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Decades of Resistance: An Indian Community’s Struggle Against a Polluting Steel Plant

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Decades of Resistance: An Indian Community’s Struggle Against a Polluting Steel Plant

For two decades, the village of Dhinkia has pushed back against plans for destructive, polluting “development projects” in the area.

Decades of Resistance: An Indian Community’s Struggle Against a Polluting Steel Plant

When news of the construction of another steel factory broke out, local communities in Dhinkia and in the surrounding villages were not surprised. They knew their precious fields, with their bright green plantations of betel vines, were going to be once again put up for sale. They knew profit, instead of their interests and their rights, was always going to come first. And they knew that if they dared to protest, they were going to be attacked. But no matter the risks, they were ready to go back to the streets and defend their land.

Dhinkia is a village located in the district of Jagatsinghpur, in the eastern coastal state of Odisha, India. The local people are mostly indigenous Adivasi and they mainly work as farmers and fisherfolk, heavily depending on their betel vineyards, rice and cashew plantations, and the fish caught in the Bay of Bengal. 

For 12 years, they fiercely resisted the South Korean steel-making giant POSCO, which proposed building a controversial and polluting steel plant in their territory. At the time, the project would have been the largest foreign investment in the history of India. In March 2017, thanks to their powerful mobilization, they managed to force POSCO to back off: the company had to hand over to the government the land they had acquired.

The community’s victory, however, was short-lived. The Indian government, instead of giving the land back to the local communities, invited the Jindal Steel Works (JSW) group — an Indian-based multinational corporation — to set up a new mega-project in the same location. The proposed plan involves an integrated steel factory, with an associated port, a cement grinding facility, mines and power plants.

This so-called “development project” has been met with strong opposition from local communities in Dhinkia, Nuagaon, Govindpur and neighboring villages, and it is being imposed in clear violation of their right to free, prior and informed consent.

“We’ve seen what happened to other families displaced by similar projects, such as the people displaced by the IOCL refinery plant in Trilochanpur. Today they are in a state of misery. The money received as compensation is already gone, and the women are those suffering the most – as they have to do hard labor all day to support their families,” says Shanti Das, a villager from Dhinkia.

As soon as the local communities started to peacefully oppose the proposed project, the repression began. Local authorities have violently tried to curb the protests of what is now called the Anti-Jindal movement. Security forces are committing severe human rights violations, forcefully evicting local villagers, and criminalizing hundreds of people.

Since the end of 2021, the area around Dhinkia has been heavily militarized. Hundreds of police officers are constantly surveilling and harassing villagers, requiring them to show their IDs when going in and out the village, and attacking them during demonstrations. Tensions escalated on January 14. During a protest against forced evictions and the destruction of plantations, the police attacked a group of 500 villagers with metal sticks. Among the injured, there were also women, children and elderly.

Local authorities have also criminalized everyone who is involved in the protest movement. It is estimated that there are a total of 400 criminal cases still pending from the previous waves of mobilization against POSCO. Over the years authorities have issued warrants against 700 people, including 300 women.

Yet despite the risks they face, villagers are continuing their powerful struggle for their rights.

“This collective and united struggle, through the mobilization of local communities and international solidarity, is a powerful tool to resist the forceful land acquisition process pushed forward by corporations and the state. We have withstood all sorts of dirty tactics used by the state and the company to try and divide our community, and we have never been afraid of going to jail for protecting our land. We’ll continue resisting,” says one of the local human rights defenders.

The proposed project has also disregarded the standard environmental clearance procedure. Most of the land impacted by the factory is officially classified as forest land, and therefore should be protected and preserved. Yet, even though the environmental license has not been issued yet, work has already started.

In early 2022, some sand dunes and mangrove trees were damaged because of the initial work, and dozens of betel vine plants — the most lucrative crop in the region — were razed. Once fully in operation, the project risks polluting hundreds of hectares of precious, fertile land and causing serious environmental impacts, including exacerbating air pollution, sea erosion and droughts. In an area already impacted by climate emergencies, such as cyclones and floods, the JSW steel plant risks completely destroying the fragile ecosystem. 

According to the international organization FIAN International, the factory will heavily impact the livelihoods of at least 40,000 farmers, agricultural workers and fishers. “This project won’t bring any benefit to local communities,” says Pratap Rudra Samantaray, a villager from Dhinkia. “The only ones supporting it are people who are not cultivating any land here and just want to receive some money, by hook or crook, without thinking about the future of the next generations.”

The project also violates India’s legal frameworks. According to the 2006 Forest Rights Act, industrial projects diverting protected forest resources need to secure the consent of the impacted communities, through resolutions taken in the Gram Sabhas (village councils). As reported by FIAN, on several occasions the Gram Sabhas of Dhinkia and nearby villages have passed majority resolutions against any handover of their lands and community forest resources, which are key to sustaining their livelihoods and a healthy environment. These resolutions have been routinely disregarded. 

The people who joined the anti-Jindal Movement have been sitting in dharna, in protest, for months, and they are now mobilizing other communities across the region. They are determined to keep resisting, and said they won’t stop their protest till their demands are met and the project is withdrawn: “We know we are taking risks, but what choice do we have? Otherwise, we would have to leave this soil, this wind, this sky and the peace we enjoy here. We will not leave, this is our motherland,” says Shanti Das.

Guest Author

Prasant Paikray

Prasant Paikray is spokesperson of the Anti-Jindal & Anti-POSCO Movement, a social movement that was formed in 2005, when the Odisha government signed an an agreement with the steel-making giant POSCO, to resist against a proposed steel factory. The movement, after managing to stop the POSCO factory, is now opposing the construction of another steel plant.