Saturday, January 27, 2007

Indian villagers protest site of Arcelor Mittal plant

Hundreds of villagers, who fear losing their land, have filed petitions protesting the site of a 8.7-billion dollar Arcelor Mittal steel project in eastern India, officials said.

The world's largest steelmaker, Arcelor Mittal, on Thursday signed an agreement with the Orissa government to build its first Indian steel plant in the eastern state.

The plant will be located on a 8,000 hectare (19,768 acre) site in mineral-rich Keonjhar district, 300 kilometres (238 kilometres) northwest of capital Bhubaneshwar.

But residents of 27 farming villages who fear displacement have petitioned district authorities against the project, a local official confirmed.

"The villagers are scared of an impending land takeover with meager compensation. They fear that as has been happening elsewhere, their lands will be snatched away from them cheaply," said a district official, asking not to be named.

Some 500 villagers demonstrated against the Arcelor Mittal project on Friday, one day after the agreement was signed.

"Why is the state government always keen to establish factories in agricultural lands? There's no dearth of barren patches in Orissa," said Bijoy Mohapatra, leader of the Orissa Peoples' Forum, a provincial political party backing the protests.

"The people are not against industries. But they oppose it due to an irrational and unjust rehabilitation initiative followed by the Orissa government."

Orissa, which has a quarter of India's iron ore reserves, has witnessed a rush by both Indian and international companies to invest in large steel plants there. India currently produces about 35 million tonnes of steel annually.

But the road for some has been bumpy with South Korean steel giant POSCO, which signed an agreement in June last year to build a 12-million-tonne steel plant in the state, yet to be allotted land because of farmer protests.

An Arcelor Mittal executive said after the signing that his group will try to address local concerns as it sets up the project, which the company says will create 5,500 direct and 15,000 indirect jobs.

"We are aware of protests against mega-industries in Orissa but our approach is different and we will certainly satisfy the society and take all possible measures to involve the local population," said Malay Mukherjee, who signed the memorandum of understanding with the state government.

The plant, which is expected to take almost five years to be fully operational, is slated to eventually produce 12 million tonnes of steel a year.


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