Protest-hit Essar Steel project moves ahead

By Sujeet Kumar, IANS

Raipur : An ambitious project by Essar Steel in mineral-rich Chhattisgarh seems to be back on track after almost a two-year-long wait that saw major protests by tribals over land acquisition.

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Thanks to strong grassroots interaction by the company as well as the state government, about 45 of the 69 affected families in the Dhurli and Bhansi villages – dominated by the Muria tribe – in the Maoist stronghold of Dantewada district have agreed to hand over their ancestral farmland for the project, officials say.

These families, owning the majority of the land where the plant will come up, have given it in writing to the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM), Dantewada, that they are willing to part with the property.

But 24 families are yet to be convinced.

"Twelve families each from Dhurli and adjoining Bhansi had objected to surrendering their land for the steel plant. They have submitted their written objections to the SDM, who has fixed July 6 as the date for hearing their objections before a final preparation of land surrender papers and their submission to the district collector," a revenue department official told IANS Tuesday.

"Once the SDM clears all objections, the Dantewada district collector will report to the revenue department secretary for a final phase clearance for land acquisition," the officer added.

Essar Steel, one of the country's leading steel-makers, had signed an agreement with the Chhattisgarh government in June 2005 for setting up the 3.2 million-tonne per annum integrated steel plant in two phases in Dantewada with an investment of Rs.70 billion.

The company had sought 1,480 acres of land or 600 hectares – 400 hectares from Bhansi and 200 hectares from Dhurli – for the plant that will come up in the Bailadila hills, known for the world's largest and finest quality iron ore stocks.

The clearance by 45 affected families to hand over their land for the Essar project is considered a major move as just earlier this year, the majority of these tribals had said the "Essar project will come up only on our dead bodies".

In April, the anti-Essar protests took a violent turn as Maoist rebels joined the revolt and killed two farmers of Bhansi village for having agreed to give their land for the plant.

But things are moving ahead now.

"We are happy to know that the government has made some moves for acquiring land for Essar Steel, the company plans to embark on construction work for the plant by the end of this year," H.S. Sethi, resident director, Essar Steel, told IANS.

Sethi remarked: "We are just awaiting the final clearance of the land. Once the government hands over land to the company, we will move fast, very fast."

The company had deepened its interaction with tribals, holding health camps and sports meets. The families were enlightened about the package being offered by the company – which would include technical training as well as jobs for one member of every family at the plant.

The Chhattisgarh government too lobbied with the families.