were not given an ambulance to take the injured ones to hospital. Hardly the shocked villagers were trying to cope up with the situation, towards end of the night at 4 AM twelve platoons of Police forces pounced upon them to resume the acquisition of betel vine lands after a month. On 7th March, emotionally broken women staged a nude protest at the site and were severely beaten by the police force.
The Odisha people expected the visiting South Korean Ambassador, Joon-Gyu Lee would convey his sympathy at least, although he would not condemn the Odisha Government actions – instead he expressed his ‘pleasure’ to media, “I also requested him (Odisha Chief Minister) to further expedite it.” “If possible, I will like to see our President and your Chief Minister launch this mega project.(at any suitable time this year)”
This is only a brief account of last two months incidents out of hundreds of incidents during last eight years intimidations and harassments by the Odisha government and POSCO followers against the villagers peacefully resisting POSCO. The Gram Sabhas (a constitutionally recognized body of all citizens relating to the villages belonging to a Panchayat – Local Self-Governing Unit) have rejected the moves for land acquisition for the project three times (March, 2008; February, 2010 & October, 2012) in their villages. Without any respect to the ‘free and prior informed consent’, the government is accelerating their oppressions to force its decision to acquire their lands and the POSCO company has shown only its ‘determination’ to go ahead with the project at a huge cost to the rights of Indian citizens and by causing untold miseries for the democratic protesters Till now, ‘POSCO operations’ has claimed five lives, caused injuries to many, chronic ailments, physical and psychological sufferings to hundreds of children, women and others throughout the years.
▲ Non-violence protest by villagers against land acquisition for POSCO project. ⓒDhirendra Panda
Villagers have been violently targeted because they are resisting the progress of the POSCO-India project in defense of their livelihoods, and access to land and natural resources. The regular and massive presence of police force around the villages is only encouraging the criminal elements to unleash a reign of terror in the proposed POSCO area. The villagers are in constant fear that at any point of time the armed police forces may resume the operation and take away their land. Threats, arrests, tortures, harassment by police and POSCO followers, deployment of huge security forces, open challenges by mercenaries have forced 20,000 villagers not to cross their village boundary and kept aloof from the rest of the world as if in an open house prison. People trying to come outside their village boundary for medical treatment, marketing or for any other urgent purposes are being abused or arrested on their way. Any complaint of victims of abuse or arbitrary arrest is not entertained in local police station. Sick women, children and others are not able to access medical treatment since years together. Children are not able to attend educational institutions outside their villages. At least 14 women are suffering for years with severe gynecological disorders that need surgery. No doctor dares to visit the area to assess the suffering of people, officially or unofficially, for the fear of being targeted by the Police. Time and again, the authorities tried to force themselves into the village and destroyed the local people’s primary means of livelihood, their betel vines that they rely on for the bulk of their income.
▲ Fallen betal vines. ⓒDhirendra Panda
Furthermore, the intimidation methods extend also to legal persecution. As of today the Odisha Government has registered more than 240 criminal cases against the villagers and issued about 1,500 warrants, 340 of which are women. Mostly the complainants are government officials, POSCO staffs and followers. The village leaders have been repeatedly jailed as a result of defending their human rights. Two villagers are still in prison.
POSCO Management cannot deny its responsibility ‘to respect human rights’ of the people affected by their project in Odisha. UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights requires that all business enterprises respect human rights, ‘avoid infringing on the human rights of others and should address (actual or potential) adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved’. All companies based in states that are members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), are obliged to uphold the ‘Guidelines for Multi-National Enterprises’ (the ‘OECD Guidelines’). Chapter IV of the OECD Guidelines requires companies to “respect human rights, which means they should avoid infringing on the human rights of others and should address adverse human rights impacts with which they are involved”. The United Nations Global Compact also calls on companies to respect international human rights standards and avoid complicity in human rights abuses.
In May 2012, POSCO CEO, Mr. Joon-Yang Chung, wrote a letter to UN Secretary-General, Mr. Ban Ki-moon. He stated that ‘POSCO supports the ten principles of the Global Compact with respect to human rights’ and ‘with this communication, we express our intent to advance those principles within our sphere of influence’. Evidence from the area impacted by POSCO’s project in Odisha makes a mockery of this promise.
To conclude, the villagers are in a state of constant fear that at any point of time the armed police forces resume the operation and take away their land causing further bloodsheds and severe human rights violation. No project should be imposed on an unwilling population by conniving with coercive state machinery.
I would request to the governments of South Korea as well as India to ensure that POSCO would respect human rights in Odisha.