On 14th January, the police cracked down on the residents of Dhinkia, a village in Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur district. Since then, more than 15 villagers have been arrested, and many others are in hiding. A police contingent remains deployed less than a kilometre away from the village.
Villagers have been protesting against the impending steel plant to be set up by JSW Utkal Steel Ltd of the Jindal business group. They fear being displaced from their betel vineyards, a key source of livelihood. Dhinkia’s fertile land and the coastal environment are very conducive for betel farming and also ideal for growing the cashew cash crop that supplements the peasants’ income. The company’s proposed steel plant requires 2,950.31 acres of land, 30 per cent of which is planned to be acquired from Dhinkia.
In December 2021, the Odisha government carved out three new revenue villages, besides an existing one, from the Dhinkia gram panchayat with a population of nearly 11,000 people. Many residents opposed this exercise at that time, aware that the government was using this exercise to break down their opposition to the project. It was clearly a “divide and rule policy” to push the project through.
From the end of December 2021, till the police crackdown of January 14, Dhinkia’s residents had stood guard round the clock, blocking the entry of the administration and protesting against the proposed steel plant.
The protestors have deep concerns about how they could ever be compensated for the loss of their livelihood. Even those who may not be displaced will suffer because of water contamination from the industrial plant.
In January, the district administration forcibly dismantled a number of betel vineyards—the traditional source of livelihood of the population—on a piece of land categorised as ‘forestland’ in government records. Out of 857 vineyards identified for dismantling in the first phase, 671 were dismantled by January-end. One of the conditions laid down by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in lieu of granting the final clearance was that the state government shall ensure complete compliance of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006. However the state government has not ensured that the affected people have been compensated according to the FRA.
In its rehabilitation package, JSW has announced compensation of Rs 17,500 per decimal (0.01 acre) of acquired land. Additionally, it has proposed a bonus of Rs 50,000 per betel vineyard after demolition, irrespective of its size. It has also proposed jobs for one youth per family.
Dhinkia residents rejected the compensation offered by the company on the grounds that this one-time compensation would not suffice to make up for the loss of their monthly earnings. Besides, their experience has already taught them that such offers are elusive. Promises of compensation in money and jobs are mostly on paper and ignored during implementation.
Further, there is a fear that without legal title to show for the land, they will be denied compensation. A majority of them do not have title deeds over their land, despite cultivating their lands for generations. They are aware that they will be declared landless, as has already happened with them many times in the context of natural calamities.
Many of the villagers who had been in the forefront of a similar struggle seventeen years ago, take courage from the success of that protest. At that time, South Korean steel major POSCO had decided to build a similar facility in the area. It had to withdraw in 2017 following 12 years of protests by Dhinkia residents, with the National Green Tribunal eventually scrapping its environmental clearance. The Odisha government later transferred the same land to JSW.
Meanwhile, Dhinkia’s residents are facing harassment by the police, who have been entering their houses at any time and harassing the families, including women members. They have been threatened with jail if they speak to the media.
However, the people are resolute in their resistance against the move to displace them and are ready to withstand the force of law.
Students in defence of people’s rights
The violation of human rights of the villagers who have been protesting the threat of displacement has been noted and objected to by many concerned citizens and human rights activists from the country and the world.
Significantly, over 500 hundred concerned students from O.P. Jindal Global University in Sonipat wrote to Sajjan Jindal to engage in urgent dialogue over the human rights violations and environmental impacts arising out of JSW‘s proposed Integrated Steel Project in Jagatsinghpur district of Odisha.
Urging fellow students to support the villagers who are fighting for their rights by signing the open letter to Sajjan Jindal, they wrote:
“Hundreds of women, children, and elderly are being brutalized by State authorities in Odisha for the sake of Jindal Southwest Steel’s proposed integrated steel project in Jagatsinghpur district, Odisha. Their fault – to peacefully oppose a project that will rob them of their traditional livelihoods and destroy a rich but fragile ecosystem.”
The letter further raises other serious concerns involving violations of the legitimate rights of forest dwelling communities over forests, the violation of the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent, and the brutality to which villagers have been subjected by police and government agencies for peacefully resisting their forest and private lands being grabbed for the Jindal Steel project.
It points out that the JSW project has not secured required statutory approvals. It points to the inadequacy of JSW’s proposed rehabilitation and compensation package. Finally, it concludes that entire process “has ignored a large community of indirectly affected persons and failed to give due regard to the will of a significant number of non-consenting locals.” With many more students joining the protest that began with 25 and grew to 500, the students are contacting other universities for support.