Mumbai: For nearly a decade, citizens of over 10 villages located on the Maharashtra-Goa border have been protesting against Uttam Steel and Power Ltd for “illegally” encroaching on their public road and diverting it without their consent. Furthermore, they allege that the corporate giant has, over the years, failed on its promises to set up the steel factory in Satarda that would have generated jobs for the locals.

“Uttam Steel availed all facilities and subsidies from the government when they acquired land from our villages, but failed to provide basic amenities to the villagers like health, education, water and employment,” claims Jagannath Pandit, a 62-year-old retired teacher and resident of Satose who is at the forefront of the fight along with the locals. Pandit says that it has been over 13 years now and there seems to be no sign of the project ever starting. He further adds that the partly constructed steel factory (which failed to take off) even today continues to occupy hundreds of acres, including illegally occupying the main road that not only connects all surrounding villages to each other, but also its neighbouring state, Goa.

According to Pandit, it was in 1986, that Usha Ispat Ltd had purchased 1300 acres of land in the villages of Satarda and Satose to set up a steel plant project. The land was later sold to Uttam Steel and Power Ltd in 2002. The latter had further gone on to purchase 300 acres more from the locals.

“Around that time Zilla Parishad of Sindhudurg had handed over the road to Uttam Steel without taking No Objection Certificates (NOCs) from the grampanchayats of the villages that surround the project area, namely Kinale, Kavathani, Madura, Ronapal, Sherle, Nigude, Kaas and Padlos. The company went on to divert the existing road to construct an alternate one at a much longer distance. Most villages cannot use this new road as it increases our travelling distance to Goa by 3 kms. As per details acquired under Right to Information (RTI), even Satose Gram Panchayat has not given any NOC for an alternate road,” he states, adding that the company created a boundary wall further enclosing the public road. The villagers are worried that some day, the company may completely cut off their access to this road altogether.

Pandit discloses that citizens from Kinale, Kavathani, Satarda, Satose,  Madura, Ronapal,  Sherle,  Nigude,  Kaas, and  Padlos villages in Sindhudurg district have been raising their voice for many years against the illegal encroachment of the public road which has been existing  post Independence and has been regularly used by villagers of the above mentioned villages.

“Many villagers regularly travel by this road to not only reach to their working places in Goa, but also for availing daily essentials like shopping, medicines, hospitals etc. There are many students who use the road to travel to their educational institutes as well. The company has only acquired land and failed to complete the infrastructural work. Whatever incomplete work that is done by the company has become a hindrance and hazard to the nearby villages.”

Srikrishna Bhogale from Madura village points out that despite them taking up the matter with various state and district authorities over the years, nothing has materialized.

“The road today has no electricity and no government department wants to take responsibility for it. There are few small wadis (a group of houses) whose access to the main road is completely cut off ever since the company took over this road,” he says. Suresh Gawade, Sarpanch of Ronapal says that the road has been the lifeline of most villages that connect Maharashtra to Goa. “To cut off access to the road is wrong. The company already owns hundreds of acres of land, they can construct a road for themselves anywhere.”

Villagers say that they have resorted to many protests and even hunger strikes in this regard. The first hunger strike took place on August 15, 2008. “At that time, the authorities concerned assured to look in the matter and conduct an enquiry but without taking any villagers into confidence, an alternate road was sanctioned by the ZP and the resolution sent to the state government’s Rural Development and Water Resources Division. Later on January 26, 2021, citizens of these 10 villages sat on a hunger strike under the banner of  Shri Devi Mauli Dashkroshi Rasta Sangharsh Samiti outside the Tehsildars office, yet nothing materialised. The villagers are now restless and fed up of the negligence of authorities,” says Pandit.

An email sent by The Sunday Guardian to Uttam Steel and Power Ltd for their side of the story did not get any response, but an official working with the company met this journalist and on conditions of anonymity said that the company had done everything by the book to get the necessary approvals and permissions to not only acquire the road, but also create a new one for the villagers from their own money. “The earlier road was 2.7 km while the new one is 3.5 kms and much closer to the many wadis that are around.  Many locals are already using the road we have not stopped them, but once the plant begins, there may be heavy machinery on the road which may prove a hurdle in the long run,” he states, adding that presently, the plant is spread across 1800 acres and the company hopes to start the steel plant soon.

“The earlier company Usha Ispat from whom we took over already had 400 acres and the construction which one sees lying incomplete was done by them. We just acquired more land by purchasing it from the villagers and that too as per market value. The plant was expected to start sometime back but due to recession and then later the pandemic and lockdown that followed, has further delayed our plans. We are hoping to get the plant up and going in the next 8-9 months or so,” he said.