The communities have faced eviction, loss of livelihood, and criminalization since their land was first forcibly allocated to the now abandoned POSCO steel project in 2005. That project sparked strong local resistance against the environmental destruction and illegal seizure of community land on which local people largely depend for their livelihoods.
Their protests forced POSCO to withdraw in 2017 but Odisha’s state government then handed the community’s land to a subsidiary of the Indian steel major Jindal Steel Works (JSW) group, JSW Utkal Steel Ltd. (JUSL) prompting local communities in Dhinkia, Nuagaon, Govindpur and neighboring villages to continue to resist the takeover of their land.
The new planned megaproject includes an integrated steel factory, a seaport, a cement grinding plant, mines and a power plant which can displace up to 40,000 people, according to estimations. The project will have disastrous impacts on their rights to food, water, work, health, adequate housing, as well as a healthy environment.
Most of the people in this area are agricultural workers and fishers whose livelihoods are based on the rich biodiversity and fertility of the area. Many are daily wage laborers from the marginalized Dalit community who already live in precarious economic circumstances.
“The Odisha government must recognize our rights over forest land as per the forest rights act 2006. Without taking our consent, handing over our land to Jindal by the Odisha government is illegal,” said Manas Bardham from Dhinkia.
The destruction of betel vines and mangroves, as well as restrictions placed on fishing, illegal sand mining and forceful and illegal cutting of trees have already destroyed the livelihoods of at least 1,000 families. These families have farmed beetle leaves for generations as their sole source of income.
In addition to the income stream provided by the cultivation of betel or cashews, families in the affected villages also significantly supplement their livelihoods by accessing common resources, including rice, fish and forest products that are gathered locally and used for household consumption. The destruction of forestland and community resources has impacted their ability to secure adequate food. Severe restrictions to local communities’ freedom of movement have reduced their ability to get work, access educational facilities and access crops and markets, forcing them to pay inflated prices for daily necessities.
In October 2022, police and JUSL officials demolished 20 houses in Dhinkia village alleging that the houses were on Jindal land and leaving the families homeless. They have lived on the land for more than 100 years and were given no notice of the evictions nor where they allowed to collect their belongings before the demolitions.
State authorities have pushed through plans to forcefully evict them and strip them of their livelihoods in clear breach of existing laws and court orders, with total disregard for India’s international human rights obligations and without the consent of the affected communities. The Ministry for Environment approved the project despite many irregularities.
Sand dunes and mangroves, which have been destroyed, had long protected the villages and surrounding areas from the effects of cyclones. This natural eco system acted as barriers against seawater entering villages. Communities are now exposed to tidal surges, powerful storms and cyclones, which are common in the region. Some villagers have also reported a visible rise in temperature, widespread soil erosion and a shortage of firewood.
Deforestation and reports of jungle areas set on fire have also resulted in wildlife entering human habitations, raising risks to domestically farmed animals and the local community. The coastline is home to a rich and diverse variety of animals including one of only three worldwide nesting sites for the endangered Olive Ridley turtle. Trees have been cut down and land cleared for the project with no consideration for environmental damage.
Violent repression and arbitrary arrests
Villagers have peacefully protested against the proposed projects and the destruction of their livelihoods for nearly two decades and have faced severe repression. Police have injured women, who have been at the forefront of the protests, as well as children and the elderly. There are ongoing, nearly weekly arrests of community members, especially leaders and human rights defenders campaigning for justice.
The situation in Jagatsinghpur demonstrates clearly the degree of influence and the grip that powerful companies often have over state institutions. It highlights the urgent need for a binding UN treaty to reiterate the primacy of human rights over investment agreements.
This should include provisions in relation to the state’s obligation to safeguard human rights from the harmful activities of business enterprises, It should also ensure that states do not violate human rights by facilitating projects such as those supported by Indian authorities in Jagatsinghpur.