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Bhubaneswar: More than four years after the people of Dhinkia, Gadakujang and Nuagaon panchayats in Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur district forced South Korean steel behemoth POSCO to abandon its plan of setting up a 12 million tonne steel mill by flattening their betel vines and paddy fields, a similar movement has been building up in the area against another steel project promoted by an Indian manufacturer.
By now the agitation against JSW Utkal Steel, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sajjan Jindal-led JSW Steel which is planning to set up a 13.2 million tonne per annum integrated steel project in the area, has gained sufficient momentum to set off alarm bells for the government. It has been trying hard to crush the movement with its epicentre in Dhinkia village that had made international headlines for bringing the mighty POSCO to its knees after a 12-year-long struggle that began in 2005.
But the battle against JSW Utkal Steel – which has also planned a 900-MW captive power plant and a 10-MPTA cement grinding and mixing unit apart from a port facility near Jatadhari in this belt – is proving tougher for the people of Dhinkia as the state government, having learnt from the POSCO experience, is allegedly using every trick in the book to break their unity and resolve for resistance. There are allegations of police acting in a biased and vindictive manner against those opposed to the project and even implicating them in false cases.
Dhinkia witnessed violent clashes between those who support and oppose the project on February 19 in the presence of the members of a committee appointed by the Orissa high court to take stock of the situation in the village by talking to the residents.
Well-known activist Sarita Badapanda, who was an eyewitness to the happenings in the village on that day, said that the priest of the local Phulkhai Thakurani temple, Pradeep Satpathy, was mercilessly beaten up by a group of people for airing his grievances against the project and trying to highlight the alleged police highhandedness in dealing with people opposing JSW’s plans.
“Some people were fully prepared to stop the meeting between the high court-appointed committee and people of Dhinkia from taking place. The priest was saying that residents of the village are being threatened and stopped from venting their grievances against the project. Suddenly a group of people pounced upon him and started raining blows on him. Police remained a mute spectator,” said Badapanda who came to the rescue of Satpathy and later took him to a hospital for treatment.
The activist, who also sustained injuries during the scuffle, described the project area as extremely vulnerable from an environmental point of view. “The area is known for its betel vines which are a source of income for a large number of people. This land should not be given to the company,” said the activist adding that the so-called “palli sabha” organised to seek the opinion of the local people on the project was nothing short of a farce.
Contentious land acquisition
The real bone of contention is the 2,950.31 acres of land that the company would need for the project which is located exactly in the same area where POSCO had planned to set up its steel mill. Hence JSW steel will easily get the 2,700 acres that the state government had acquired for the POSCO project. The problem, however, lies with the acquisition of the remaining portion of land which is close to the sea and full of high sand dunes where betel vines flourish.
Betel leaves from the area are in high demand in cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Varanasi with the business running into crores. Fish ponds and paddy fields are also a major source of income for the local people, who are in no mood to trade these permanent assets for the company’s compensation package which offers betel vine growers Rs. 17.50 lakh per acre for their land in addition to the one-time payment of Rs. 44,000 to each family depending on the vines.
“This land is a permanent source of livelihood for the people. Why should they give it up for petty gains?” asked Prashant Paikray who was at the forefront of the movement against POSCO as the convenor of POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS).
Paikray, who is also actively involved in the people’s movement against the JSW project, alleged that those opposing the project were being deliberately harassed. “Oppression of those speaking against the project is obvious, and the latest proof of this is what happened in Dhinkia on February 19 during the visit of the high court-appointed five-member committee,” said Paikray.
Omkar Devdas, one of the members of the high court-appointed committee, admitted that there was violence in the village during its visit. “A mob started beating up priest Pradeep Satpathy who was complaining to us that outsiders were trying to hijack the movement and some people were being forced to make pro-company and pro-government statements,” said Devdas, adding that people opposing the JSW project were being intimated and implicated in false cases.
Visuals of Dhinkia priest Pradeep Satpathy being thrashed by a mob were telecast by almost all the local news channels, which quoted him as saying that project opponents were being beaten up and even women had not been spared.
However, talking to local TV channels, Ersama tehsildar Choudhury Prajananda Das denied allegations of the police being a mute spectator to the violence and said they intervened when things started going out of hand.
“Initially there were only verbal arguments, but when the situation started taking a violent turn the police intervened,” claimed Das. The inspector-in-charge of Abhaychandpur police station, Jibanand Jena, claimed that the police force deployed in the village was not present at the spot where the clash took place.
“We had been asked to stay at a safe distance so that people could freely interact with the high court-committee members. But we rushed to the spot when informed about the clash and immediately brought the situation under control. Things are perfectly normal in the village now,” said Jena, adding that not only the priest but even one of the project supporters had sustained injuries in the clash.
However, the high court – which appointed the committee, following complaints of police atrocities in Dhinkia where project opponents were allegedly lathi-charged in January for resisting attempts to demolish their betel vines – is keen to ensure that the voice of the people is heard.
On Wednesday, February 23, it directed the five-member committee to re-visit Dhinkia to make an assessment of the ground situation in the village after talking to the local people and submit its report to the court on March 8.
The order was issued after the committee members submitted separate reports to the court on Wednesday, February 23, on their February 19 visit to the village. The court, which felt that villagers could not interact with the committee members freely on February 19 due to some incidents, also directed the district collector and the district superintendent of police (SP) to ensure that no untoward incident took place during the next visit of the committee to the village.
At the centre of the entire controversy concerning the project is the issue of land acquisition which had also troubled POSCO. Though technically the bulk of the land to be acquired for the project has been shown as forest land in government records, it is actually a huge stretch of sand dunes on which the local people have built their vine yards which are a steady source of income for them. The cry for saving “pana (betel), meena (fish), dhana ( paddy)” that used to reverberate in the area during the days of POSCO agitation can be heard once again.
“The government instead of according priority to settling the rights of the local people under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 is trying to intimidate them. They are being arrested with false cases being filed against them. Rights activists like us are being prevented from visiting Dhinkia. But we are with the people of the area and our fight for their democratic rights will continue,” said well-known activist and Lokshakti Abhiyan president Prafulla Samantara.