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Odisha Govt Rushes To Hand Over Village Land to JSW Group’s Rs 55,000 cr Project

Forest rights claims of Dhinkia villagers have not been reportedly settled despite the dismantlement of betel vineyards.
jsw protest

New Delhi: The Naveen Patnaik government is in a tearing hurry to hand over a large parcel of land near Jagatsinghpur district’s Dhinkia village, Odisha, to Sajjan Jindal’s JSW Utkal Steel Limited (JUSL) for its proposed Rs 55,000 crore 13.2-million tonne per annum capacity (MTPA) integrated project despite stiff opposition from local communities.

A significant section of the local population in Ersama tehsil, where the project is supposed to come up across nine revenue villages, is exasperated with the state government.

In January, the district administration forcibly dismantled a number of betel vineyards—the traditional source of livelihood of the population—on a piece of land categorised as ‘forestland’ in government records.

The locals allege that the state government has neither addressed the issue of the loss of their livelihood nor considered the possible environmental impact of the proposed project, which still awaits environmental clearance by the ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC).

The owner of an average betel vineyard earns around Rs 5 lakh- Rs 7 lakh during the three months of winter alone. This income suffices for our education and health expense,” Manash Bardhan (33) of Dhinkia village, the epicentre of the protests against the steel project, tells Newsclick. “Our family has been dependent on these betel vineyards on this land, which the government now calls forestland, for the past four generations. But they were dismantled despite our opposition.”

As per the district administration, the total area earmarked for the project is approximately 1,200 hectares, out of which private land accounts for less than one hectare and the rest 1,083.69 hectares is ‘forestland’.

The process of acquiring private land is under way after public consultation. The betel vineyards that will be dismantled are located on 1,083.67 hectares of forest land. The Central government had earmarked this land for industrial use several years ago,” Ersama tehsildar Choudhury Prajnananda Das tells Newsclick.

Nevertheless, we pay a one-time compensation of Rs 17.50 lakh for each vineyard and a bonus of Rs 50,000 within the 15-day notice period,” adds Das.

Out of 857 vineyards identified for dismantling in the first phase, 671 were dismantled by January-end with compensation paid for 568 but without the settlement of ‘forest rights’ of their owners.

An MoEFCC letter dated October 16, 2019, granted final clearance to the state government to divert the 1,083.69 hectares for the project on the condition that the rights of the local communities are settled. “The State Govt. shall ensure complete compliance of the FRA [the Forest Rights Act], 2006, if not already done,” states point number 10 of the 14 conditions laid down by MoEFCC in lieu of granting the final clearance.

The FRA, known as the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, recognises individual and community rights of people traditionally dependent on forestland for their livelihood. However, locals and activists allege that the state government manipulated surveys conducted to identify potential beneficiaries under the Act. The definition of ‘other traditional forest dwellers’ in many cases was narrowly interpreted while applications were never acknowledged in other cases, they further allege.

Thousands of applications to claim traditional rights over the forestland under the FRA, 2006, were filed and appended with records supporting the fact that the land has been cultivated by successive generations of families for more than 100 years. The rights are yet to be approved,” says Prashant Paikray of Jindal Pratirodh Bheetamati Suraksha Samiti, an organisation at the forefront of the agitation.

There has been no response either to the hundreds of RTI applications filed to ascertain the status of those applications” adds Paikray.

The tribal welfare ministries at the Centre and the state are responsible for implementing the FRA. The locals claim to possess records of the applications sent to claim their rights through registered posts. However, state tribal welfare minister Jagannath Saraka tells Newsclick that the government has no database of the settlement of forest rights claims in Ersama.

Only a proper inquiry can reveal the number of claims made under the FRA, 2006, in Ersama tehsil and the ones settled so far,” adds Saraka, who is also in charge of the Department of ST & SC Development, Minorities and Backward Classes Welfare.

The 1,083.69 hectares is part of a larger parcel of forestland of 1,253.225 hectares allocated to South Korean steel major POSCO for the construction of a 12 MTPA steel plant in Jagatsinghpur in May 2011. When POSCO backed out of the project in 2017 owing to various reasons, the Patnaik government decided to retain the area in the form of a ‘land bank’ under the control of Odisha Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation. In October 2019, the MoEFCC transferred POSCO’s land clearance to JUSL.

The Odisha government signed the agreement with POSCO in June 2005 and private land was acquired in 2011 and 2013. When the betel vineyards located on forestland were dismantled, even then the locals had protested,” says Sricharan Behera, a Bhubaneswar-based activist of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a national forum of tribal and other forest dwellers.

Two committees formed by the then-Union government during the POSCO agitation had also reported on the need of settling forest rights in the area. In all these years, the state government never thought about curative action to correct the historical injustice meted out to the claimants. Why is the government in hurry all of a sudden to hand over the land to a corporate conglomerate?” asks Behera.

A questionnaire sent to the JSW Group about the commitment given to it by the Odisha government regarding compliance with the FRA, 2006, before handing over the land and also specify the compensation amount that the conglomerate promised to private landowners after direct negotiations was not answered at the time of publication of this article.

The apparent lack of transparency in settling the rights of Ersama communities was evident in a February 2019 Supreme Court order in which a three-Judge Bench had directed state governments to review forest rights claims that had been rejected. However, most states, including Odisha, have delayed implementing the apex court order.

The JUSL project—comprising the 13.2 MTPA steel plant, a 10 MTPA cement grinding unit and a 900 megawatt captive power plant—has been prosed close to Paradeep port town, which is also within Jagatsinghpur.

In addition, an all-weather Rs 2,100 crore greenfield captive jetty of 52 MTPA capacity has been proposed at the mouth of Jatadhari River, along the coast of the Bay of Bengal in Jagatsinghpur. Besides, a pipeline that will transport iron ore, in slurry form, from the mineral belt in Keonjhar, Sundargarh and Nayagarh to meet any shortfall in the import of raw material concentrate for the steel plant has been proposed. An iron ore grinding and desliming plant with a capacity of 30 MTPA will be set up at the end of this pipeline.

In addition, another 87 km pipeline has been proposed to transport 53.8 million gallons of water per day from Jobra Barrage across the Mahanadi River in Cuttack to the proposed project site.

Paradeep, which has 15 industries categorised as ‘red’ due to their highly polluting nature, has been classified by the Central Pollution Control Board as a ‘severely polluted area’. Yet the cumulative environment impact assessment of the proposed project has allegedly not been studied.

More than 50,000 families reside within a 10 km radius of the proposed project. However, only a handful of households will be resettled leaving the rest to suffer from long-term environmental hazards,” says noted environmental activist Prafulla Samantray. “There was massive opposition to the project during the public hearing in December 2019. The Odisha government’s eagerness in helping a corporate group to construct a polluting industrial complex in a densely populated area is inexplicable.”

According to the 2011 Census, Ersama had a population of approximately 1.07 lakh—out of which only 142 families have been identified to have been affected by the project and eligible for resettlement.

In its application seeking environmental clearance for the project, the project proponent informed the MoEFCC that no alternative site was ever considered before selecting Ersama. The company has claimed that the project will generate 72,000 jobs out of which 57,000 will be in the form of indirect employment.

While granting the clearance, the MoEFCC had clearly mentioned that the sand dunes “in the vicinity of the project” should not be disturbed. In a meeting held in May 2021, the MoEFCC’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC), which analyses the potential impact of industrial projects before granting clearance, pointed out that the project proponent had not shown the sand dunes to be protected on the layout map.

Sand dunes act as a natural barrier against seawater ingression in coastal areas like Jagatsinghpur which are prone to tropical cyclones. The EAC further advised the project proponent to explore alternative sources of water (like desalinating seawater) instead of diverting large quantities from Mahanadi.

As per the minutes of the EAC meeting, nearly 1.3 lakh trees are likely to be felled for the project. The EAC advised the company to keep the felling of trees to a bare minimum while ensuring proper compensatory afforestation and greenbelt development. The proposal was listed again in the EAC meeting on January 28, whose outcome is yet to be made public.

According to a report prepared by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, an independent research think tank, several parameters mandatory under the Environment Impact Assessment Notification 2006 were either overlooked or manipulated in preparing the report for the project.

Levels of suspended particulate matter (PM 10 and PM 2.5) in the air in Paradeep is above permissible limits. The air pollution in the region will definitely increase due to the project, which also includes a thermal power plant. It will be detrimental to the health of the local population,” Sunil Dahiya, an analyst with the think tank, tells Newsclick.

The writer is an independent journalist.

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