Explained: The protest against JSW steel project in Odisha
BHUBANESWAR: More than 12 years after it signed a memorandum of understanding with Odisha government to build the largest integrated steel plant in India, Korean steelmaker Posco had to abandon its project in the face of popular resistance from a small village that formed the epicentre of protest. Dhinkia, the seaside village, one of the 8 villages in Erasama block of Jagatsinghpur district which were to be acquired by Odisha for the Posco steel project, forced the Korean company to retreat in 2017.
A little more than four-and-a-half years later, the same village is now at the epicentre of protests against Sajjan Jindal owned JSW Utkal Steel that plans to construct a 13.2 million tonne per annum integrated steel project at the same site which would be fed iron ore from the company’s proposed 30 MTPA iron-ore grinding plant in Keonjhar district via a 312 km-long slurry pipeline. A 52 MTPA captive jetty located near the mouth of Jatadhar river mouth will also cater to the import and export requirements of the company.
While people of Dhinkia village are still carrying on the fight against any industrial activity on their farmlands, on January 14, the protest took a violent turn after 12 platoons of Odisha police cracked down on hundreds of people resulting in injury to over 20 including women and children. Many villagers are still hiding wary of police arrest. Following two separate PILs in the Orissa high court, the court on Thursday directed the state government to submit a status report on the situation by the month end.
What lies at the heart of protest?
The JSW project requires 2,950.31 acres of land of which 2,700 acres was acquired by the government for the failed Posco project in 2013 and subsequently reserved for JSW after the company announced setting up of the 13.2 million tonne per annum steel plant in 2020.
Though technically 2677.8 acres of the land is shown as forest land in government records, most of it is undulating sand dunes where people have built betel vineyards that does not take much capital, but brings in a steady stream of income for the impoverished villagers.
Dhinkia grampanchayat which led the protest against Posco between 2005 and 2017, formed 30 per cent of total land requirement of the Korean steel project. But wisened by the past experience, the government by a sleight of hand has carved Dhinkia village into three separate revenue villages - Mahala and Jogisahi, Patana and Dhinkia- thus minimising the scale of protest. A public hearing held on December 20, 2019 turned out to be a ‘farce’ as many of the project-affected village residents did not participate in the meeting. The Dhinkia palli sabha also passed a resolution against the project that year.
Activists allege that the government now has to deal with 45.56 acres of land in Dhinkia village alone having demolished betel vines in rest of the two hamlets. In the current phase of land acquisition for JSW project, 425 betel vineyards out of 625 tragetted have already been demolished by the district administration. The January 14 violence occurred after the villagers of Dhinkia wanted to resist the demolition of betel vineyards breaching a wall of police cordon.
While the project has the forest clearance in place, Prashant Paikray of Jindal Pratirodh Sangram Samiti says the way the government is pushing through without the necessary environmental clearance smacks of an autocratic attitude of the government. “When the Indian Oil Corporation built its 15 million tonne refinery in early 2000, people of Dhinkia lost 62 acres of farmland. While the compensation ranged between ₹80000 to ₹1.03 lakh per acre, villagers agreed to give land when they were promised jobs. Even those from local villages who lost their homestead land did not get permanent jobs in the refinery which they were promised. With little education and skill level why would they trust JSW Steel or for that matter any company,” asked Paikray.
Activist Prafulla Samantra points out to the distrust against industrialisation to the poor records of the Odisha government in rehabilitation. A 2018 study done by two professors from Koraput’s Central University of Odisha on development in villages displaced by Nalco, found that the living condition of the displaced people actually turned worse over the years. “There is lack of any employment. Villages lacked civic amenities while children were deprived of schooling. Most of the displaced people lived in semi-pucca house and source of drinking water continued to be either open well, handpump or pond water,” said Samantra quoting the study.
Will JSW meet the same fate as Posco?
Unlike Posco project where the state government dithered over taking a proactive approach, perhaps wary of the Tata Singur controversy in neighbouring Bengal that buried the CPI(M) government, in the case of JSW project, Naveen Patnaik seems to be interested in grabbing that last chance in big ticket industrialisation.
Patnaik has become the butt of criticism after the Periodic Labour Force Survey showed that employment in Odisha declined by 19.3 lakh during 2011–12 and 2017–18 with many graduates and matriculates migrating to neighbouring states for livelihood.
Amid the spiralling protests, JSW Steel officials said they have announced a rehabilitation project better than the state’s R&R in which the betel vine owners would get compensation of Rs. 17500 per decimal while the government rate was Rs. 6,000 per decimal. Additionally, a bonus of ₹50,000 per betel vine, irrespective of size would be provided after demolition. Besides, a door-to-door survey in the land losing villages have been done to identify one eligible member between the age group of 20-30 years for giving them direct or indirect engagement to one member in any of JSW group companies, associated company or contractors of the plant or project agencies, in a phased manner.
For the time being, any work in the project site may lead to escalation of violence like that of January 14 as at least six of the leaders protesting the project, including Debendra Swain, the main leader, continues to be behind bars with police charging him with several cases under IPC including attempt to murder and criminal intimidation among others.
On Friday, around 13 Opposition political party leaders approached the local police to talk about the release of protesters. The Congress leader who visited Dhinkia alleged that by escalating violence in Dhinkia, Naveen Patnaik is avenging the setbacks he received in the Posco project by using police force in Dhinkia against the villagers.
Despite the government intent on acquiring the land for the steel project, much will depend upon how deftly the government handles the protest and how the public resistance shapes up in the coming days and the backing they receive from human rights organisations and political parties.