Odisha: Déjà Vu in Dhinkia as People Renew Protests Against Jindal's Steel Project

Locals who waged a decade long battle against POSCO are now opposing Jindal's proposed integrated steel plant on the same land.

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The sandy lanes of Dhinkia and surrounding villages are once again ringing with cries of protest – this time against the proposed project by JSW Utkal Steel Ltd (JUSL) in the coastal Jagatsinghpur district of Odisha. While the communities living in Dhinkia, Nuagaon, Gobindpur and Noliyasahi in Ersama tehsil fought a decade-long battle to evict POSCO, the South Korean global steel major which withdrew in 2017, the land acquired for the project was handed over to Jindal for its proposed integrated steel plant.

JUSL is a wholly-owned subsidiary of JSW and proposes to build a Rs 65,000 crore 13.2 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) integrated steel plant, comprising a 900 MW captive power plant, and a 10 MTPA cement grinding and mixing unit. The iron ore for the plant shall be sourced through a slurry pipeline from a 30 MTPA iron ore grinding and de-sliming plant proposed in the Keonjhar district of Odisha. It also plans to build a 52 MTPA handling capacity captive jetties on the right bank of the Jatadhar river, adjacent to the plant. The affected villages are Dhinkia, Gobindpur, Nuagaon, Polanga, Bayanala and Jatadhar. The project has not received environmental clearance as yet and an application was made to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change for the fourth time on December 12, 2021. 

The POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (Anti-POSCO Campaign), now recast as the Jindal Pratirodh Bheetamati Suraksha Samiti, is back to defend the villages against the entry of police, just as it did earlier. Prashant Paikray, the spokesperson for the Samiti, told The Wire over the phone that the protests began in Dhinkia on December 4, when police arrived at night in the midst of a raging cyclone to arrest Debendra Swain, a Samiti leader. “They tried to break the front door of Swain’s house and damaged it. When they did not find Swain they arrested his uncle Ayodhya and his daughter Lili,” he said.  

Paikray said villagers are being harassed in various ways for protesting against the plant. The Odisha panchayat raj department launched disciplinary action against Swain, a member of the Dhinkia panchayat, and issued a show-cause to him. Swain submitted he could not appear for a hearing and on December 8, 2021 he was informed that he was removed as a panchayat member.  

Since December 5, the people of Dhinkia blockaded the entrance to the village which has been bifurcated into three new revenue villages – Dhinkia, Mahala and Patana. Using tactics similar to the ones they used against POSCO, the communities affected by the JUSL project erected bamboo gates and refused to allow the police or government officials and JSW staff.   

Children protesting police action in Dhinkia. Photo: Author provided

The police have been present at Patana for a few months as there were protests against a road being built there. Since December 10, the police have set up camps with three platoons, according to Akhileshvar Singh, the superintendent of police, Jagatsinghpur. Singh said that on the night of December 4, there was a complaint from Prabhat Rout, a resident of Patana, that two bombs were thrown into his house. The police team which went to investigate was attacked on its way to the village.

After reinforcements were called in, two platoons were sent to Dhinkia but they too were attacked and there was plenty of stone-throwing – so the police returned, as they were unprepared for such an event, he said, adding that some policemen were injured. After that, the people have made three gates and no one can enter the villages. Police camps were set up so that no more untoward incidents would occur, he said.  

No arrest has been made in the bomb blast case, though the alleged culprits have sought refuge in Dhinkia, Singh said.

The Wire has emailed a list of questions to the company, but there is no response yet. 

The police have filed fresh cases over the last two months and arrested 11 persons, according to legal activist Sarita Barpanda. Last Friday, the high court granted anticipatory bail to 104 men and 29 women from the project area, charged with different offences. Earlier, during the anti-POSCO protests, over 1,000 cases were filed against the agitators and many still have non-bailable warrants pending against them.

In addition, she said that the police picked up Sasmita Malik, a Dhinkia resident and her eleven-year-old daughter when they were working in their betel vine plot. Malik was in jail while her daughter was sent to the Child Welfare Centre, in total violation of their rights, she pointed out.

Communities in Dhinkia are also protesting the creation of two new revenue villages – Mahala and Patana, carved out of the original village, which were former hamlets. This is an attempt to isolate Dhinkia, said Paikray. On December 20, when hundreds of people went to protest the demarcation of Mahala village, police entered Dhinkia and beat up several persons, he said.

Since January 1, the police and the communities are facing off at the bamboo gates. The police have also started destroying the betel vine crop. Singh said so far, about 150 have been cleared of the total 600 plots that are under the project land. The people have given consent and accepted compensation for the plots, he clarified and it is not as if they were being destroyed at will. 

However, Dhinkia residents allege that the police are threatening and beating up those who go out even for their daily work. One of them, Pradip Kumar Satpati, told The Wire over the telephone that the SP was sending police to threaten those who were opposing the JUSL project. The police were forcibly destroying the betel vine plots and asking people to sign on plain paper, he said. He said the JUSL project was not discussed in the palli sabha (or the gram sabha) and there was no approval given for it. Satpati was present on the night of December 4 when the police came to Dhinkia. He said the bombs were merely crackers and even the neighbours didn’t hear any loud explosions. An official team which had come to investigate the matter didn’t find any evidence of bombs, he said.

Representative image of JSW’s office. Photo: JSW website

Civil society organisations have appealed to the Odisha government to call off the project and withdraw the false cases, stop destroying betel vine plots and return the land to the people. Prafulla Samantara, leader of the National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements (NAPM) and part of the Sanmyukt Kisan Morcha which visited the area last week, said, “There was no reason for the police to destroy the betel vine plots as the project had not received environmental clearance as yet.” The economy of the region is dependent on these betel vines which are sold to major cities. Also, the communities have been cultivating betel vines on forest land and their claims for titles were not settled. 

For the POSCO project, the Odisha Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (IDCO), a state government body, had acquired 2,700 acres of land in the area. Despite the withdrawal of POSCO, this land was not returned to the people and instead allocated to JUSL. The villages had also protested the public hearing for the JUSL project held on December 20, 2019 in Gadakujang village, as the EIA report was not available in time. 

The company and the government have been making overtures to the communities. On November 10, 2021, Singh said the JUSL held a meeting with villagers from Patana and Mahal and other villages but only Debendra Swain did not come. He remarked that only Dhinkia village was opposed to the project. The meeting chaired by the district collector discussed issues related to the JUSL project which was attended by the Odisha information and public relations minister Raghunandan Das, apart from Ranjan Nayak, the chief operating officer of JUSL, among others.

Apart from a slew of CSR activities, JUSL also proposes to enhance the compensation paid to the villagers. So, owners of prawn ponds would now be paid Rs 2.5 lakh instead of the earlier Rs 2 lakh and the betel vine plots which were compensated at Rs 11.5 lakh an acre will be increased to Rs 17.5 lakh an acre. Earlier, 1,118 betel vine plots were removed for the POSCO project.

Meena Menon is an independent journalist.