By Jatindra Dash
BHUBANESWAR, India, March 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Protesters and government officials in eastern India clashed over the fate of land that South Korean steelmaker POSCO has asked Odisha state to take back, the latest twist in one of the most contentious battles over land in the country.
POSCO said at the weekend it had expressed its intention to give back the 2,700 acres (11 sq km) of land allotted to it for a long-delayed $12 billion steel project because it "will not be used urgently".
A protest group on Monday said it has asked state officials to return the land to villagers, while authorities in Odisha said the land will revert to the state.
"It is the people's land and it should be returned to them," said Prasant Paikray, with the anti-POSCO group POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti.
"Our movement will continue until the land is given back to the villagers," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
State Industry Minister Debi Prasad Mishra said the land would go into a land bank for other industrial projects.
"Not an inch of this land is private land," he said.
The 2005 project in the coastal district of Jagatsinghpur was billed as India's biggest foreign direct investment at the time. But it faced massive delays due to a regulatory maze and protests from local farmers.
As demand for land rises, is it rarely returned after being acquired for a project. But last year, the Supreme Court said land bought by West Bengal state for a Tata Motors factory must be returned to farmers after a decade-long battle.
The top court has also taken a dim view of special economic zones, asking seven states earlier this year why land bought for industry is lying idle.
Conflicts with farmers reluctant to give up land have stalled major projects and put billions of dollars of investment at risk, according to research published in November.
Officials in resource-rich Odisha in eastern India have said projects such as POSCO's are crucial to generating jobs and raising incomes in the poor state.
Betel nut farmers, who were among those who surrendered their land, said they would resume farming on the land if it is returned to them.
"The administration demolished our betel vines and promised us other jobs. Since nothing is going to happen, our land should be given back, so that we can resume cultivation," said Tuna Baral, 30, a resident of Gobindpur village.
(Writing by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)