A police crackdown in Odisha's Jagatsinghpur district has raised serious concerns among members of civil society bodies.
On 14 January, a large contingent of Odisha Police allegedly blocked villagers in Dhinkia and surrounding villages from setting foot in their betel vineyards. It was done as part of the land acquisition drive for a proposed JSW Utkal Steel Ltd's 13.2 million tonne per annum integrated steel plant.
A commotion broke out, and the police allegedly resorted to a brutal lathi-charge on the protesting villagers.
Now, a fortnight after the incident, a joint fact-finding team of 15 members from different civil society organisations visited Dhinkia and at least three other villages – Gobindpura, Patana, and Mahala – and made some stark conclusions.
Azad Swati, member of Ganatantrik Adhikar Suraksha Sangathan (GASS), Odisha, said, "We learnt that more than 200 children and women were injured in the incident. And, since then, a reign of terror has been unleashed on the villagers."
"According to the villagers, police conduct frequent night raids, without any accompanying women constables and officers. They also told the team that people entering or going out of the villages are being asked to produce ID cards."Azad Swati, member of Ganatantrik Adhikar Suraksha Sangathan (GASS), Odisha
During their two-day visit, on 29 and 30 January, the fact-finding team also met local leaders Narendra Mohanty and Debendra Swain, who were arrested over the agitation and have been lodged at a sub-divisional jail in Kujanga village since then.
"We learnt that Debendra Swain was manhandled and insulted while in police custody before he was produced in court," Swati said.
According to the police, six people have been arrested so far, including Mohanty and Swain.
Manu, a member of the Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisations (CDRO), said, "According to SHO Jibanananda Jena of Abhayachandpur police station, 18 cases have been filed. Twelve of them were filed suo motu by the police. Since many cases have been filed against 'others', we know very well that police can implicate anybody at any point."
Speaking to The Quint earlier, Akhilesh Singh, Superintendent of Police, Jagatsingpur district, had blamed the villagers. "A clash ensued between the villagers, including women, and the police. The situation escalated with the villagers turning violent," he had said.
What Sparked the Row?
Talking to the fact-finding team, 60-year-old Lata Naik of Dhinkia could not hold her tears back as she recounted the day of the violence.
"We have sleepless nights now. I was also a victim of the lathi-charge on 14 January. I could not even dare to go visit the doctor. There is fear amongst all of us that the police will beat us up and put us behind bars," she said.
Soumyajit Swain, 12, of Dhinkia, too, recounted the trauma he suffered that day.
"I went to the rally with my parents. When there was a lathi-charge by the police, the crowd dispersed. I fell and I saw a policeman approaching me. I thought he'd help me but he stepped on my foot. I cried in pain but he didn't stop," Soumyajit said, trembling with fear.
Villagers have been protesting against JSW's construction project, which is slated to be set up across 1,173.58 hectares of land.
C Bhaskar Rao of the CDRO, and a member of the fact-finding team, explained, "The land has been allotted to JSW Utkal Steel Ltd by the Odisha Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation (IDCO) for the development of an integrated steel plant. Out of this, the non-forest land is 137.64 Ha. The bone of contention is this non-forest land, and a large part of the forest land, where the villagers have been cultivating betel and other fruits like cashew and paddy for generations."
What Are the Demands of the Fact-Finding Team?
"Our team has seen proof of farmers having rented parts of those lands from during the Bardhaman Raj (zamindari estate). And we have seen documents issued by the forest department of Odisha giving rights over the land to farmers. So, the claim by the government and JSW that the villagers have no right on the land that they have been tilling for a long time is wrong."C Bhaskar Rao
Families in the villages depend on dhaan (paddy), paan (betel vine), and mina (fisheries) for their livelihood, and giving up their land for the JSW plant will mean losing their source of income.
After their visit, the fact-finding team has now demanded a withdrawal of the police force from the villages and removal of all cases 'fabricated' against the villagers.
"We also want the government to stop the JSW project and constitute a judicial committee headed by a sitting Supreme Court judge to examine all aspects, including the forceful eviction of the farmers from their land. We also demand that the government compensate the farmers and the labourers affected by the loss of the betel vines as soon as possible," Bhaskar Rao said.