Fearing repeat of police action during POSCO agitation, Odisha village isolates itself

Dhinkia villagers talk to outsiders from the barricades created them in December 4, 2021. The villagers are not allowing entry of any outsider into the village now. Photo by-Manish Kumar/Mongabay

  • In an ongoing tussle, emerging from resistance to a steel plant in the area, residents of Dhinkia village in Odisha have created barricades that prevent entry into their village.
  • Dhinkia is opposing the proposed JSW Utkal Steel Project, claiming that it will threaten the livelihood of the people, who are primarily betel leaf farmers. Some other villages in the region that are likely to be affected by the project, however, have not yet expressed similar resistance.
  • The site is the same one where previously, there was long-standing agitation against POSCO steel company, for almost a decade, which ended once the firm exited the state in 2015.

Dhinkia village in Jagatsinghpur district lies around two kilometers away from the Bay of Bengal coast in the eastern state of Odisha. Last month, after the India Meteorological Department (IMD) issued a red warning for Cyclone Jawad for December 4, the village residents were anticipating a cyclonic storm on that day. However, they were met with another storm – of police. In the wee hours of December 4, several policemen entered the village and after a scuffle with the villagers, arrested two persons from the site.

This was part of an ongoing tussle as residents of Dhinkia have been protesting against JSW Utkal Steel Ltd., an integrated steel plant, thermal plant and a cement grinding plant that is being established in the area. The site where this plant will come up, however, has a longer history of conflict – it is the same site where POSCO, a South Korean steel company, faced stiff resistance for almost a decade and made national and international headlines. After much opposition, POSCO eventually exited the project in 2015 and the acquired land was transferred to JSW Utkal Steel Ltd.

Following the December 4 arrests, the people of the village, anticipating more arrests and action from the administration, erected blockades at all the three entrances to the village. “We have created three blockades at three sides of the village to prevent the entry of police or any outsider into our village,” 62-year-old Shanti Sethi told Mongabay-India while showing the bamboo-blockades. She alleged that the police entered the village on December 4 at around 2:30 a.m. and arrested two of the villagers on false charges and also beat several of the men and women who tried to intervene.

The barricades have been up for almost a month now. Meanwhile, the police force has also set up its camp nearby. When Mongabay-India visited Dhinkia in the first week of January, it saw five buses of security forces and several other vehicles, besides those belonging to security forces, stationed in temporary camps in Gobindpur village, around 100 meters from Dhinkia.

“They are now around 100 meters away from the village and in good numbers. Often some come closer to keep an eye on us. But we are stationed here 24×7 – even through the whole night – to protect our village. We cannot give our land for such projects which can affect our livelihood,” Natha Parida, another Dhinkia resident, told Mongabay-India. Several women and children are also guarding the entry points to the village and the people have created chasms on the roads to prevent entry of heavy four wheelers into their village.

With the barricades, the people of Dhinkia have also isolated themselves. They neither venture out nor allow anyone to enter their village. Several of them fear arrests from police under false pretext – similar to the situation during the anti-POSCO movement. On the other hand, some of the supporters of the project in Dhinkia have also filed cases of harassment for their pro-industry stand and even cases under SC/ST Atrocities Act against some villagers.

Security forces camping at Gobindpur village, around 100 meters away from Dhinkia. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.

The idea of creating blockades in the village and living in isolation is also not new – the residents did it for a few years during the anti-POSCO movement as well. “The village had tried this idea during anti-POSCO movement too where they remained confined to their village for almost three years between 2007-2011 and also suffered a lot due to this but still continued their resistance to claim their land rights and oppose industries on their alleged land,” said Sankar Prasad Pani, Bhubaneswar-based lawyer with the National Green Tribunal (NGT).

Sources in the police department claimed that the security near Dhinkia village has been arranged to avoid clashes among villagers and maintain law and order. When reached for comments, Jagatsinghpur SP Akhileshvar Singh did not respond to calls and messages on the issue.

Threats to betel leaf farming, Dhinkia’s main source of income

The majority of the people in Dhinkia are largely dependent on betel vineyards for their livelihood while others are involved in occupations such as fishing and cashew cultivation.

The land where the POSCO project, and now the new project, is planned is disputed land where the villagers claim ownership,  though they do not have enough official documents claiming it. The state government meanwhile claims the lands are owned by the state and it plans to move ahead with the new project. The villagers claim that they have been growing betel vines for several generations on these lands but their rights have not been recognised by the government under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, which is meant to uphold the rights of forest dwelling communities to forest resources.

The betel leaves here, referred to as “Paradip betel leaves”, are known across the state and had been the main source of income for the local people, including for the elderly. “We are known in the state and even in other parts of the country for our superior quality of betel leaves known as Paradip leaves. This has been a major source of our income. Even an elderly person earns around Rs. 350 each day by selling these leaves. If such projects come, it could lead to the destruction of these avenues of income. Can a factory give jobs to an elderly farmer the way these betel vineyards give?” Pradeep Sathpathy, a farmer from the village, said, while speaking to Mongabay-India in early January.

Security forces have now started entering the betel vineyards and destroying them to pave way for the new industrial plant. Dhinkia’s people are visibly angered by this. Some of the nearby villages like Nuagaon and Gadakujang meanwhile, have shown no resistance to the project.

Recently, last month there was another scuffle between the state government representatives and the village residents when the revenue department officials came to demarcate regions in Dhinkia aiming to bifurcate it into three different revenue villages instead of a single large village of Dhinkia. Unlike other villages in the region, Dhinkia is a large panchayat comprising a single village named Dhinkia. The planned revenue villages are small hamlets-Patna and Mahala, closer to the village.

When the government tried to demarcate the areas, there was a scuffle where hundreds of villagers protested against the move and the 12 platoons of police force tried to ensure the government works were done as per the plan. “The plan of the government to bifurcate the panchayat into three different parts seems to be an exercise to divide people and ease its work of getting consent for the industry and diluting our decade-long opposition of the project on areas close to our villages,” said a Dhinkia resident requesting anonymity.

Tainted past

For the last 16 years, Dhinkia has opposed any industry on the village land. The resistance started back in 2005 when the Odisha government signed an Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with POSCO. Following that, in 2007, the opposition gained momentum as the demarcation work started on the ground. At that time, there had also been violent clashes between the police and Dhinkia people which included bombing, use of rubber bullets and other forms of force which led to four deaths and several injuries. Hundreds of FIRs were filed by the police, against villagers opposing the industry.

According to POSCO India’s commissioned study undertaken by the Xavier Institute of Business Management (XIMB) of the area, in 2008, there were 3,578 families from seven villages who would lose land while 718 would lose their homes had the project come up. Most of the persons likely to be displaced from such a project were small scale farmers who did not possess adequate papers to claim their ownership on the land. The ministry of environment in its report also had admitted displacement of around 22,000 inhabitants by the POSCO project.

The anti-POSCO movement had moved across several judicial bodies and institutions like the National Green Tribunal, National Human Rights Commission, OECD, Orissa High Court and others, providing only temporary relief until POSCO eventually exited the project in 2015.

Strategic location

Dhinkia and other two panchayats of Nuagaon and Gudakujang lie close to the coasts of Bay of Bengal. A captive port, Jatadhari, is very close to Dhinkia which could facilitate  import and export, while Paradip Port, one of India’s top 12 major ports, is around 15 kms away from the villages.

The large tracts of land are either covered with betel or cashew plants, while some of the area is used for shrimp cultivation by the villagers. The National Highway connecting the capital city of Bhubaneswar to Paradip is also barely 12 kms away from the village.

In this strategically located area, JSW Steel has planned to construct 13.2 metric tonnes per annum (MTPA) on the site where POSCO was expected to set up their industry. A 900MW power plant for captive use with an investment of Rs. 53,700 crore (Rs. 537 billion) has also been planned. Land acquisition and some other initial work is needed before JSW Steel can start operations.

A betel yard close to the coastal village. Villagers claim several of them are dependent on this yards for their livelihood. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.

In the recent move, JSW with the help of XIMB has launched a socio-economic study of affected villages to know more about the ways to tap economic potential for the local communities and other aspects of the project related to the affected areas.

In the state capital, several activist groups are also raising their concerns to the government. A team of Samyukta Kisan Morcha on January 6 also met Governor Ganeshi Lal at Governor House in Bhubaneswar and raked up the issue. Activists and political leaders are now also reaching Dhinkia when the matter has come into limelight again.


Banner image: Dhinkia villagers talk to outsiders from the barricades created them in December 4, 2021. The villagers are not allowing entry of any outsider into the village now. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.

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