As the Odisha government speeds up acquiring land near Paradip for Jindal Steel, DTE visits two villages that had chosen different paths 20 years ago when Posco came to establish a plant
In 2005, when the Odisha government signed an agreement with South Korean steelmaker Posco Intl Corp to set up its mega project, Dhinkia and Nuagaon — two of the eight affected villages near the port of Paradip in Jagatsinghpur district — found themselves on the opposite sides. While Dhinkia opposed Posco, the leaders of Nuagaon supported it.
In 2017, Posco withdrew from the project and recently the Odisha government has renewed its land acquisition drive, but for another project by Jindal Steel Works (JSW) Ltd in the same area. The people of Dhinkia have continued their resistance to the JSW project while there is no support for it in Nuagaon either.
What has changed over the last decade?
“The people of Nuagaon suffered more economically by supporting Posco. They lost their betel vineyards to land acquisition, lost compensation money to chit fund companies and failed to find alternative livelihoods,” Nuagaon sarpanch Bidyadhar Mallick told this reporter.
Dhinkia, on the other hand, prospered as its people could save their betel vineyards from being dismantled by the administration and also protect their livelihoods, he added.
Posco’s project, touted to be India’s single biggest foreign direct investment of the time, had an investment of $12 billion (Rs 52,000 crore then).
The project needed 4,004 acres across the eight villages under the three Gram Panchayats of Dhinkia, Nuagaon and Gadakujanga to set up its 12 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) steel plant.
However, the villagers resisted the project under the banner of Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS). Dhinkia, a village of over 700 families, became the epicentre of the resistance.
There were bamboo barricades around the village and women guarded them to check the entry of the administration and police officials.
In 2011, the state government was forced to scale down the production capacity to eight MTPA and area to 2,700 acres, excluding Dhinkia from the list of affected villages — ostensibly to blunt the edge of the anti-Posco agitation.
The strategy worked to some extent, as the district administration managed to complete land acquisition dismantling more than 1,100 vines across the other seven villages in two phases (2011 and 2013) amid protests and the use of police force.
However, the government’s supposedly punitive action of isolating Dhinkia seemed to benefit the village by default.
Dhinkia’s exclusion proved to be a blessing as the village prospered over the years, emerging as one of Odisha’s biggest centres of betel leaves.
The village supplies more than two million betel leaves — that are used to wrap a heady mix known as ‘paan’ relished by millions of Indians — worth around Rs 20 lakh every month to places across India, mainly Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Kolkata.
The residents of Dhinkia removed their bamboo barricades after Posco withdrew and the administration stopped the decade-long land acquisition drive.
They got busy in their betel vineyards. “When the anti-Posco agitation started, there were around 500 betel vines in Dhinkia, which have increased four-fold to 2,000 today,” Ratnakar Rout, a betel vine farmer, said.
About 85 per cent families of Dhinkia have their own vines now according to the residents, as against 35 per cent before the anti-Posco movement started. At least 200 workers get work in the betel vines in Dhinkia on any given day.
Picture of despair
An eerie silence prevails over Nuagaon. Photo: Priya Ranjan Sahu
On the other hand, despair is palpable in Nuagaon, a one-village Gram Panchayat with a population of over 10,000. Most villagers regret their decision of welcoming Posco.
They blame the leaders of United Action Committee (UAC), which had a strong presence in the village, for misleading the villagers to allow the dismantling of their betel vines and receive compensation when the administration started its drive in 2011.
Over 600 families in Nuagaon and three other villages of the adjoining Gadakujanga Gram Panchayat received a total compensation of around Rs nine crore for the demolition of 651 betel vines.
However, most of the compensation amount went straight to the chit fund companies that showcased local politicians as their brand ambassadors and kept their pace with the land acquisition drive of the administration.
At least 350 families of Nuagaon deposited around Rs 3 crore of their compensation money in a chit fund company called Artha Tatwa, which is now defunct.
As the company got embroiled in the chit fund scam that rocked Odisha, the money of the villagers also got blocked and they turned paupers.
Besides betel vines, the villagers lost thousands of cashew trees, another source of living for them, as they were felled by the administration after the land acquisition.
Many from project-affected villagers who used to be proud vine owners themselves not long ago, now depend on Dhinkia for livelihood.
Pitambar Mallick of Nuagaon, who works as a labourer in the betel vineyards of Dhinkia, said more than 300 daily wagers from their village do similar work regularly.
“But now that the administration may dismantle the betel vines in Dhinkia as part of land acquisition for JSW, we are uncertain about our employment,” he said.
That precisely explains why the villagers of Nuagaon are against JSW’s project. The JSW project, including a 12 MTPA steel plant, a 10 MTPA cement plant and a 900 megawatt power plant, is bigger than Posco’s and needs around 3,000 acres of land.
The 2,200 acres that the state-run Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (IDCO) had acquired for Posco, are supposed to pass on to JSW’s project.
The rest 748 acres, most of which come under Dhinkia, Patana and Malaha villages are being acquired during the present drive. This has triggered stiff protests from the people of Dhinkia and a subsequent police crackdown on them in the recent weeks. The bamboo barricades are back at the entry points to Dhinkia.
During the public hearing for JSW’s project in November 2021, most of the villagers of Nuagaon registered their opposition to the JSW project. Clearly, most people in Nugagaon do not want any other project after their bitter experience with Posco.
But the recent treatment meted out to the protesters in Dhinkia has instilled a sense of fear in them.
“People are afraid but at the same time have realised that dismantling of Dhinkia’s betel vines for JSW will affect their livelihoods too. Most stare at an uncertain future,” Smruti Mantri, a resident of Nuagaon, said.
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