The project site is in an area that is home to around 22,000 people with a significant number of Dalits
The Orissa High Court has stayed the lease proceedings and alienation of forest categorised land towards the proposed Rs 65,000-crore steel project by JSW Utkal Steel Ltd (JUSL) in Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur district.
A division bench of the High Court comprising justices Arindam Sinha and Sanjay Kumar Mishra on March 24, 2023 directed the state government to move the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) for compliance with regard to the rights of other traditional forest dwellers living in the area, where the steel project is proposed to be set up. It was acting on a petition filed by Manas Bardhan and others from Dhinkia, Mahala and Gobindpur villages under Dhinkia Gram Panchayat in Erasama Block.
The petitioners are traditional forest dwellers, living in the proposed steel plant site for a long time. They had earlier moved the high court challenging, under the Orissa Government Land Settlement Act, 1962 provisions, the alienation and diversion of forest land by government agencies.
This forested area is primarily known for its betel, cashew and paddy cultivation. Villagers also grow a variety of vegetables and fruits in these forest regions. Apart from that, the local forest caters to the needs of the people for fuel, housing material and other forest produce.
In addition, the nearby Jatadhar river and its mouth are the only sources of sustenance for approximately 20,000-25,000 traditional fishermen residing in the neighboring area. The forest land and its surrounding ecosystem serve as the only and permanent source of livelihood for the inhabitants of this region, stated the petitioners.
The proposed project site, also known as Dhinkia Chaaridesh, comprises eight villages spreading over three Gram Panchayats, Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gadkujang, and the adjacent forest lands. The area is home to around 22,000 people with a significant number of Dalits.
These communities, comprising forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest-dwelling communities, have been living in and around forests for generations but were often denied recognition of their rights, leading to their marginalisation, eviction and denial of livelihoods, they added.
“There must first be compliance with requisites made in a circular dated August 3, 2009 issued by the Government of India, Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. For this purpose, the state will move the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest in the central government to further their intention of alienation, in compliance with the requirements. Till compliance of the requirements, including recognition of traditional forest dwellers, is complete as filed in the lease cases, they will remain stayed,” ruled the High Court in an order.
The petitioners and other families have been living in the same villages for multiple generations and have been primarily engaged in cultivation for their livelihood. Many inhabitants of these villages also have been reliant on various forest products from the forests for more than a hundred years.
This claim is substantiated by the Survey of India map from 1928-1929, which depicts these villages as being situated adjacent to a “dense miscellaneous jungle” with cultivated plots and betel vine sheds scattered throughout the forested area.
The Final Report on Settlement of Kujang Forest Block 1959-66 also talked about the nature of this disputed stretch of land as being a forest region.
The Committee headed by Meena Gupta constituted in 2010 by the MoEF&CC has referred to in its report the village settlement maps of 1927-1928 for Dhinkia, Govindpur and Nuagaon villages. These depict gramya jungle and jhaun jungle, as well as tree symbols in and around these villages.
JUSL, a wholly-owned subsidiary of JSW Steel Ltd, and part of the $13 billion JSW Group, received environment clearances (EC) from MoEFCC in April 2022 for setting up a Greenfield Integrated Steel Plant of 13.2 million tonnes per annum crude steel capacity.
The National Green Tribunal March 20, 2023 suspended the ECs obtained by JUSL due to lack of proper evaluation of sourcing water from river Mahanadi and public hearing before the social impact assessment study.
NGT also ordered that the matter will need fresh appraisal by the Environment Appraisal Committee as well as a fresh decision by MoEF&CC within three months. Till such a decision, the ECs will remain suspended.
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