- The NGT order recognised that the project involved huge investment but at the same time, the principle of sustainable development could not be ignored.
- In addition, the Odisha High Court stayed land acquisition for the JSW project till the forest rights issue was resolved.
- Protests have been ongoing in Jagatsinghpur district in Odisha, since December 2021, when the administration moved in to demolish the betel vines and take over the village land.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has suspended the environmental clearance (EC) given to Jindal Steel Works’ or JSW Utkal’s (its subsidiary) project at the Paradip port in Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur district. The affected communities obtained some relief through this court order declared on March 20; and another order on March 24 from the Odisha High Court, staying land acquisition till the forest rights issue has been resolved.
The NGT’s order was in response to a batch of appeals, challenging the EC for the JSW Utkal project dated April 11 and 12, 2022 for two interconnected projects – an integrated steel plant (with cement and power plants) and a jetty project near Paradip port.
The land for the JSW project was earlier the proposed site for a project by POSCO, a South Korean steel major. The decade-long protest by communities led to POSCO withdrawing in 2017. However, the Odisha government did not return the 1,253 hectares acquired, instead handed 1,083 hectares over to JSW Utkal, a company which proposed a project worth Rs. 65,000 crore, including a 13.2 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) integrated steel plant with a 10 MTPA cement grinding unit and a 900 MW captive power plant, along with an all-weather captive jetty with a capacity of 52 MTPA.
After a decade-long agitation, communities’ struggles still continue
A video of a little girl challenging a pot-bellied policeman who had come to demolish a betel vine plot in October 2022 in Dhinkia village, seems symbolic of a community whose resistance managed to evict POSCO, and they continue to oppose JSW Utkal. The police had come to demolish a betel vine plot in Dhinkia village with a JCB, and were looking for the girl’s father, only to be confronted by the girl, who asked them why they had come to her village, and then asked them to leave.
Since December 2021, protests erupted in the region, when the administration moved in to demolish the betel vines and take over the land. Prashant Paikray, spokesperson of the recast Anti-Jindal Anti-POSCO Sangram Samiti says that ever since, over 78 persons involved in the anti-POSCO protests, some of whom had pending non-bailable warrants, have been arrested. A few of the anti-POSCO movement leaders such as Debendra Swain continue to be in jail for over a year.
The project-affected community, led by the POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS), were part of a decade-long agitation against POSCO, after the South Korean steel major proposed a special economic zone and steel plant in Kujang tehsil in 2005. Over 22,000 families in six villages of Jagatsinghpur district’s Kujang tehsil, mostly landless scheduled castes, would have been affected by the POSCO project, apart from an equally large fishing community. However, the agitation and other factors led to POSCO withdrawing in 2017.
What the NGT order said
The order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) of March 20, 2023, said that the Tribunal was conscious that the project involved huge investment but at the same time, the principle of sustainable development could not be ignored. Apart from the significant issue that the public hearing was held before submission of the cumulative Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), the NGT took exception to the location of the project, which was close to the polluted area [of Paradip port], and the fact that the proposed jetty was unnecessarily close to an established port.
In addition, large quantities of water from the Mahanadi river may affect drinking water needs of the local village residents and also the flow of the river, which were important issues needing express consideration, the NGT ruled. It added that the matter would need fresh appraisal by the Environment Appraisal Committee of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), and fresh decision, within three months.
The order said that the cumulative EIA for the project was dated November 2021 and January 2022, while the mandatory public hearing was held on December 20, 2019. Also, the state government had allotted 10,000 cum/hour of water at Jobra barrage from the Mahanadi river when water was scarce, which was not duly evaluated.
The proposed jetty was located 500 metres away from Paradip port, which was unnecessary (as held by an earlier official report headed by Dr. Meena Gupta in 2010). This area was also a critically polluted area, the Social Impact Assessment was conducted later, and was not part of the public hearing. The NGT noted that it had earlier adversely commented on the POSCO project (and also stayed the EC in 2012) which had withdrawn from the project.
Prafulla Samantara, an activist and part of the National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements, and others, challenged the EC given to JSW saying the project would add to the existing pollution and affect the forest cover, flora and fauna and water sources. The protestors said the EC was illegal, as there was no cumulative EIA prior to the public hearing.
Companies promise jobs, but deliver none, say locals
The company contended that the project would benefit the central and state government by over Rs 5,000 crore in taxes, over 13 years. They also said the project would generate employment for 15,000 workers in the construction phase and provide 12,000 jobs directly and 45,000 indirectly. However, the local communities were wary of such promises as they were witness to earlier projects which had promised jobs, but delivered none.
The proposed JSW project required about 1,083 hectares of land which was transferred to it by the MoEFCC in October 2019. This was challenged in a writ petition filed by project-affected persons in 2022, who contended that it vitiated the very objective of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, and bypassed the provisions of informed consent of the gram sabhas for such diversion of forest land. They demanded recognition, as other traditional forest dwellers, based on evidence of maps and other documents, which were given to the court. The Odisha High Court held that till the process of land settlement was completed, the matter would be stayed. This is a significant order, as much of the forest land that was cultivated by the community was not in their name, despite their customary rights since over 75 years. The petition said under Section 4 (5) of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, notes, “Save as otherwise provided, no member of a forest dwelling Scheduled Tribe or other traditional forest dweller shall be evicted or removed from forest land under his occupation till the recognition and verification procedure is complete”, which was upheld by the high court.
‘Trees being felled, protests not allowed’
The other issue, as alleged by the Samiti, was that the company and the district administration were cutting trees in the proposed forest area, and when locals were opposing this, they were being arrested. Paikray said that the police had virtually sealed off the villages affected by the project under the Dhinkia, Gadkujang and Nuagaon panchayats, and were not allowing democratic protests. “There was some panic, as people were in hiding, fearing arrest and the situation was not normal. Houses were being destroyed. The police had set up camps in Dhinkia and patrolled the area frequently,” he added.
Even during the anti-POSCO agitation, there was division among the project-affected people, some of whom favoured the project. Many cases were filed against the activists by the police and villagers supporting JSW, according to the Samiti. Protestors also filed complaints about harassment by the police.
In February 2022, a committee of lawyers and Sarita Barpanda, state director of the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) visited Dhinkia to investigate alleged human rights violations. This was in response to HRLN’s petition in the Odisha High Court. The committee members were witness to assault and Barpanda, who tried to rescue one person who being beaten by JSW supporters, fractured a thumb, and sustained other injuries. Barpanda and others, who were badly assaulted had to be taken to a hospital.
The committee’s report said that in the name of maintaining law and order in Dhinkia, there was a strong alliance between the police and the group of supporters of JSW and they were suppressing the protestors. In addition, they decried the action of the police in warning villagers not to speak to the press or exercise their right to protest and recommended that the police be withdrawn from the area. The report also suggested immediate police transfers and action against those intimidating people and indulging in violence.
In response to allegations, the Superintendent of Police, Jagatsinghpur, Rahul PR, who took over in January this year, told Mongabay-India that if the law warranted arrests and if there were cognisable offences, then due procedure would be followed. He said while there was patrolling in the area, it was not unusual. He said the police were accompanying teams only in specific situations, if required to maintain law and order. There was no protest going on now in the area, he said, and there was no special deployment as such. Only a ‘normal police presence’ was maintained under the Abhay Chandpur police station, which had the jurisdiction over the project-affected area.
Questions sent to JSW via email by Mongabay-India, did not receive a response at the time of publishing.
While the protests against JSW have reduced due to the numerous arrests and police presence, the court orders have given the people opposing the project some relief. However, Barpanda said, that things are still the same on ground, and there was still a large police presence. “People are scared and one of the main leaders of the earlier agitation Debendra Swain is still in jail in an arms case, although he was bailed out in 43 cases.”
Banner image: Protests (pre-2017) against POSCO in Dhinkia. The land for the JSW project was earlier the proposed site for a project by POSCO, a South Korean steel major. The decade-long protest by communities led to POSCO withdrawing in 2017. Photo by special arrangement.