‘The Odisha government wants to bring Bt Cotton to Kalahandi’ P. Sainath

P Sainath, Rural Affairs Editor, The Hindu and 2007 Magsaysay award winner, shares with Pradeep Baisakh his views on the POSCO project, Odisha farmers’ suicides and the National Food Security Bill

You have visited Odisha quite often. How, in your view, has it changed in the last 20 years?
Inequalities have increased massively. Earlier, we used to hire jeeps which were falling apart. Today, to go to Kalahandi, you have Innovas, Scorpios, Safaris. And in the same place there are people who have pledged their crop until 2015 to moneylenders.

Kalahandi’s problem is exploitation even today. Odisha’s per capita food production is higher than the national average for last 30-40 years and Kalahandi’s per capita food production is higher than the state, but people do not know that. Now, that very secure and very diverse food base is being destroyed. I hear the Odisha government wants to bring Bt cotton to Kalahandi. Bt will drink up the water. It will be a wonderful bonanza for the seed companies, a few traders and 10-12 big farmers. Everybody else will suffer.

The state has shifted its base – now it is just a depository of raw materials and minerals. The character and richness of the state has been reduced to being the playground of the extractive industries. That is the difference.

You visited the proposed POSCO area in Jagattsingur, then Kalinganagar, then Gopalpur: it’s like a going backward in the history of industrialisation and displacement in Odisha. What did you find?
In 1997, the government first acquired almost 3,800 acres in Gopalpur. It gave people Rs one lakh compensation per acre, said that there will be a steel plant and every family will get a job. Nobody got jobs and there is no steel plant now. The state government has declared it will not even try to make a steel plant, instead it has got ‘in principle’ approval for an SEZ. The land now costs Rs 40 lakh an acre. At the end of the day, there is no obligation to give any jobs! Those villagers there who fought it out and did not give their land are in much better position today than those who were supposed to be helped by the project.

In Kalinganagar, it’s a very, very bad situation. Over so many years of isolation and criminalisation, people have been broken. Every now and then one more family gives in. They are not happy with it nor are they doing it voluntarily, they are not just able to cope any more. Those who had large houses with lots of space for livestock have been shifted to box houses in the rehabilitation colony. The government says that’s what they chose to build, as if this does not depend on how much money has been given for house construction. There is neither factory nor any meaning job except some training given to people.

In the proposed POSCO area is some of the most profitable farming I have seen. Social activist Jagdish Pradhan and I spoke to a lot of farmers and calculated, taking note of the input cost, that one betel farm over one-tenth of an acre earns a profit Rs 1.5-2 lakh. That is actually a stunning return, and these are ordinary people.

One of the farmers we spoke to has three acres. He spent Rs 10 lakh on his four children’s education and is building a house with Rs 9 lakh. Also, in the last 10 years, betel leave prices have shot up—what used to be Rs 15-20 per 1,000 leaves is now about Rs 1,000. So they are doing pretty well. Where is the demand for jobs? Rather, there is a demand for labour. That place, I am willing to assert, has the highest wage rate in Odisha, Rs 200 plus a meal, higher than wages that construction workers get in Bhubaneswar. If you are doing skilled work like manure application, or tying and untying creepers it’s Rs 400-500 rupees a day plus a meal. Put together the average wages is about Rs 250 a day that is twice the MGNRGEA rate in Orissa, which is Rs 125.

So you are going to destroy something that exists, where employment has been created by the people themselves, in exchange for something that Gopalpur and Kalinganagar show might never come.

But if enough compensation is given, are you still against the acquiring of farmland?
Suppose I say, a huge development project involves destruction of Taj Mahal and Gateway of India, but the compensation is adequate. What sort of argument is that? People sometimes want to sell their land, I agree. But you do not make them sell at the point of the gun. You do not beat them, raid them and isolate them in their villages when they refuse to sell. In case of Gopalpur, Tatas will make money renting out plots to other companies in the industrial park. Why could that money not gone to people themselves?

What about the Land Acquisition Bill? You must be closely following developments on that front.
I am not so excited about the Bill. One, is it the job of the state to transfer resources from ordinary people to a handful of private people? By this you are narrowing the base of ownership of resources in this country. Second, it stinks of corruption. You need to check on the assets of every major officer involved.

Talking of resources, why should you give away 600 million tonnes of iron ore to POSCO at a fraction of the international price? Our new royalty law is better, but fixed on the domestic price, not the international price. So you are allowing a loot and plunder of precious resources, mindless of environmental consequences and calling it development! The younger generation does not want to be in agriculture only because we have made agriculture pathetic.

We did not hear of farmers’ suicides in Odisha earlier. What change has occurred in the state to bring them about?
Farmers’ suicide in the eastern belt are considerably less than in other parts which have opted for cash crops fed mostly by chemical fertiliser, hybrid seeds and Bt seeds. In eastern India, the people still are dependent on food crops. But Odisha too is gradually adopting the cash crop model. The situation will worsen, for the planning model is to promote cash crops, mostly for export.

What’s your reaction to the draft legislation prepared by the National Advisory Council (NAC) on National Food Security which does not advocate universal PDS?
I differ. Food, healthcare, education and decent work should be universalised. It’s incorrect to think that universal PDS is not possible or difficult as ‘leakage’ takes place. Kerala has already shown the way. Functioning of PDS improved in Tamil Nadu as it moved towards universalisation.

People say journalists should be impartial, they should not be activists. But when we see you, the journalist and activist merge.
I do not see it that way— I see myself as a reporter. If I were an activist, I would be organising.

In any society, if you go against the dominant ideology, you will be branded. If you write about POSCO, or about any dam or any other project, you will be called an activist if you write about the affected people.

There was this Brazilian priest who said, “When I give food to the poor they call me a saint, when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.”

Pradeep Baisakh is a Freelance Journalist based in Odisha. He has extensively written on issues relating to MGNREGA, Industrialisation and displacement, Forest and environment, Right to Information, migration etc.

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