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New Delhi: Even as Droupadi Murmu is set to become the country’s first president to emerge from a tribal community, Adivasis in Odisha – her home state – continue to face the brunt of a brutal repression for their opposition to a steel plant in Dhinkia.
The region, inhabited by betel leaf farmers and fisherfolk from Scheduled Tribe communities, has been the epicentre of anti-corporate resistance over the past decade – first against the South Korean company POSCO and now the Jindal-owned JSW Utkal Steel Ltd (JUSL).
Reportedly, over 60 persons protesting against the steel plant have been arrested and released in the past six months – which have seen a brutal police crackdown across villages in the region, located in the Jagatsinghpur district. Residents say that the region remains tense and heavily militarised and that it continues to pose a threat to human rights of Adivasis in the villages.
The crackdown in Dhinkia intensified after January this year, when over 500 police officers reportedly reached the village and lathi-charged residents and arrested activists.
The activists in the region have stated that the 13.2 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) integrated steel project to be set up by the Jindal group is a major cause of concern. It not only threatens the livelihood of the people but also the environment of the region.
Earlier, POSCO had planned to set up a 12 million-tonne capacity steel project at the site with an investment of Rs 52,000 crore. In 2011, the gram panchayats of Gobindpur, Dhinkia and Nuagaon had made unanimous resolutions against the transfer of land to POSCO, as mandated by the Forest Rights Act.
Following public resistance as well as regulatory hurdles, the South Korean steel major officially withdrew from the project. But the JSW plant has left the people with a sense of deja vu.
Speaking to The Wire, Jindal Pratirodh Bheetamati Suraksha Samiti spokesperson Prasant Paikray explained the situation on the ground. “Above 60 persons have been arrested and released on bail in the last six months,” he said.
“More than 400 false and fabricated criminal cases are pending against 2,500 people who particiapted in the anti-POSCO movement. Now, many more have been added against thise participating in the anti-Jindal movement. At least 72 criminal cases have been registered against 1,000 people and seven leaders are suffering in jail, including main leader Debendra Swain,” Paikray said.
Recently, activists including Kuni Malick, Sumanta Naik and Dilip Swain were taken into custody.
Paikray added, “Since December, Dhinkia has been under massive police control. Over 11 villages in the region are witnessing ramped up police presence. Two platoons of the police are present in Dhinkia alone. Nobody is listening to us, we had approached the high court through a public interest litigation. However, the case was closed and we were asked to approach the environment ministry through the collector.”
He added, “The aim of the police is to keep people in jail for a long time, re-open the older cases and suppress all protests. Two women activists are also languishing in jail. On one hand, the Union and the state governments are showing the world that an Adivasi woman has been fielded as a presidential candidate. On the other hand, tribal communities in the state are being suppressed through a corporate-government nexus.”
Activist Medha Patkar visited the region earlier this month and met Debendra Swain in the Kujanga sub-jail. However, she was denied access to meet his family.
The Wire had previously reported that Swain had alleged physical violence in custody. A team of activists from the National Alliance of People’s Movement (NAPM) were previously stopped from visiting the region.
Prafulla Samanta of NAPM told The Wire, “Medha Patkar was stopped from visiting the family of Debendra Swain. The police in connivance with the state is relentlessly unleashing a crackdown on the people of Dhinkia. No one has any human rights here, no one can speak up. Everyday, relentless arrests are being made. Young people are also being targeted.”
Noting that Debendra Swain has been in jail since January, Samanta said that when Adivasis are protesting against displacement, cases are being filed and are subjected to violence. “The people here are fighting against corporates. In this context, Droupadi Murmu’s candidature for president appears like mere tokenism,” he said.
“Murmu herself has never spoken about tribal rights, she will merely be a puppet for the government and the prime minister. What hope can we have from her?” he said.
Hailing from Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district, Droupadi Murmu has been named as the presidential candidate by the BJP-led NDA alliance. Murmu has previously served as an MLA twice on the BJP’s ticket.