Jagatsinghpur district in the eastern Indian state of Orissa is a poor rural place. But it is at the crucible of a battle for the future of India.
In 2005, state and national governments approved a massive steel plant here, and the South Korean steel company POSCO prepared to sink $12 billion into the project. Yet from the beginning, local residents objected to this top-down development, which would push them from their farmland and fishing spots, depriving them of their homes, land, and livelihoods (if history is any guide, they were likely to end up in distant urban slums).
After hundreds of villagers were forcibly evicted last summer opposition stiffened locally, across India and around the world. By late 2011, the Orissa government began resorting to jailing peaceful protest leaders on false charges. First it was Abhay Sahoo – who had also been jailed for 10 months in 2008-9. Then, it was Narayan Reddy.
But this spring, there have been victories for human rights and the environment in Jagatsinghpur. In late March India’s recently established National Green Tribunal ruled that the 2011 government clearance of the project was “arbitrary and illegal” for failing to take into account the full scale (and thus environmental impact) of the project, slated to be the biggest foreign direct investment project in the country. This reversal was met by much hand-wringing in business circles about the negative signal it would send to potential foreign investors in India. Not surprisingly, the ruling was welcomed by those most affected by the project. Days later, protest leader Abhay Sahoo was released by an Indian court.
The struggle isn’t over, and the gains have not come easily. Narayan Reddy remains in jail for his dedicated non-violent activism in an attempt to silence him and delegitimize the movement against the POSCO plant. You can help free him and tell the Orissa state government to stop its plans to forcibly displace thousands of families.