Trapped in the state-corporate nexus

Villagers in the Indian state of Odisha are fighting a major steel plant development, in the face of intense repression – yet again. Aritra Bhattacharya reports.

A protest against land acquisition for the POSCO steel project takes placce inside Odisha Bhawan (house), New Delhi on 4 February 2013. Credit: Adnan1 Abidi / Reuters / Alamy

A sense of déjà vu hangs over the air in Jagatsinghpur district. People resisting plans for a mega-sized steel plant and integrated jetty are facing a brutal state crackdown.

Located along India’s eastern coast, bordering the Bay of Bengal, this is not the first time the people of Jagatsinghpur have had such a fight on their hands. Residents of several villages on the coast of Odisha state erupted with anger in 2005, when their government signed a $12 billion deal with South Korean steel-giant POSCO to set up an integrated steel-plant-cum-port spread over the areas of four village councils: Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gadakujang Gram Panchayats.

Largely dependent on the cultivation of betel vines, cashew and fishing, villagers feared the project, and resultant pollution, would ravage their livelihoods and ecology. The area already experienced severe industrial pollution and reports by environmental advocacy groups indicated that a development of such magnitude could hamper air quality and result in an estimated 94 deaths, 180 emergency room visits due to asthma and 160 pre-term births per year.

For more than 10 years villagers sustained a peaceful opposition movement, organizing hundreds of rallies and demonstrations, and working closely with civil society groups to seek relief from the judiciary and raise awareness across India and abroad.

The Odisha government responded with an iron hand. In 2013, it forcibly acquired around 1,090 hectares acres of land required for the POSCO project and police registered over 400 allegedly fabricated cases against protesters. Many were arrested and jailed for long periods.

But, the movement was eventually victorious and POSCO exited the project in 2016 citing regulatory hurdles. Villagers heaved a huge sigh of relief.

It was only a temporary reprieve though, because in 2017 a proposal was approved for JSW Group-owned JSW Utkal to set up a 13.2 mtpa (million tonnes per annum) integrated steel plant, incorporating a jetty, a cement grinding and mixing unit and a 900-megawatt thermal power station at the same site.

For a while, all seemed quiet. There were sporadic protests against the development, but villagers continued cultivating the land which had been forcibly acquired land for the POSCO project. This land was transferred to JSW Utkal, but it was also announced that an additional 100 hectares would be acquired in Dhinkia village.

As the government increased efforts to implement the JSW project, the resistance ramped up – followed, in quick succession, by state reprisals. Police restricted the movement of local people, baton-charged protesters and implicated them in multiple legal cases. Currently, most activists spearheading the movement against the development are behind bars.

Rebel village

Local people say they have been shut out of plans for the JSW project. In December 2019, the Odisha State Pollution Control Board organized a public hearing in Gadakujanga village, which locals claimed was a farce.

‘The law mandates that complete information about any project be made available to affected people in their local language at least a month in advance of the public hearing,’ explained Ranjan Das, who says he was denied entry into the public hearing. ‘The environmental impact assessment was not even translated [from English] into Odia, and was given to us only a few days ahead of the hearing. Worse, a huge police force was deployed in and around the venue to restrict our entry and scores of people were brought in from outside to fill the meeting.’

So, what changed between the POSCO plans being abandoned in 2016 and the emergence of the JSW proposal?

In mid-2021 the state government declared that there would be two new villages in the area of the steel project. Named Mahala and Patana, they were to be carved out of existing hamlets with the same names and located in the Dhinkia village council area where the JSW project requires additional land.

Dhinkia has been the epicenter the movement opposing large industries since the POSCO days, and its residents include several members of the Jindal Pratirodh Samiti (Jindal Resistance Committee), which spearheads the current anti-JSW struggle.

Police restricted the movement of local people, baton-charged protesters and implicated them in multiple legal cases. Currently, most activists spearheading the movement against the development are behind bars

In December 2021, Debendra Swain, who is the de-facto leader of the Samiti, told New Internationalist that he thought the decision to carve out the new villages was ‘aimed at dividing people and fracturing the movement.’ Weeks later he was arrested and remanded in judicial custody.

Swain was elected to the Dhinkia village council in 2017. He opposed efforts to implement the steel port decision, held meetings with Samiti members and the district administration and, in July 2021, participated in a protest against ongoing demarcation work for the new villages.

Two months later, Swain was expelled from the council by the Jagatsinghpur District Collector for opposing revenue department officials in demarcation work. Confrontations between villagers and the government peaked in subsequent months, especially after locals foisted another attempt at land demarcation in the newly created Mahala village on 1 December 2021.

Police registered two cases against Debendra Swain, Muralidhar Sahoo and other key leaders immediately after the botched demarcation attempt, accusing them of criminal intimidation and assault, unlawful assembly and other serious crimes.

Two men sort betel leaves
Villagers sort betel leaves. Credit: Aritra Bhattacharya

Behind bars

At around 3.00am on 4 December, hours after Cyclone Jawad hit coastal Odisha, a large contingent of armed police arrived at the Swain residence. ‘We refused to let them in so they kept banging at the door to force their way in,’ said Basanta Swain, Debandra’s 72-year-old mother.

Videos of the incident, captured by neighbours alerted by the commotion, show police officers hitting the door with rifle butts and chasing villagers who tried to restrain them – all amid heavy rain.

‘I was hurt on my right forearm as my bangles broke and their pieces pierced the skin – one of the pieces is still lodged here,’ said the elderly Shanti Das, pointing at a lump on her arm. ‘But we forced the police to retreat.’

Police subsequently registered fresh cases against Swain and scores of other villagers, accusing them of hurling bombs, holding police officers captive and setting a police bus on fire.
On 14 January this year, the district administration used 12 platoons of armed police to facilitate the demolition of betel vineyards where the steel project is due to be developed. Videos show protesters being chased and brutally baton-charged. More than 40 people were injured, including women and children.

In a fresh case, police also arrested Debendra Swain and seven others, including well-known human rights activist Narendra Mohanty who had travelled to the area following reports of human-rights violations. Though Mohanty was subsequently granted bail, Swain and many other villagers arrested recently are currently lodged in judicial custody following the dismissal of their bail applications in court.

‘In all, 31 different cases were registered against villagers between late November 2021 and early February 2022,’ explained Biswajit Kanunga, an advocate who is defending accused villagers, mostly on a pro bono basis. ‘In most cases, the complainants were policemen or administrative officials.’

No relief in sight

Civil society activists who met Debendra Swain in jail said he was brutally tortured with batons and fist blows in police custody after his arrest on 14 January.

‘Though four days had passed when we met him, his face, especially the area around his right eye, was swollen, and five of his front teeth were missing. Black and blue clot marks from baton blows covered his back, waist and thighs, and some of his wounds were festering. But jail authorities were not providing him any medical treatment barring pain killers,’ said an activist who met him, requesting anonymity.

Meanwhile, efforts by villagers and civil society groups to seek relief from courts and statutory bodies are yielding little result. ‘We appealed to the state and national human rights commissions on several occasions in the past two months... But in every case, the commissions did not take the matter seriously and merely asked for status reports from the police and district administration,’ said advocate Chandranath Dani from Human Rights Defenders Alert India.

On the other hand, three public interest litigations, filed in the Orissa High Court by villagers with allegations against the police, were taken up for hearing on 16 February, and the court appointed a committee of advocates representing petitions and the state to visit the project site, gather people’s opinions and submit a report. However, prior to the committee’s visit on police officers went door-to-door, reportedly threatening villagers not to speak against the project, or the police and administration. Villagers who still wanted to speak out say they were obstructed from travelling to the meeting venue, and there are reports that some of those who did get there were severely beaten in front of committee members.

The court ordered the committee to visit the area again on 5 March, and asked the district administration to ensure all villagers are able to express their views freely and without any intimidation.  

Meanwhile, at ground zero in Jagatsinghpur, villagers wonder if their lives are all that different compared with the colonial era: ‘India was freed from the clutches of the East India Company and British rule in 1947. But here, the government is openly siding with JSW and evicting us from our lands without a care for justice and democracy,’ said young Dhinkia resident Ajay Das, anxiety about the future writ large on his face. ‘How long can this continue, and what all must we endure?’