An Indian community’s struggle against a polluting steel mill – The Diplomat
When news of another steel plant being built broke, local communities in Dhinkia and surrounding villages were not surprised. They knew that their precious fields, with their green plantations of betel, were going to be put up for sale again. They knew that profit, instead of their interests and rights, would always 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 return to the streets and defend their land.
Dhinkia is a village located in Jagatsinghpur district in the eastern coastal state of Odisha, India. The local people are mostly indigenous Adivasi and work mainly as farmers and fishermen, relying heavily on their betel vineyards, rice and cashew plantations, and fish caught in the Bay of Bengal.
For 12 years they fiercely resisted the South Korean steel giant POSCO, which proposed to build a controversial and polluting steel plant on their territory. At the time, the project would have been the largest foreign investment in Indian history. In March 2017, thanks to their powerful mobilization, they managed to force POSCO to back down: the company had to hand over the land they had acquired to the government.
That of the community victory, however, was short-lived. The Indian government, instead of returning the land to the local communities, invited the Jindal Steel Works (JSW) group – an India-based multinational – to set up a new megaproject in the same location. The proposed plan includes an integrated steelworks, with associated port, cement milling facility, mines and power stations.
This so-called “development project” has been met with strong opposition from local communities in Dhinkia, Nuagaon, Govindpur and neighboring villages, and is being imposed in gross violation of their right to free, prior and informed consent.
“We have seen what has happened to other families displaced by similar projects, such as those displaced by the IOCL refinery in Trilochanpur. Today, they are in a state of misery. The money received in compensation has already disappeared, and it is the women who suffer the most, as they have to work hard all day to support their families,” says Shanti Das, a villager from Dhinkia.
As soon as local communities began to peacefully oppose the proposed project, repression began. Local authorities violently tried to quell the protests of what is now called the Anti-Jindal movement. Security forces are committing serious human rights violations, forcibly evicting local villagers and criminalizing hundreds of people.
Since late 2021, the area around Dhinkia has been heavily militarized. Hundreds of police constantly monitor and harass villagers, forcing them to show their IDs when entering and leaving the village, and attack them during protests. Tensions escalated on January 14. During a demonstration against forced evictions and the destruction of plantations, the police attacked a group of 500 villagers with metal batons. Among the injured were also women, children and the elderly.
Local authorities have also criminalized anyone involved in the protest movement. It is estimated that there are a total of 400 criminal cases still pending from previous waves of mobilization against POSCO. Over the years, authorities have issued warrants for 700 people, including 300 women.
Yet despite the risks they face, the villagers continue their relentless fight for their rights.
“This collective and united struggle, through the mobilization of local communities and international solidarity, is a powerful tool to resist the process of land acquisition pushed by companies and the State. We’ve stood up to all sorts of dirty tactics used by the state and the corporation to try to divide our community, and we’ve never been afraid of going to jail for protecting our land. We will continue to resist,” said one of the local human rights defenders.
The proposed project also ignored the standard environmental clearance procedure. Most of the land affected by the plant is officially classified as forest land and should therefore be protected and preserved. However, even if the environmental license has not yet been issued, work has already begun.
In early 2022, some sand dunes and mangroves were damaged from the initial works, and dozens of betel plants – the region’s most lucrative crop – were razed. Once fully operational, the project risks polluting hundreds of hectares of valuable and fertile land and causing serious environmental impacts, including increased air pollution, marine erosion and droughts. In an area already affected by climate emergencies, such as cyclones and floods, the JSW steel mill risks completely destroying the fragile ecosystem.
According to the international organization FIAN International, the plant will have a significant impact on the livelihoods of at least 40,000 farmers, farm workers and fishers. “This project will not bring any benefit to local communities,” says Pratap Rudra Samantaray, a villager from Dhinkia. “The only ones who support him are people who don’t cultivate any land here and just want to receive money, willingly or by force, without thinking about the future of the next generations.”
The project also violates India’s legal frameworks. According to Forest Rights Act 2006, industrial projects diverting protected forest resources must obtain the consent of the communities concerned, through resolutions taken in the Gram Sabhas (village councils). As reported by FIAN, on several occasions, the Gram Sabhas of Dhinkia and neighboring villages have passed majority resolutions against any cession of their lands and community forest resources, which are essential to maintain their livelihoods and a healthy environment. These resolutions have been systematically ignored.
People who have joined the anti-Jindal movement are sitting in dharna, in protest, for months, and they are now mobilizing other communities across the region. They are determined to continue resisting and said they will not stop their protest until their demands are met and the project is withdrawn: “We know we are taking risks, but what choice do we have? we ? 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 homeland,” says Shanti Das.