Between Two Steel Projects: Why Conflict Is Brewing In A Quiet Odisha Village’s Betel Groves

PRIYA RANJAN SAHU
 
31 Jan 2022 16 min read  Share

It took more than a decade of protest before 3,000 farm families succeeded in getting a South Korean steel company to vacate productive farmland the Odisha government had acquired. Five years later, the area is again roiled by protest, conflict and police brutality, as the government hands over the same land to an Indian steel company. The compensation offered, on average, is equivalent to a year’s income from the betel vines—some nurtured for nearly two centuries—of this lush coastal land.

On 14 January, police chased and baton-charged villagers trying to prevent the demolition of their betel groves/PHOTOGRAPHS BY PRIYA RANJAN SAHU

Jagatsinghpur (Odisha): On 14 January 2022, two betel vineyards that the family of 57-year-old Shanti Das owned & tended for about 80 years were destroyed by govt workers after a violent clash between armed police and about 500 residents of a village called Dhinkia in this lush, coastal district. 


The two groves, together measuring less than half an acre of land, yielded the family of seven a monthly income of around Rs 70,000, or Rs 840,000 every year.


For the loss of her betel groves to a proposed steel plant, the government of chief minister Naveen Patnaik will compensate Das with a “one-time settlement” of about Rs 700,000. 


Das, her husband and other family members worked all year round in the vineyards, employing labourers when needed. 


“The administration forcibly demolished my vines despite my protests,” Das told Article 14. “I was earning a sustainable income. My family and our labourers have all lost our livelihoods.”


On 14 January, the lush, sandy land of Dhinkia turned into a battlefield as policemen and policewomen chased and baton-charged villagers trying to prevent the demolition of their vineyards. Over 40 villagers, half of them women and children, were injured. 


Police arrested eight villagers including a member of Dhinkia’s former panchayat samiti, or village council, Debendra Swain, and human rights activist Narendra Mohanty, who travelled there from Kandhamal, 300 km to the west, after reports of human-rights violations as the administration began taking over land for a factory to be built by Jindal Steel Works’ subsidiary JSW Utkal Steel Ltd.


The face-off over several weeks between villagers and the police and district administration was the latest in a decade-old saga involving the takeover of 2,700 acres of land under cultivation—larger than the Goan capital of Panaji—first for South Korean steel company POSCO’s proposed plant and now for JSW.  


Over 80% of this land already acquired amid protests in 2011-2013 for POSCO’s still-born plant, the Odisha government will hand over that, and additional land, to JSW, whose plan includes a 13.2 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) steel plant, a 10-million tonne cement plant, a 900 megawatt coal-based power plant and a captive port, all to occupy 3,000 acres of land hugging the coast. 


At the heart of the protests through 2011-2015 and once again this January were successful small farmers cultivating betel leaves in groves measuring less than an acre, but with agricultural incomes far in excess of the average Indian farmer’s earnings.


“We are acquiring land and demolishing betel vineyards peacefully and in agreement with the villagers by paying a compensation of Rs 17.50 lakh per acre,” Choudhury Pragyananda Das, tehsildar of Erasama tehsil, told Article 14.


A JSW representative told Article 14 the company would not comment on the administration’s land acquisition process. 


The betel groves measure between 10 decimals (0.1 acre) and 50 decimals (0.5 acre) of land, and some of them, according to a plaque shown to a government inquiry committee a decade ago, were about two centuries old. 


For a farmer with 10 decimals of land, the expected compensation under the package would be Rs 175,000, equivalent to or less than a single year’s income from the grove.


Half The Village Population Booked

Jagatsinghpur superintendent of police (SP) Akhileswar Singh justified the police action on 14 January. 


“The villagers attacked the policemen with razors,” Singh told reporters. “We had to resort to a mild baton charge to disperse them.” Seven policemen were injured, said the SP, who accused “a small group” of villagers and some activists of “creating trouble” for the administration.


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Videos of the protest revealed a rather different picture. Local and reserve police forces chased villagers, including women and children, and beat them. Many villagers bore visible injuries.  


At three entry points into Dhinkia that villagers had barricaded, policemen broke the bamboo barriers and beat people inside the village. Eyewitnesses told Article 14 over 500 armed police personnel were involved.


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At least 19 Dhinkia villagers were arrested during the recent land-acquisition drive, almost all of them betel vine farmers. Most male villagers went into hiding.


Notwithstanding the SP’s comment that the protesters were a “small group”, police  filed 25 criminal cases against  half the 3,000 residents of Dhinkia—each FIR had multiple accused. One FIR named 99 accused and 1,000 unidentified persons. Another case was lodged against 81 identified accused and 200 “others”. Another case named 60 accused, and 100 “others”. The complaint relating to the 14 January incident is against 18 identified and 500 unidentified accused.


FIRs quoted several non-bailable sections of law, under various sections of the Indian Penal Code 1860, including section 307 (attempt to murder), 147 (punishment for rioting), 148 (rioting, armed with deadly weapon), 341 (punishment for wrongful restraint), 353 (assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty), 436 (setting fire or explosive substance), among others, and various sections of the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984.      


Swain, the former panchayat samiti member, was also accused of sections 379 (snatching a gun from police) and 395 (punishment for dacoity) of the IPC and sections 3 and 4 of the Explosive Substances Act, 1908. On 28 January, two weeks after his arrest, Swain remained in judicial custody. 


On 20 January, the Orissa high court intervened after some villagers filed public interest litigations through advocates Prasanta Jena and Omkar Debdas. Another lawyer, Khirod Rout, filed a separate petition.  


A division bench headed by Chief Justice S Muralidharan sought a status report from the Odisha government, observing that “police excesses” and “high-handedness” in Dhinkia must stop “immediately”.


A fortnight after the violence, a strong police presence continued in Dhinkia and neighbouring villages, with efforts underway by the administration and police to defuse the agitation.


Revisiting The Struggle Against POSCO

For residents of this delicate coastal region along a distributary of the Mahanadi river as it flows into the Bay of Bengal, not far from the eastern Indian port of Paradip, JSW’s proposed project harked back to the 2005-2017 battle they waged against the possible loss of their lands to another steel project, by Korean steelmaker POSCO.   


Between 2011 and 2013, the Odisha government acquired over 2,200 acres of land in the same region for POSCO’s steel project, eventually shelved in 2017 following stiff resistance from villagers, alongside environmental and legal roadblocks. 


Those very swathes, officially categorised as agricultural land and forest land,  will now be handed over to JSW for its project. In addition, the administration will acquire for JSW another 748 acres. 


This land is to be acquired mainly from the Dhinkia, Mahala and Patana villages, adjoining one another. Dhinkia is the largest, with a population of about 3,000. An announcement that Mahala and Patana would be carved out as separate revenue villages came only in November 2021, ostensibly to make land acquisition for the JSW project easier. Of 748 acres to be acquired, Mahala and Patana accounted for 350 acres each—only 48 acres were under Dhinkia.


The land acquisition drive for JSW has led to anxiety among villagers of not only Dhinkia but also seven other project-affected villages under the Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gadakujanga gram panchayats. 


Sanju Mantri, a woman in her mid-forties from Dhinkia, said peaceful land acquisition was “a big joke”. 


“The renewed process for JSW is like rubbing salt on our wounds inflicted by POSCO,” she said. “Harassment and physical assaults by the police, criminal cases against innocent villagers and arrests have been the key instruments of forcing people to allow their land to be acquired, earlier during the drive for POSCO and now for JSW.”


The majority of the 20,000-odd residents of the eight villages under these three gram panchayats belong to scheduled castes (SC), who account for more than 60% of Dhinkia and Gadakujanga gram panchayats and about 40% of Nuagaon, a single village panchayat.


[[https://article-14.com/uploads/2022/01-January/31-Mon/Betel%20vine.JPG]]

Ravaging A Robust Agrarian Economy 

For generations, a robust agrarian economy of paana (betel leaf), dhaana (paddy), mina (fish), and kaju (cashew nuts) dominated villagers’ livelihoods here. The 3,500-odd betel vineyards and lakhs of cashew nut trees dotting the sandy expanse of coastal forest were the region’s chief source of revenue. 


Nearly 80% of the population cultivated betel leaves. According to the villagers, the balanced mixture of soil and fine sand in the region offered an appropriate environment for cashew nut trees and betel cultivation. 


In the betel groves, vines grow on rectangular support structures, the lush greenery offering a shaded space inside which entire families worked all year round. From 14-year-olds to 70-year-olds, men and women, betel cultivation involved a wide demography. Average betel groves measured between 10 ‘decimal’ to 50 ‘decimal’. A decimal is a unit of land that measures a tenth of an acre, or 436 sq ft.


A family with a betel vineyard on 15 decimals of land earned upward of Rs 20,000 per month, well above average rural incomes in India. Wage labourers received between Rs 300 and Rs 400 per day.


“The betel cultivated here is among the best varieties,” said Subash Chandra Sahani of Gobindpur village. “It is famous in India and abroad as ‘Banarasi’ paan.” 


Several families also had an additional source of income, from paddy or cashew nut collection, ensuring that most were comfortably above the poverty line. Villagers said they rarely saw a policeman in their area and they hardly ever visited a police station. 


This agrarian idyll, however, came under severe threat after POSCO signed an MoU with the Odisha government in 2005. The project, India’s single-largest foreign direct investment (FDI) of the time, involved setting up a 12 MTPA steel project with an investment of US $ 12 billion (Rs.52,000 crore then) on 4,004 acres of land across the villages of the three gram panchayats.


The administration’s move for land acquisition was met with intense protests from the majority of the villagers. They started an anti-POSCO movement under the banner of POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS) with Dhinkia as its stronghold. 


But the events also fractured the village community—one group, the United Action Committee (UAC), backed POSCO. Conflicts between pro-POSCO and anti-POSCO groups claimed five lives over the years. 


The government’s stand was that the villagers had illegally erected their betel vineyards on forest land, and it was the state’s largesse that they were being offered a compensation package, about Rs 70 crore in total for 466 displaced families. 


The anti-POSCO villagers, on the other hand, claimed that they had been cultivating betel vines for generations. In different circumstances, they argued, the government would have taken credit for granting them land pattas (tenure) as ‘other forest dwellers under the Scheduled Tribes And Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, known simply as the Forest Rights Act.


Environmental Approvals Were For Much Smaller Plant  

Though POSCO’s proposal was for a 12 MTPA plant, the original environmental clearance was given on the basis of a rapid environmental impact assessment (EIA) by the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF), for a 4 MTPA plant. 


In 2007, when the company received approvals to set up a 12 MTPA project, this was challenged in the National Green Tribunal (NGT). (The MoEF was renamed in 2014 to the ministry of environment, forest and climate change, MoEF&CC.)


“Technically speaking, the project got approval to set up a plant of bigger capacity on the basis of a report on what would be the impact of a plant of one-fourth its capacity on the land, water, air and forest,” said one of the petitioners, Prafulla Samantara, an activist and winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. 


The petition also helped stall the administration’s move to construct boundary walls around the acquired land and to cut 800,000 trees, though it had managed to clear 170,000 trees in 2010. 


In 2011, compelled by the villagers’ protests and the legal hurdles, the Odisha government reduced the capacity of POSCO’s plant to 8 MTPA, and its area to 2,700 acres. Dhinkia was excluded from the project area; the idea appeared to be to isolate the strongest village, weaken the anti-POSCO movement and take over land in other villages.


The district administration completed the land acquisition, demolishing over 1,100 betel vineyards in the remaining villages in two phases between 2011 and 2013.


However, the protests continued, as police filed more cases and made more arrests. More than 400 cases were lodged against 2,500 villagers. Among them were 700 women, including Sanju Mantri. 


Against POSCO And Now JSW, Women Led From Front

Around 70 villagers, including some women, were arrested while at least 20 of them spent between one month and a year in jail as undertrials. 


Often, members of the whole family including brothers, sisters, husbands, wife and sons found their names listed as accused in different crimes in one case or another. The crimes ranged from murder, attempt to murder, kidnapping, rioting, dacoity to physically assaulting policemen, and even rape. 


Through the years of the anti-POSCO agitation and now against land acquisition for the JSW project, women in the region took the lead. 


When the anti-POSCO movement started, they were the first to organise. They constituted half of all rallies and demonstrations, and worked like a protective shield around the men at these events. Even in instances when men changed their opinion on the project, either due to pressure from the administration or the lure of other benefits, the women remained steadfast in their opposition.


Manorama Khatua, a leading woman leader of the anti-POSCO movement, was accused of 52 crimes. She told Article 14 the charges against her included murder, attempt to murder, theft, dacoity and also rape. However, she evaded arrest by staying in Dhinkia, which was barricaded with bamboo gates where women maintained a 24x7 vigil.


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Gandei Mallick, an SC woman of Dhinkia in her mid-forties, was arrested on 15 May 2010 and spent three months in jail. She died a few weeks after being released on bail, and protestors said her health had deteriorated while in custody. 


Many villagers were picked up by police from local markets where they would go to sell vegetables. In many instances, policemen escorted a man to the police station while leaving his minor son stranded and alone. People lost their livelihoods as they evaded arrest.    


“The whole process drained us physically, mentally and economically. It affected our family lives,” said a 60-year-old resident of Gobindpur, requesting anonymity. He said he could not go to his betel vineyard and stayed indoors for months, “dreading a knock on my doors”.


After Decade Of Struggle, Betel Groves Face Extinction Again

The threat from the police ebbed by 2015 when it became evident that POSCO, embroiled in protests and environmental cases, was not keen to implement the project. When the Korean company officially withdrew from the project two years later, the affected area was left with thousands of jobs lost and stumps of thousands of chopped trees.


Nuagaon, the largest among the eight villages, suffered the most. 


A stronghold of the UAC, Nuagaon had been the first to welcome POSCO in 2011. Villagers had used the compensation money to purchase four-wheelers, hoping to operate them as rental vehicles in the construction of the now stillborn project. 

A large number of villagers lost their compensation money to a chit fund company that went bankrupt after getting embroiled in a chit fund scam. 


Meanwhile, Dhinkia prospered in isolation. 


Villagers there expanded their betel vineyards from 500 in 2011 to over 2,000 now. Every month, the village supplies more than 20 lakh betel leaves across India and abroad, one of Odisha’s biggest betel leaf hubs. People from other villages, who lost their vines to land acquisition for POSCO, began to work in Dhinkia’s betel groves as  daily wage workers, including many from the pro-POSCO Nuagaon.  


Now, with the impending arrival of one more steel project, these betel vineyards of Dhinkia face possible extinction. 


‘They Humiliated Our Leader, Broke His Teeth’ 

The project-affected villages were shaken by the arrest of Swain and his treatment by the police, said villagers.  


A relative of Swain said the leader was beaten by the police while in custody. “They broke his teeth. He was sent to judicial custody in the wee hours the next day,” he said. Swain, seen in Dhinkia and nearby areas as the face of the current movement, was deliberately humiliated, the relative told Article 14. “They want to break the morale of the people by humiliating him.”


Many villagers did not wish to speak on record, fearing that they could be identified and included among the 'others' in the FIRs. 


“They worry that a similar treatment will be meted out to anyone else who opposes the JSW project,” said a villager in Nuagaon. 


With the men in hiding, the betel leaf cultivation was severely impacted for days after the protests. Families said they were unable to go to water their vines and feared damage to the crop if the tense conditions continued.


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As the resolve to fight deepened in Dhinkia, in the neighbouring projected-affected villages, people feared being booked in fresh criminal cases, already reeling under the exhaustion of a decade-long movement against POSCO.


In Gobindpur and Patana villages, people told Article 14 they dismantled their vines themselves and accepted the compensation. They felt they had been left with no choice. 


They added that nobody in the affected villages wanted another industrial project, but people were uncertain how long their resistance could continue. “But one cannot say when fear transforms to resilience according to changing situations,” said 60-year-old Surendra Das of Gobindpur.   


Like POSCO, JSW’s project may also run into legal and environmental hurdles. The public hearing on environmental clearance for JSW’s project was held on 20 December 2019, and an approval from the appraisal committee of the MoEF&CC was still awaited. 


The Paradip port area, located at an aerial distance of less than10 km from Dhinkia, is one of the most polluted geographies in India, classified as a ‘severely polluted area’ by the Odisha State Pollution Control Board.


On 25 January, Samantara sent a petition to Chhavi Nath Panday, chairman of the Expert Appraisal Committee (Industry-1) of the MoEF&CC, urging him not to appraise JSW’s proposal and instead to conduct comprehensive studies to understand the existing pollution load and carrying capacity of the region around Paradip and Dhinkia.


On 27 January, the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), a Delhi-based research group, released a report on the health impact anticipated from the proposed steel plant. It said the estimated total emission load of the proposed JSW project may be twice the cumulative emission load of all industries currently functioning around Paradip port.


About CREA’s findings, a JSW representative said: “The EIA report was prepared based on guidelines issued by the MoEF&CC for environment appraisal based on one season’s data. CREA is of the opinion that EIA should be prepared based on one-year data, which is not as per the guidelines issued.” 


The representative told Article 14 that an assessment on health impacts is not a requirement in the EIA report, and that the environmental impact on the Paradip industrial area has been taken into consideration in the preparation of the EIA report. 


Samantara said that the EIA report of the company was unscientific and not based on facts. “JSW’s project is much bigger than that of POSCO’s with its multiple projects and its cumulative impact on the environment has not been taken into account,” he said. 


According to him, there were grounds to challenge JSW’s project in the NGT too. Activists told Article 14 that petitions would be filed once JSW receives approval from the MoEF&CC’s appraisal committee. 


(Priya Ranjan Sahu is an independent journalist based in Bhubaneswar.)