All the lanes of Dhinkia and the adjoining villages in Odisha’s coastal Jagatsinghpur district that resonated with voices of protest against the proposed project by Jindal Steel Works (JSW) till a week ago, are now deserted. The locked houses and the empty villages speak volumes of the fear and panic among the villagers.
Last week, on 14 January, police personnel allegedly baton-charged protesting villagers to disperse them, and around 40 protesters – including women and children – were injured. Lata Mallick, a 55-year-old resident of Dhinkia told The Quint, “The police was furious and beat people up. They pushed me and I fell on the ground, that’s how I got injured.”
What has triggered these protests is a land acquisition drive in Dhinkia and surrounding villages, as JSW plans to build an integrated plant that produces 13.2 million tonnes of steel per annum. The iron ore for the plant shall be sourced through a slurry pipeline from an iron ore grinding and de-sliming plant proposed in the Keonjhar district of Odisha.
The 2,200-acre land that was acquired by the state-run Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (IDCO) for a project for South Korean steel manufacturing company Pohang Iron & Steel Co Ltd (POSCO), will now be passed on to JSW for its project.
The rest 748 acres of land, most of which comes under Dhinkia, Patana, and Malaha villages, is being acquired in the present drive. The families in these villages depend on dhaan (paddy), paan (betel vine), and mina (fisheries) for their livelihood, and giving up their land for the JSW plant means losing their source of income.
What Happened on 14 January?
Villagers from Dhinkia, who were protesting the present land acquisition drive, claim that the police did not let them enter their own betel vineyards. Sabitri Bardhan, 68, a resident of Dhinkia village told The Quint, “When we went to see our betel vineyards, the police did not let us enter our own field. They were destroying our cultivation and when we tried to oppose them, they turned violent.”
Bardhan claimed that the police beat up the people, and “did not even spare the children and the elderly”. She said, “I, too, was injured, and was unconscious for a bit. Someone from the village rescued me.”
Akhilesh Singh, Superintendent of Police, Jagatsingpur district, claims a "provocative speech" by a leader of Kishan Morcha, Narendra Mohanty, just a day before the incident instigated the villagers.
"On 14 January morning, Mohanty and local leader Debendra Swain, who is opposing the project, gathered around 700 people in the village. They took out a rally and reached the spot where our police were deployed. They wanted to go to the betel vineyard area where the work was going on. So, our force resisted them because most of them in the rally were the workers, not the betel vine owner," he told The Quint.
He added that the scuffle with the police lasted for about an hour. "A clash ensued between the villagers, including women, and the police. The situation escalated with villagers turning violent," he said.
Jailed Inside Their Homes
Bardhan claimed that since the incident, police has been stationed at the village, and it is not letting anyone leave their homes.
Bardhan told The Quint, “For the last two days, we haven’t cooked anything. Our children are hungry, and we are imprisoned at home. Police personnel are marching in the village, and if we try to go out, they beat us up.”
The police denies the claims of the villagers. "It is false that we are terrorising the villagers and have sealed the village. There is deployment of police to prevent any law and order situation," SP Singh said.
Bardhan’s son and nephew stepped out on 14 January to visit her betel vineyard, but they went missing. They returned a day after when it was found that they had hid themselves due to the fear of police.
Another resident of Dhinkia, Ramesh Chandra Mallick, said that his wife and sister-in-law were “working in the fields when the cops tried to destroy the vineyard." He said that he wasn’t home and got to know later that his wife and sister-in-law were "arrested" by the police. They had been detained and later released.
Six persons have been arrested and several others detained over the incident. According to the police, nine police personnel and 7-8 villagers were injured.
What Does Odisha Govt Want With the Land?
It took the Odisha government very little time to revamp the steel projects even after POSCO, the South Korean steel manufacturing company which was proposed to set up its 12 million tonnes per annum steel plant across the eight villages under three Gram Panchayats of Dhinkia, Nuagaon, and Gadakujanga, withdrew its project in 2017.
The Odisha government renewed its land acquisition drive on 22 December 2021 for another project by JSW Ltd in the same area.
The proposed steel manufacturing plant of JSW Ltd is to be set up across 1,173.58 hectares of land spread across Dhinkia, Nuagaon, and Gadakujang.
Livelihood at Stake in Dhinkia
Though the project has not yet received environmental clearance and an application was made to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) for the fourth time on 12 December 2021, the government has already begun the land acquisition process for JSW.
Villagers fear that this acquisition will end their source of income.
Shanti Das, 60, a resident of Dhinkia, said that her betel vineyard was destroyed by cops and government officials who were carrying out the land acquisition.
The betel vineyard was the only source of income to feed my family. I don’t know what to do now that the vineyard has been destroyed. They demolished it forcibly and in my absenceShanti Das
Das added, “I was not there but when I came to know, I rushed there. It was too late because by that time, everything was finished. We are poor people, and the betel vineyard was our only source of income. We are now helpless.”
In a bid to protect the betel vineyards, several villagers have barricaded the village by installing bamboo gates on all sides. Women and children are taking turns to guard the vineyards day and night, just as they did during the anti-POSCO movement from 2011-2015.
A Village Sealed Off
After the 14 January incident, the Dhinkia village has allegedly been sealed off by the Odisha police. Villagers claim that no one from outside is allowed to meet them.
Over a phone call, Pradip Kumar Satpathy, a resident of Dhinkia, told The Quint, “We are sort of imprisoned. This village has turned into a special jail for us, and the government officials and the police personnel are keeping an eye on us.” He claimed that the betel vineyards are being demolished, and arbitrary arrests are being made.
Our people have been harassed and they are shattered. We were just trying to guard our village and our livelihood, our betel vineyards. We will not bow down in front of them. This is a fight to protect our land, environment, and our livelihoodPradip Kumar Satpathy
Resident Ramesh Chandra Mallick, whose wife and sister-in-law were allegedly detained, said that he will not give up his land and betel vineyard “till his last breath.” He said, “This is my only source of income. How will I feed my children if I give this up? If the government wants our land, they will have to kill us first.”
Industry’s Adverse Impact on Environment & the Politics in Dhinkia
Environmental activist and president of Lok Shakti Abhiyan, Prafulla Samantray, who opposes the JSW in Jagatsinghpur, said that the construction of the steel plant in the coastal area will ruin the whole environment of the coast.
He said, “Most of the land where the JSW is proposed to construct its plant is full of mangrove forest, casuarinas trees, and fruit-bearing trees. Once the steel plant comes up, the greenery will be spoiled.”
The Biju Janta Dal (BJD), led by Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, has faced a fair amount of criticism over the matter.
The BJP state president, Bibhu Prasad Tarai, told The Quint, “We strongly condemn such kind of police atrocities. The villagers are frightened and traumatised. Instead of holding peaceful discussions with the people, the government has used force, which is unacceptable."
Calling the process of land acquisition “illegal,” Odisha Pradesh Congress Committee general secretary Satya Prakash Nayak said, “The police is using force to acquire the land. As per the police, Dhinkia is either government land or forest land. The Forest Right Act 2006, recognises the rights of the forest dwelling tribal communities and other traditional forest dwellers, and therefore, neither the government nor the police can take it away forcibly.”
Meanwhile, BJD spokesperson Lenin Mohanty claimed that the “residents of Dhinkia were being instigated by people with vested interests.”
He said, “The natives of Dhinkia and Gadakujanga are with the government and want the industry to be set up for a larger public good. With one of the best Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy 2006 in the state, the people are confident that adequate compensation would be provided to them.”