Lessons in peaceful but unrelenting resistance from Dhinkia

Villagers have been resisting Odisha govt’s decision to hand over 2900 acres land to a domestic steel co. after POSCO withdrew. The struggle gets fresh edge in view of growing environmental challenges

Lessons in peaceful but unrelenting resistance from Dhinkia

Bharat Dogra

The agitation by the people of Dhinkia and nearby villagers (in Jagatsinghpur district of Odisha) to protect the local green economy based on Dhaan-Meen-Paan (paddy, fish and betel leaf vines) and cashew has lasted 17 years.

The villagers have been resisting the state government’s decision to hand over 2,900 acres of land to Sajjan Jindal’s steel arm after South Korean steel giant POSCO withdrew.

Villagers contend that in view of the Supreme Court’s judgment on the Singur land acquisition case in West Bengal, from where Tata Motors had to withdraw its Nano car plant, they are no longer bound by the land acquisition for POSCO.

The Supreme Court had ordered the land to be returned to the farmers in Singur and allowed the farmers to retain the compensation paid by the company. The Odisha Government however decided to hand over the land acquired for POSCO to Jindal Steel in 2017. But the project has not made much headway in the face of resistance.

The struggle by people at Dhinkia has acquired a fresh perspective in view of the growing environmental challenges across the world. People’s struggles to protect sustainable and existing livelihood of rural communities have been waged for long; but the struggle has acquired a fresh edge and urgency because of growing awareness of the damage to the environment being caused by big industries.

Industry and industrial development had arguably received disproportionate importance till recently with governments bending over backwards to facilitate industry at the cost of the environment and existing livelihood of the people.

This is increasingly being questioned even by experts. In the 21st century, besides the serious health hazards caused by industrial pollution, it is now acknowledged that increased green house gas emissions can endanger essential life-nurturing conditions of our planet. Hence there is an even greater need for protecting the green rural economy which communities have created and nurtured over centuries.

The development debate has shifted in favour of green and rural economy in recent years. Past experience has shown that big industries have done more harm than good to the planet and precipitated environmental and climatic disasters. Since the coastal areas are even more vulnerable, the resistance at Dhinkia has been both heroic and important.

From perspectives of sustainable livelihood and biodiversity to the health and survival of species, present conditions at Dhinkia and coastal areas of Odisha appear more desirable than uprooting people and destroying their traditional livelihood.

Why not then shift big industrial projects—steel, cement or power plants-- if these are really as urgent as is claimed–to areas where they will not lead to displacement and disturbance of the green economy? Why destroy the rich biodiversity and existing economy?

Villagers in and around Dhinkia have kept up the protest for the past 17 years, making it one of the longest people’s movements in the country. Protests, arrests and imprisonment, deaths and economic sacrifices by people succeeded in driving away the South Korean multinational POSCO.

However, instead of returning all their land acquired for POSCO, the state government welcomed an indigenous steel giant to set up a bigger steel plant and acquired more land for it. A new wave of repression and arrests was unleashed.

Several villagers, exhausted at the never-ending struggle and uncertainty, have accepted the steel plant as fait accompli even as others continue to resist. The resilience shown by people in sustaining a peaceful protest for 17 long years in the face of arrests, blockades and discords, has been exemplary. At a time when the world is in search of green alternatives and sustainable livelihood, the peaceful movement by people at Dhinkia is also inspiring. They deserve appreciation and awards, not repression and imprisonment.

The Odisha government headed by Navin Patnaik is known to be more level-headed than most state governments. It has a much better record of governance than many and its welfare schemes and disaster management work have been noticed favourably; which is why its stubborn refusal to heed good sense and stop penalising people for protests is puzzling. It seems to be a case of reason wounded and rationality ignored.

The heartbeat of a genuinely democratic government should be close to the heartbeat of its people. The Odisha Government must urgently review its hostility towards the Dhinkia people’s movement, a movement which deserves the support of democratic forces everywhere as well as those committed to environment protection and sustainable livelihoods of rural communities.

(The writer is honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)

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