Why this Indian village has fought a steel plant for 18 years
Manas Bardhan was 15 when he noticed a stir in his village in the eastern Indian state of Odisha. Dhinkia elders had begun to huddle together every evening, and when he tagged along with his parents one night, he was alarmed by what he heard.
Their land had become the site of a lucrative industrial project, and if the village didn’t stand up in resistance, they would lose it.
For generations, the community has cultivated betel vines in shaded plots and fished in water bodies scattered across the forested area. They depended on the fertile earth – “sweet sand,” as the locals called it – and the sea flanking them on one side. Mr. Bardhan would spend hours helping his father irrigate the fields one day, collecting cashew nuts with his mother another. But in 2005, this way of life was thrown into jeopardy when the Odisha government signed a $12 billion deal with South Korean steel giant POSCO – the biggest foreign direct investment in Indian history at the time – allocating thousands of acres from eight different villages to build an integrated steel plant.
WHY WE WROTE THIS
A story focused on PERSEVERANCE. Who defines “development”? A village’s enduring resistance against a massive steelworks project highlights gaps in India’s environmental protections and human rights.
The project has since changed hands, but Mr. Bardhan and other villagers continue to fight against the development nearly two decades later. There have been small victories – courts and expert committees have intervened at times and villages have passed resolutions. In March, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) suspended the new company’s environmental clearance and ordered a fresh environmental impact review. However, the fact that the project hasn’t been canceled yet, activists and experts say, underscores a broader pattern where the state and national governments have repeatedly ignored environmental laws and the concerns of forest-dependent communities in their push for industrial projects.
The laws in place are “not implemented and not honored by the state itself,” says Prafulla Samantara, an Odisha-based environmental activist who filed the petition at the NGT. Moreover, “after the [Bharatiya Janata Party] government came into power, they’ve tried to change pro-people laws and rules to give more opportunities and advantages to the corporates. This has happened at the cost of the people … and at the cost of climate justice.”
A long fight
Dhinkia has long been at the forefront of the resistance. Mr. Bardhan recalls being in his school uniform, the heat beating down, guarding the barricades villagers put up to keep the police and POSCO officials out. Like going to class or working the fields, protesting became part of his routine. Eventually, he dropped out of school.
“The stress of the resistance got to me,” he says. “I thought, ‘What are we going to do with our education while our elders are being beaten and sent to jail?’”
Facing unwavering resistance and new legal hurdles – including the landmark Forest Rights Act, which requires the informed consent of village councils before any occupied forest land is diverted for a proposed project, and strengthened mining regulations – POSCO surrendered the land in 2017. The relief was short-lived, however, with the government transferring the forest clearance to an Indian multinational corporation, the Jindal Steelwork Group (JSW).
JSW now plans to build its own integrated steel plant, which includes a cement grinding unit and a coal-based captive power plant of massive capacities.
Mr. Samantara, who filed the petition with NGT, argued that no environmental assessment had been done to study the “cumulative impact” of these polluting industries on the area’s human and ecological health. The tribunal’s order also noted that the public hearing for the JSW’s environmental clearance – which Dhinkia residents call a farce – provided incomplete information about the project’s impact.
“We are conscious that the project involves huge investment. At the same time, the principle of sustainable development cannot be ignored,” the NGT order states.
The order comes as lawmakers have diluted several environmental regulations to pave the way for ease of business. Mr. Samantara says that the Indian government is “violating its own promises to the Paris Agreement.” Meanwhile, Mr. Bardhan and others in Dhinkia have not backed down.
Battle heats up
The fight against POSCO was long and hard, says Dhinkia resident Shanti Das, but in the last two years, villagers have seen unprecedented levels of police repression.
Police have at times set up camps outside Dhinkia, prevented activists and media from entering, and left the village in a state of near siege, according to locals.
Last January, hundreds of officers baton-charged protesting villagers. Mr. Bardhan still carries scars from that day on his face. Ms. Das was also beaten; then she hid out in the forests for weeks before eventually being arrested. She and Mr. Bardhan face a slew of serious charges, including attempt to murder, criminal intimidation, and illegal use of prohibited arms, all of which they strongly refute. Both are currently out on bail.
Local activists estimate that police have filed cases against thousands of villagers and issued arrest warrants against more than 700 locals since 2005. Many involved in the local resistance continue to languish in jails. The district administration was not available to respond to queries, but in the past, officials have justified police crackdowns as necessary to quell the protest.
“Almost all of the local community (baring a very selected few individuals from Dhinkia village who are historically against industrial activities in the area), are fully supportive of the project development” and believe that it will “enrich the quality of life and livelihood of the community,” wrote Anil Kumar Singh, part of the management at a local JSW subsidiary, in an email response.
Yet in some instances, the courts have sided with those “select few.” In response to a petition by residents from three different villages, including Mr. Bardhan, the Odisha High Court recently halted the alienation of land for the project until the government carried out the process of recognizing the rights of the community under India’s forest rights law.
“The judge is like God to us. He upheld our rights,” says Mr. Bardhan. But it might be too little, too late. Dhinkia residents say almost all their betel vines and agricultural land have been flattened in preparation for the project – and with them, a sustainable livelihood.
“We worked, harvested the crops, and fed ourselves,” says Ms. Das about life in Dhinkia before the steel project. “What difficulty would we have? Just looking at that bountiful land filled my stomach. But now I haven’t stepped foot [in the betel farms] in a year and a half.”
For the loss of betel vines, JSW has offered a compensation of about $210 per 0.01 acres, along with a range of other one-time payments and the promise of jobs at the plant. Residents of Dhinkia say this compensation package is no substitute for the perennial income they once had. Having witnessed similar companies fail to deliver jobs in neighboring regions, and, aware of increasing industrial mechanization, they see no real guarantee of work either.
“This is our company,” says Mr. Bardhan, referring to the steady work betel farms once generated for many landless laborers. “Even an aged worker eats his meals with us and takes home at least 350 rupees [$4.27] at the end of the day. What will a company give them?”
Today, India is the world’s second-largest producer of steel, and Odisha, a mineral-rich state on an industrial overdrive, is the country’s largest producer of iron ore. But the state fares poorly on human development indicators, and reports highlight that income from mineral extraction does not benefit the regions from where these minerals come.
Sandeep Kumar Pattnaik, an Odisha-based researcher, says the state’s vision of “development” does not take into consideration the needs of the marginalized communities who make up almost half its population. “In the process, we see that cases of displacement, environmental destruction, filing of [criminal] cases, politicization, and corruption have become high,” he says.
While the state’s gross domestic product has gone up, he adds, “if we look at the structure of development, it is extremely violent.”
In Dhinkia, residents say they feel depleted. Children have dropped out of school, there is no work, and meals are scarce. But they remain determined.
“We don’t want money,” says Ms. Das. “Instead, let them release our sons from jails, return our land to us. … It’s been our resolution from the start that we’ll fight till we die and won’t leave our land.”
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.