Three Odisha Panchayats Are Caught Between Ecological Disasters and Steel Corporations

Two years after POSCO was forced to abandon a project in Jagatsingpur, Odisha, the state government is planning to hand over the land acquired for it to the Jindal group.

Bhubaneswar: Two years after the Korean steel giant POSCO was forced to abandon its project in Jagatsingpur, Odisha, the Biju Janata Dal-led state government is now planning to hand over the 2,700-acre land acquired by the Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (IDCO) to JSW Utkal Limited of the Jindal group.

After leading a struggle against POSCO for 12 long years, the people of three panchayats in Jagatsingpur announced the formation of the Jindal Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (Forum to Resist and Struggle against Jindal).

At a press conference held in the sand dunes between Gobindpur and Patana villages on December 8, the panchayats of Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gadakujanga villages in the region pledged to resist the setting up of another steel plant in the same area, which they believe will endanger their livelihoods.

Tuna Baral, one of the main organisers of the press meet and a young betel cultivator, told The Wire, “It is not just a matter of saving the land and livelihood. We are concerned about the dangers posed to the entire habitat of Dhinkia Chaarisdesh (as the region is called). Can we save the forests and tortoises and deer too? Protecting the coastline that is so prone to cyclones is our duty as we see it. Even as we were preparing for this campaign, our area was devastated by Cyclone Bulbul. We need many more trees. A steel plant and a cement factory spell more death and disaster.”

Photo: Special arrangement

The stage had posters giving a call to save tortoises, deer and the forests too. Those addressing the press meet claimed to have protected the land and all life on it for generations, and had gathered to resolve to continue to do the same in the face of an integrated steel plant.

The proposed project

The Odisha government, which had officially announced the withdrawal of POSCO in early 2017, now seeks to hand over the land forcibly acquired for the POSCO project to the Jindal group.

The forum believes that the land forcibly acquired by the government should have rightfully been handed over to the local people, as per the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act of 2013, which mandates that land acquired but not utilised within five years of possession should be returned to the people.

They referred to the 2015 Supreme Court judgment that had ordered the West Bengal government to return the land acquired for its Tata Nano project to the people of Singur. However, there is one roadblock: the Odisha government made a policy revision in 2015 that such land can be kept in a land bank by the state governments.

News about JSW’s entry came to light when construction for a boundary wall to fence off the acquired land began two years ago. Two residents of Gobindpur village – Bhramarbar Das and Ghanasham Mohanty – filed a writ petition in the National Green Tribunal on November 6, 2017. The petition demanded the stopping of construction of a boundary wall and felling of trees by IDCO, alleging that this was being done in violation of the Forest Rights Act and the Forest Conservation Act, and that IDCO had arbitrarily diverted the forest land for non-forest purposes. In July 2018, the NGT passed orders to halt the construction of the boundary wall that was being built by IDCO for JSW. Yet, the plans for JSW went on unhindered.

Also read: Mining in Odisha Has Stripped Locals of Access to Clean Air, Water

A notice for a Public Hearing for Environment Clearance was issued by the State Pollution Control Board in Odia newspapers on October 19, 2019. The notice states that JSW Utkal Ltd is proposing developing multi-cargo all-weather captive jetties for handling 52 MTPA capacity cargos at the mouth of the Jatadhari River in Ersama tehsil of Jagatsingpur district. While making it seem like an environmental clearance for jetties, the government has proactively kept part of the information in the dark, the forum alleged.

The notice issued.

According to the website of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC), there was a public hearing scheduled at the same venue on the same day at 9:30 am for environmental clearance of a 13.2 MTPS crude steel, 900 MW Captive Power Plant and 10 MTPA Cement Plant too. This information was neither communicated to the members of the gram panchayat nor published in any newspaper that local people know. Like many other public hearings that give incomplete information or get manipulated in other ways, the newspaper notice did not share all the facts with the affected people.

In 2011, the gram panchayats of Gobindpur, Dhinkia and Nuagaon had given unanimous resolutions against the transfer of land to POSCO as mandated by the Forest Rights Act. These claims remain unprocessed till today. However, on August 16, the MoEFCC transferred the forest clearance along with the land in the Land Bank to JSW making it easy for the company not to go through the same process. This has led the activists to believe that the government is acting in the interest of the company and against the wishes of the residents of the area.

As these questions began to surface on social media, the public hearing that was scheduled for November 22 got postponed to December 20.

Impact on the environment and people

In a public meeting held immediately after the press meet at Dhinkia, which was the stronghold of the anti-POSCO agitations, Akshaya Das, a betel leaf farmer, said: “Around 30, 000 people will be directly affected that include landless daily wagers too. This project seems far more devastating than POSCO. The unity of all villages across panchayats and all adjoining panchayats that could halt POSCO is needed once again.”

Manorama Khatua, an activist leading the movement, said that they are opposed to a steel industry and would rather that the government takes an initiative to boost the local economy in the interests of the people. “There will be no compromise on the land. Let the government work for our development and bring the industry that the local economy too needs. We could do well with a cashew processing industry. We do not need steel to be produced here. We are opposed to that.”

Lack of political noise?

Curiously, the wide political support that the anti-POSCO movement received appears to be lacking in this case.  The Communist Party of India, which was at the forefront of the anti-POSCO movement, hasn’t taken a stand until now. While the Congress and some other independent leaders supported the formation of the forum, their lack of enthusiasm was perceptible, activists said.

Also read: In Niyamgiri, Corporate Greed and State Power Continue to Coerce Locals

BJD leaders, meanwhile, have asserted that they were fully backing the Jindal group in setting up its plant in the area, even as officials and middlemen lobbying for the Jindal group have been trying hard to convince people to support a steel plant.

Coastal Odisha in peril

Activists say that indiscriminate industrialisation could spell a disaster in Jagatsinghpur and other areas in coastal Odisha. A recent study by Climate Central, a research organisation based in New Jersey, highlights the increasing coastal erosion in the state in the last one decade. It cautions how the rising sea levels might devour the Odisha coast within the next 30 years. Activists expressed their worry that further industrialisation of the zone, already affected by three cyclones in the last two decades, may damage it permanently.

The Wire made multiple attempts to speak to government officials and Jindal group officials but remained unsuccessful. The PRO of Ersama district said that only the district magistrate Sangram K Mahapatra is authorised to speak on the matter. Mahapatra did not respond to The Wire’s calls. Although the Tehsildar of Ersama did pick up the phone, she was also not prepared to speak on the issue.

Ranjana Padhi is a writer and activist based in Bhubaneswar.