Tension over land acquisition

Steel plant land acquisition: Dhinkia resists again

Print edition : January 28, 2022

Residents of Dhinkia village in Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur district at the village entry point which they have blocked, on January 3. The villagers are protesting against the administration’s attempts to acquire land for an integrated steel plant. Photo: BISWARANJAN ROUT

Women of Dhinkia village at a protest meeting, on January 3. Photo: BISWARANJAN ROUT

Police forces at the damaged approach road to Dhinkia, on January 3. Photo: BISWARANJAN ROUT

The people of Dhinkia in Odisha, who were in the forefront of anti-POSCO protests years ago, are now fighting another land acquisition attempt for an integrated steel plant.

Tension has returned to Dhinkia village in Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur district with the arrival of a large number of policemen to help the State administration acquire land for the proposed integrated steel plant project of JSW Utkal Steel Limited (JUSL). The locale looks like a war zone and there is an atmosphere of fear.

A short distance from Dhinkia, more than 100 men, women and children were standing guard near a barricade they had erected to prevent the police or administration or company officials from entering their village. They were worried as the policemen were standing less than 100 metres away, where they had blocked the road, watching them with binoculars.

The local residents had also erected bamboo barricades and blocked the road at the two other entry points to Dhinkia and were keeping watch day and night. They set up the barricades after the police entered the village at night in the first week of December to arrest Debendra Swain, a former panchayat samiti member who was opposing land acquisition for the project. Earlier, the administration had suspended Swain from his post on charges of wilful abuse of power.

Since then, most of the residents of Dhinkia have not ventured out of the village, fearing police action. They are preparing for another round of struggle to save their lives and livelihoods. Pradeep Satpathy, a Hindu priest, said: “We are being terrorised by the police.” He has not been visiting nearby villages to attend religious rituals to earn a living.

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The people of Dhinkia are aggrieved that the administration has cleared their betel vines on the forest land they have used for cultivation for several decades. Bharati Mallick, a resident of Dhinkia, said: “It is unfortunate that the State government, which is unable to understand our plight, has engaged the police to silence us and slap false cases against our people. We will die, but we will not give up our land for industry and further suffer in the future.” The people said that the Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOCL) refinery at Paradip, located a few kilometres away, was already causing pollution in the area and that an integrated steel plant in the vicinity would spell doom for them for all time to come.

JUSL proposes to set up a Rs.65,000-crore greenfield integrated steel plant with a production capacity of 13.2 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) of crude steel, a captive power plant of 900 megawatts capacity and a cement grinding and mixing unit with a capacity of 10 MTPA.

A captive jetty with a handling capacity of 52 MTPA, to be located adjacent to the steel plant near the mouth of the Jatadhar river, is expected to cater to the import and export requirements of the steel plant. The company is waiting for the State government’s approval to establish the jetty.

Dhinkia was the nerve centre of an anti-displacement protest against the proposed steel plant project of South Korean steelmaker POSCO for more than 10 years. The villagers’ struggle, which started following the announcement of the POSCO project in 2005, finally ended in 2017 after the steel major surrendered the allotted land to Odisha Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (IDCO). Hundreds of cases registered against the residents of Dhinkia and adjoining villages are still pending in different courts.

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The administration, which had acquired about 2,200 acres of land in the area for the POSCO project, is now acquiring over 700 acres more to meet JUSL’s requirement of 2,950 acres.

It has decided to remove many as 92 betel vineyards in the villages of Dhinkia, Patana and Mahala. As many as 38 betel vineyards had already been cleared as of December 31, when the exercise was still in progress. The government had cleared hundreds of such vineyards in the area when land was acquired for the POSCO project.

Fresh confrontation

The fresh round of confrontation between the authorities and the villagers started in the beginning of December when the local administration officials reached Mahala hamlet for the demarcation of a revenue village.

The residents of Dhinkia are strongly opposed to the the administration’s divide-and-rule policy. Earlier, Dhinkia village consisted of eight wards, including two wards in Mahala hamlet and one ward in Patana hamlet. Now, the lone revenue village has been divided into three revenue villages. Dhinkia remains one with six wards and Mahala and Patana have been made separate revenue villages with two wards and one ward respectively. After the trifurcation, Dhinkia village has a population of more than 3,500, with 700 families.

Pragyananda Das, the Erasama tahsildar, said that of the 700-odd acres of land that the administration is acquiring in the current phase, about 350 acres are in Patana village, 305 acres in Mahala village and 45 acres in Dhinkia village. These villages fall under the Erasama tahsil.

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The villagers alleged that the administration was going ahead with the land acquisition with the support of the local legislator and other elected representatives belonging to the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD), but the tahsildar claimed that the people of Dhinkia were protesting and blocking the village roads without any reason.

Things have come to such a pass that the residents of Dhinkia are being asked to show their Aadhaar cards to leave or enter their village. Many people in other villages that will be affected by the project, such as Nuagaon, Gobindpur, Patana, and Mahala and four hamlets under Gadakujang gram panchayat, are largely silent and have not joined hands with the Dhinkia people owing to fear and lack of leadership.

With the local sarpanch supporting the project and not standing by the residents of Dhinkia, there was virtually no one to mediate between the two sides.

Those who were associated with the erstwhile POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS) have now rechristened the group as Jindal POSCO Pratirodh Samiti (JPPS) and are making efforts to unite the villagers under the leadership of Swain.

JPPS demands

In a statement, JPPS spokesperson Prashant Paikray demanded the immediate withdrawal of the police force from Dhinkia along with the withdrawal of false and fabricated cases registered against the residents. He said that the process of fresh land acquisition should be suspended immediately as there was no environment clearance for the proposed JUSL project.

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Paikray also said that the opposition to JUSL’s project was not limited to Dhinkia. There was anger among the people in all the affected villages since acquisition of their own land and the forest land they had been cultivating on all these years would lead to a permanent loss of livelihood sources. He claimed that the sarpanch of Nuagaon gram panchayat was supporting their movement.

Condemning the approach being adopted by the administration, Paikray said that the State government should follow the existing laws. The JPSS has also rejected a development package that was recently announced by JUSL to woo the affected villages.

Paikray also said that despite the administration’s efforts to acquire land by creating divisions among the people, the continuous presence of policemen and the registration of new cases against protesters could lead to a law and order situation in the area in the future.

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