Villagers of Jagatsinghpur struggle for 15 years against projects that threaten livelihood and land

In light of the deferring of clearance to Jindal Steel Works for its jetties’ development project in the Jagatsinghpur district in Odisha by the Expert Appraisal Committee appointed by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, MEENA MENON charts the relentless struggle of the villagers in this coastal district in Odisha for the past decade and a half against environmentally destructive mega-scale steel development plant projects that not only threaten their lands and livelihoods, but disregard their ways of life.

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THE proposed Rs 50,000 crore integrated steel plant and jetties project by Jindal Steel Works (JSW) group on the same location as the earlier POSCO project in Jagatsinghpur, Odisha has met with a setback.

Unusually, on March 3 and 4,   the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) for the projects related to infrastructure development (which includes ports),  of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF & CC), criticised the Environment Impact Assessment/Environment Management Plan (EIA/EMP) for the project and requested more information. (The minutes of the meeting of the EAC can be seen here)

As a result, the EAC also deferred clearance for the development of an all-weather, multi-cargo, greenfield captive jetties for handling a capacity of 52 million tonnes per annum (MTPA) at the mouth of the Jatadhari River, which is a crucial component of the project.

Expert appraisal committee’s objections

The expert committee also observed that the EIA/EMP prepared by the consultant WAPCOS Limited had substantive shortcomings. The EMP prepared by WAPCOS had not established a correlation between the baseline study and the mitigation plan.

(A baseline study looks at what information must be analysed to establish a starting point or the benchmark against which future progress can be assessed and comparisons made. A mitigation plan involves identifying potential risks due to the project, and planning on how to reduce those risks.)

Further, the consultant was not well-versed with the biodiversity assessment, the EAC remarked. The biodiversity assessment enumerates all the various species in the area, in addition to flora and soil quality.

The company has to now re-assess the marine ecology study performed by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) – National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), Mumbai for its completeness, and resubmit detailed baseline data and an impact mitigation plan.

The EAC asked for a detailed environmental baseline study and mitigation plan along with the financial allocation. It asked for data of PH issues and the commitment and mitigation measures/plans along with the budgetary provisions to be submitted in a tabular form.

It also called for the revision of the EMP by making financial allocations for activities for fulfilling these commitments. The proposal will be reconsidered after the details requested are made available for appraisal by the EAC.

In a related development, later in March, the company also withdrew its application for environmental clearance, which it had applied for to another EAC of the MoEF & CC.  This was done so that it could incorporate the common EIA Report for the integrated steel plant and the jetties project at Paradeep, and make a fresh submission for environmental clearance.

JSW Utkal Steel Ltd. (JUSL), a wholly-owned subsidiary of JSW, plans to build a 13.2 million tonnes per annum(MTPA) integrated steel plant that will also comprise a captive power plant of 900-megawatt capacity, and a cement grinding and mixing unit of 10 MTPA. The iron ore for the plant shall be sourced through a slurry pipeline from a 30 MTPA iron ore grinding and de-sliming plant proposed in the Keonjhar district of Odisha (slightly over 200 km away from both Jagatsinghpur and Paradeep).

Jagatsinghpur’s long history of struggle against POSCO and Jindal Steel

The coastal farmers and fisherfolk community, which opposed the steel plant project by POSCO at Jagatsinghpur, are now having a sense of déjà vu. When POSCO withdrew due to various reasons in 2017, about 1,700 acres of the land acquired for the project was handed over to JSW.

POSCO had withdrawn its proposal to build an integrated steel plant, port and captive power plant at the same site, 12 km from the Paradeep port. The Odisha government had acquired 2,700 acres of land for the project from the villages of Nuagaon, Noliyasahi, Gobindpur, and Bhuyalpal in the Ersama tehsil of Jagatsinghpur district.

POSCO’s project was hailed as India’s largest foreign direct investment (FDI) of $ 12 billion and was a prestigious catch for the erstwhile United Progressive Alliance government. A memorandum of understanding in pursuit of the same was signed between POSCO and the Odisha government in 2005.

Soon after, the affected people, under the leadership of the Communist Party of India, formed the ‘POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti’ (“POCSO Resistance Struggle Committee”, PPSS) to oppose the project, which would acquire over 4,000 acres of land in the three panchayats of Dhinkia, Gadakujang and Nuagaon in the Ersama tehsil. What followed was an intense, decade-long struggle, which stalled POSCO. Now there is a sense of betrayal as the government did not return the land it acquired but handed it over to another company.

POSCO had cancelled its plans because of several factors, not the least being a fierce agitation led by the PPSS. Residents feared they would lose their land and livelihoods as the area has a thriving betel vine industry.

The local community owns very little land, and the state government acquired the forest land without settling rights under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (Forest Rights Act) for the POSCO project, according to Tuna Baral of PPSS.

Under the Forest Rights Act, the village-level gram sabhas have the right to reject or approve a project. The gram sabhas contended that they had passed resolutions opposing the POSCO project but the government did not accept their refusal, saying it was invalid and fraudulent.

Also read: Invoke Forest Rights Act for Environmental Conservation in Kashmir

The area has an unhappy experience with industry. Starting with the Paradeep port, there are over 15 industries, with the Indian Oil refinery being the most recent, very close to Dhinkia village. The employment generation promised to flow from these industries rarely materialise, and most locals work as daily wagers in the industries.

Since February 28, there has been an ongoing agitation by the people whose lands were acquired by the Indian Oil refinery project to demand that the company keep its promises, including the offer of jobs for those who lost land from 1998 onwards.

After POSCO’s exit, there seems to have been little respite for the residents, who have written letters and petitioned the government regarding the new JSW project. The PPSS members have had many police cases filed against them for their opposition to POSCO, but they seem determined to oppose JSW’s project.

Private companies get away by not preparing proper environmental assessment reports, or not conducting public hearings by following due process. Baral, who was active in the PPSS, said that the new project will come up in an area that is already polluted, and the company will not keep the promises of jobs or development.

When it deferred clearance for the jetties, the EAC cited a lack of data and necessary documentation in a number of areas.

For instance, the EAC, according to the minutes of its meeting on March 3 and 4, said that there needs to be clarity on the approval for the diversion of forest land for non-forest uses from the Forest Advisory Committee that had been obtained by POSCO and transferred to JUSL in 2017.

A number of new items of work are included in the project, the EAC observed, seeking clarifications on whether the new items of work were considered and approved at the time of transfer of forest clearance to JUSL.

Violation of due procedure for environmental impact assessment

In its application to the EAC, the company said that a public hearing for the proposal was completed by the Odisha State Pollution Control Board on December 20, 2019, in Gadakujang village.

However, Baral and others, who attended the public hearing, said that police had surrounded the event and detained some people. Only one person from Gobindpur was allowed to speak, according to them. The government had brought in a large number of people from outside the project area, and the large security force was intimidating, Baral alleged.

Sujata Sahani, a resident from Gobindpur, who managed to speak at the public hearing after opposition from the administration, said that the few affected people who were present protested but were not allowed to speak against the project. The EIA report was not made available to the people in time, and not translated into Odia.  

Soon after the hearing, she and others from the affected villages had petitioned the Odisha Pollution Control Board, pointing out various irregularities in the way the hearing was conducted and demanded that the JSW project be denied environmental clearance. In another letter to the MoEF & CC, she and other villagers pleaded that the “JSW Utkal project, being proposed in an extremely vulnerable coastal area, brings great risk to the communities living in the area and the environment. Our lives are being put in danger because of this project.”

In addition, no gram sabha has been held to discuss the project, and the consent of the communities had not been taken, which is violative of the legal procedure, she submitted.

Also read: Odisha: ‘Police Ensuring Movement of Coal, Arresting Tribals,’ Activists Allege

In November 2019, Debendra Swain and other residents of Dhinkia village, affected by the JSW project, under the banner of ‘Anti- Jindal Anti-POSCO Movement’ (the new name for PPSS), wrote to the MoEF & CC, opposing the application for environment clearance of these projects.

“The project proponent has deliberately misled us and other villagers on the scale of the project, and also provided a faulty EIA,” they said. The letter demanded a recall of the public hearing as it was based on “false and misleading information”.

However, JUSL told the EAC that members of the public had asked questions about the potential rise in CO2 levels in the area, water scarcity in the locality, dust, industrial waste that could pollute the environment and the nearby river, employment prospects for locals, and deforestation near the industrial area.

The company said it had allayed their fears by stating that adequate measures have been proposed to control air and water pollution from various sources during the project construction and operation phase. It also promised that priority would be given to locals for employment during project construction and operation.

On March 29, questions were emailed by this reporter to officials in the JSW Group corporate communications office asking about the questions raised by the EAC, the transfer of the forest clearance from POSCO, the terms of the clearance, the public hearing held in December 2019, the cost of the project, and the amount of land it requires, among other things.

This article will be updated if and when a response is received.

Balancing JSW’s claims with the villagers’ reality

The captive jetties are to be located adjacent to the steel plant on the bank of the Jatadhari River, near its mouth. The jetties would handle inbound cargo of about 25 MTPA, of items such as various kinds of coal, including coking and thermal, anthracite, limestone, dolomite, bentonite, clinker, quartzite, and outbound cargo of about 27 MTPA, such as finished steel products, pellet/iron ore concentrate, and cement, among other things.

The EAC has asked JUSL to submit a study on the impact of coal and its movement/storage, details on whether the coal is to be shared with other units of JSW in India, and also details of dredging work in creeks. Its usage and disposal patterns need to be elaborated, according to the EAC.  It has additionally asked the company to evaluate and submit the impact of disposal in the sea on the nearby ports. It has to identify the dumping and reclamation sites during the construction and operation and submit a No Objection Certificate from Paradeep port for this activity.

The proposal has obtained a Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) recommendation from the Odisha Coastal Zone Management Authority, as per the provisions of CRZ Notification, 2011 in February 2021.

JSW claims to plan to develop about 170 acres of land behind the berths for the jetties and a backup facility for cargo storage. The land would be developed partially by reclamation in the intertidal areas. A navigation channel of about 13 km long and about 310 metres wide would be created.

About 30 million cubic metres of bed material would be dredged to make the navigation channel and jetty basin. Most of this material, about 27 million cubic metres, would be used for land reclamation and grade improvement of the steel plant. The remaining would be disposed at offshore dumping grounds, which have already identified.

It would be important to assess the impact of dredging in these areas, as this is a cyclone-prone coastal area on the Bay of Bengal, which has already been devastated by a super cyclone in 1999. Moreover, there is a large fishing community here that depends on the Jatadhari river and the sea for its living.

The question now is if a fair public hearing will be held for the project based on the revised EIA/EMP report.

(Meena Menon is a doctoral candidate at the University of Leeds, and an independent journalist and author. The views expressed are personal.)

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