Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur district has been in a state of social turmoil since December 4, 2021 when a ¾ platoon police brutally attacked Dhinkia villagers in a bid to arrest local activist Debendra Swain.
At a time when the state government was persistently warning people about an impending cyclonic storm, the district police attempted to arrest the leader of the organisation opposing Jindal Steel Works Ltd (JSW) and South Korean Steel major POSCO’s projects on agricultural land. Over 500 people assembled in the dead of the night when the officials visited the area.
Despite the non-violent resistance, the police lathi-charged the people injuring 60-year-old Santi Das, Tanu Das and Mathuri Das – both 50-year-old – and 32-year-old Manas Bardhan. Eventually, the police left without arresting Swain.
Charges against Swain
As per a fact-finding report by a six-member team of the People’s Union to Civil Liberties (PUCL), the arrest was made following three FIRs between November 4 and December 4. The first FIR alleged that some people, including Swain, hurled bombs at Govindpur Villager Pravat Rout’s house at 2 PM. The second FIR registered by the police claimed officials were obstructed from visiting the incident area around 3.20 AM near Dhinkia Panchayat Office by 30 people. Again, Swain was allegedly involved in the incident where a service pistol was recovered. The last FIR accused villagers of attacking the police.
However, Dhinkia residents rejected all accusations as stories concocted to suppress the anti-Jindal and anti-POSCO movement. Instead, they said the police arrived in three vans and two Boleros and people gathered around Swain’s house to keep him from arrest. PUCL members said some women were dragged and beaten while trying to dissuade the police. Meanwhile, the SP reported that 11 policemen were injured during the incident – a claim that the PUCL is yet to confirm.
Protest in aftermath
In retaliation to the alleged attack, nearly 500 people from Dhinkia, Mahal, Patana and Govindpur demonstrated amidst storm rains on the following morning. They condemned the two FIRs listing various charges including attempt to murder. The two FIRs named 76 people and included 115-120 people as “others”.
“This means that police can arrest anyone not named in the FIR. According to people of Dhinkia, police have also booked people who were not present in the village on that day,” said the report.
After the incident, police have been deployed at three entry points to the village, Trilochanpur, Patana and Mahala. Villagers are asked to show their Aadhaar card at these points hindering their work in the betel vine fields. Residents suspect the personnel have a list of people that still need to be arrested.
Similarly, nearby villages also complained of police harassment. As such, the team concluded that villagers’ lives were being hampered by police presence and asked that the administration immediately withdraw the police force from the area.
Since the incident was a result of unrest in the area regarding development projects, the PUCL also demanded that fresh land acquisition and fencing be suspended until JSW got a proper environment clearance.
Accordingly, it also called for steps to address people’s concerns like the lack of implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006, distribution of land and patta to the landless, withdrawal of old cases filed against people during the anti-POSCO movement and larger environmental concerns.
“The team feels that larger sections of the population in the proposed project affected area are not in favour of the project. But, the administration is using all sorts of tricks and trickeries to win the support of the people and entangling them with criminal cases. It is actively working towards creating divisions among villages to safeguard the interest of the company,” said the report.
About the anti-Jindal and anti-POSCO agitation
Years ago, POSCO withdrew its proposed steel project after facing fierce resistance from locals. However, instead of returning this land to the people, the state government put the area in a land bank where it was transferred to Jindal Steel Works Ltd. The company planned to build an integrated steel plant, a captive power plant and a cement factory.
The district administration, between August and November this year, called for a fresh notification for further acquisition of land, Panchayat hearings to ascertain people’s grievances and trifurcation of Dhinkia revenue village – all amidst heavy police deployment.
The move once again angered residents. Already, the first wave of Covid-19 and cyclonic storm ‘Amphan’ had wreaked a severe economic crisis on people, especially betel-vine cultivators. Later, they received anonymous application forms purportedly asking people to express interest in handing over their land and betel-vines to the company. People felt that the administration was taking advantage of their distress without helping them.
Further, villagers accused the government of ignoring their demand for the implementation of the Forest Rights Act-2006 since the time of anti-POSCO movement. Earlier, the two centrally-instituted committees recommended that the forest land be distributed to the people, who will then decide if they want the project in the area.
However, according to the movement spokesperson Prasant Paikray, “The Odisha Govt is forcibly grabbing the fertile agricultural land and homestead land of 11 Villages for JSW. As you are well aware, with a lot of hardships and sacrifices our villagers drove POSCO from our soil. The irony is that we are forced to confront the same reality now because of the government’s love for another election fund provider, JSW.”