A Real Life “Avatar” Drama in Orissa, India

(Note: Post updated/corrected below)

The plotline of James Cameron’s movie Avatar is not new.  The question I want to ask of the world is: what do you do when it happens in real life?  For the people of a certain part of Orissa state in India, it is happening now.

Here’s the big, hungry corporation, the Korean steel giant, POSCO:

(Photo from this wikipedia site)

And here’s the opposition.

May 10, 2007: Rally Against POSCO – 6  Photo by Clea Chakraverty
(From the petitions page of the group AID)
James Cameron could probably buy POSCO with his spare change and avert this socio-ecological disaster in the making, but in real life (unlike Hollywood) there are few white knights coming in to rescue the natives.  The story of the natives thus becomes the story to tell.
The land and forests of north-Eastern Orissa are home to the adivasis (indigenous peoples) of the region, who survive through small-scale agriculture and fishing.  According to one report from the Financial Express, there is apparently not too much forest cover left, in part because of a devastating super-cyclone that ravaged the region some years ago.  Still, the steel plant would mean the displacement of 22,000 people, and felling of 280,000 trees (some of which do constitute dense forests), the drawing of 286 million litres of water per day from the Mahanadi river (directly impacting water security and agriculture for local people) and a significant threat to the habitat of the endangered Olive Ridley turtle.  The plant, which includes mining facilities, has also been granted SEZ (Special Economic Zone) status, which means, among other things, that they get a ten-year tax break, buy the land cheap, and, most horrifically, are immune from labor and environmental laws.
In line with the time-honoured recipe of bending over backwards for big multinationals, the Orissa State machinery is also committing police violence against its own people.  Amnesty International has issued a report on this situation.  To drive home the point that violent eviction (and who knows what else) is a real threat for the indigenous people of the region, here is a report from an activist, dated today from two years ago:
Email Update on Feb 12, 2008 3 pm IST from Madhumita Dutta
Very very tense situation. This afternoon the district collector and DSP, DM reached Dinkia with massive police force. 3000 villagers led by Abhay Sahu of Posco Protirodh Samiti stood facing them a few yards away. No one moved from their spots. At one point of time, Abhay Sahu stepped out of the crowd and stood out for 15 minutes and told the police to arrest him if they thought he was instigating the villagers to protest against the project. No one from the adminstration came forward to arrest him or talk to him. Later the DSP ordered the police force to move back. Although the police force has retreated back, they are still present in the area in large numbers. The administration is planning next steps.

And here’s what happened the day before:

Email Update on Feb 11, 2008 11:00 am IST from Madhumita Dutta

Last night there was a clash between villagers from Govindpur and goons from Paradeep port. Since the goons were armed, the villagers retreated and erected barricades and are now standing guard. Meanwhile 300 armed orissa police moved in last night and surrounded Dinkia and this morning 300 more joined in, which means 600 armed police force is right now closing in on Dinkia. People haven’t slept the whole night fearing police action, very tense situation as you can imagine.

[As to what is happening today, I was compelled to post this because I received an action alert from AID (Association for India’s Development) a couple of days ago, that the situation is again dire.  AID is a mostly student-run organization that works through local groups in India to support such causes as grassroots democracy and environmental rights.  I have attended a few meetings of its Boston chapter and been impressed by the young people there (mostly Indian graduate students). ]

OK, back to the situation at hand.

So it is as though the free, independent government of India is saying to the multinationals: Please, come in and devastate our land, our ecology and our people, and we’ll reward you.” Who says the days of colonization are over?
In case it’s not obvious, I’m just a little bit angry.
Meanwhile, Posco has an Indian branch at Posco-India, which has the rather ominous (if unintended?) motto:
“Building Better Tomorrow with Steel.”

Can you believe it? !
This is the ugly side of capitalism/ economic liberalization.
So what do we do, what do writers and others do, when the plot of “Avatar” is repeated (as it is, all the time, all over the world) in our world?
If you are an engineering college student, protest.  Don’t just study the material, question what it is being used for.  When Posco holds college events in India, protest and boycott.  Don’t be bought.
If you are just a person like me, you can also call the officialdom in the State of Orissa.  Here are their numbers:
Naveen Patnaik
Chief Minister, Orissa
Tel. No.(O) 011 91 674 2531100,011 91 674 2535100,
011 91 674 2531500, Epbax 2163
Tel. No.(R) 011 91 674 2590299, 011 91 674 2591099,
011 91 674 2590844, 011 91 674 2591100,

U N Behara
Principal Sect Environment and Forests
Phone: 011 91 674 2595503 / 011 91 674 2536822

I am, among other things, a writer, so I will continue to write about this.
More updates later.

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6 Responses to “A Real Life “Avatar” Drama in Orissa, India”

  1. Rose Fox Says:

    When you say “dated today”, why are those missives dated 2008?

  2. Rose Fox Says:

    I should add: I don’t at all doubt that this story is generally true. I’m just wondering whether it’s actually too late to do anything because it took place two years ago.

  3. vsinghsblog Says:

    Hello, Rose,

    You are quite right about the dates of those missives — my apologies. I have corrected the post above. The missives are from two years ago but the post is a result of an action alert I received three days ago that some kind of stand-off between the villagers and police seems to be imminent as we speak.

    Thanks for pointing out my error. I’ll keep you all posted when/if I hear anything.


  4. Welcome to Business Across Cultures : Gord’s Classes Says:

    […] the native people in the Indian state of Orissa. A starting point for your investigation is writer Vandana Singh’s recent post about the conflict, comparing it to the James Cameron film Avatar. (But make sure you move on from there, to read more […]

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    […] mainstream media establishment that has mentioned not a single word about the situation regarding local resistance to the establishment of a factory by the “Korean” steel company Posco i…, while this is big enough news to have been in a recent issue Time magazine (though under a […]

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