Odisha villagers, undeterred by criminal cases, prepare to fight a new steel plant

Some 2,000 villagers from Odisha who resisted POSCO have been slapped with a string of criminal cases. Now they are gearing up for the next battle, this time against an even bigger steel plant

Updated - December 14, 2019 07:29 pm IST

Published - December 13, 2019 04:15 pm IST

A villager works in a betel vineyard.

A villager works in a betel vineyard.

In eight villages along Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur coast live some 2,000 ‘criminals’. They are charged with a range of crimes, some even with kidnapping and murder. Some of them have over 60 cases filed against them. And what is the one common ‘crime’ these men and women committed? Between 2005 and 2017, they opposed the acquisition of land for a mega steel project proposed by South Korean steel major POSCO. The project had to finally be shelved.

The villagers are physically, emotionally and financially exhausted with the legal battles they have fought all these years. Yet, they are unfazed as they prepare now to face one more tumult in their lives. Another, bigger steel plant has been proposed for the Jagatsinghpur coast, and the villagers are gearing up to resist it. They shrug off the prospect of facing more criminal charges, but they know the stakes are high.

The new project is a 13.2 million tonne per annum (MTPA) steel plant, proposed by JSW Utkal Steel Ltd., led by industrialist Sajjan Jindal, and it is to come up at the site once allocated to POSCO. Besides this, a 900 MW captive power plant and a 10 MPTA cement grinding and mixing unit are also proposed near the villages of Dhinkia, Govindpur, Nuagaon, Bayanala Kanda, Polanga and Jatadhar under Ersama Tahsil in Jagatsinghpur District.

The villagers say they will not go down without a fight. They have pledged to save their traditional livelihoods, which are based on fishing, betel leaf farming and paddy cultivation. Betel leaf cultivation is a roughly ₹50 crore industry here. Leaves are sold inside India and exported as well, and its cultivation generates large-scale employment. Fishing and agriculture take care of their local food needs. The villagers are resistant moreover because they remember how their neighbours and friends, who gave up land for projects such as the Indian Oil Corporation refinery, had to turn to daily labour for wages once the project came up. Says Debendra Swain from Dhinkia, “Many people gave away their lands in the hope that they would get work in the refinery, but they never got a job. Now, they work in our fields.”

Rooted protests

The first public hearing for environment clearance for the Jindal steel project was scheduled for last month, but was cancelled; women uprooted the bamboo poles placed around the venue to demonstrate their disapproval and determination to resist corporate entities. Now, another hearing has been scheduled for December 20.

Dhinkia villagers regroup to fight the new steel plant.

Dhinkia villagers regroup to fight the new steel plant.

It is not going to be easy. At Dhinkia village, once the epicentre of resistance against land acquisition for the POSCO project, some 1,500 villagers have been shuttling between courts in Jagatsinghpur and Kujang to get reprieve in the 2,500 non-bailable arrest warrants issued against them.

In Govindpur village, 200 villagers were accused in 150 cases and close to 700 non-bailable warrants were issued. In Gada Kujang, 100 villagers were named in 25 cases.

The leaders of the movement have been slapped with grave charges including murder, rape, dacoity and kidnapping. Abhaya Sahu, who led the movement against POSCO, was charged in 68 cases. Even two years after POSCO formally withdrew from Odisha in 2017, the cases against the villagers remain.

“We had not even seen a police station before 2005, when the land acquisition process began. These cases must be dropped,” says Swain, who stands accused in 22 cases. The social and economic cost of resistance has been immense: many villagers lost years of their youth, some had to drop out of school. “My children could not get the higher education they wanted — their movement was restricted during the resistance,” says Akshaya Das, 55.

In the neighbouring hamlet of Patna, Akshaya’s namesake, an 80-year-old, says that he, his wife and their three sons together have 17 criminal cases registered against them.

Activist Manorama Khatua prepares to continue the protest.

Activist Manorama Khatua prepares to continue the protest.

But the cases haven’t dampened their spirits: Manorama Khatua played a crucial role in mobilising women during the anti-POSCO movement; women who later became the face of the movement. She has 22 cases against her, including charges of murder, dacoity and rape. But she is undeterred: “We have started regrouping and villagers have begun to spontaneously attend the preparatory meetings,” she says.

Unseemly rush

Both the Odisha government and the Centre appear to be in a hurry to fast-track the Jindal mega steel project. The environment ministry has accepted the Odisha government’s proposal to transfer the forest clearance permission acquired for POSCO to Jindal. This means the new project could escape the Gram Sabha scrutiny mandated under the Forest Rights Act.

Says Prafulla Samantra, activist and winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize: “As per the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, acquired land that has not been used for five years has to be returned to the original owners or occupants. The villagers had planted betel vines on 2,700 acres of land that the government claims to have in its possession. Now, villagers want the land back.”

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