Steel plant bludgeons tribals in a brutal barter

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Broken promises and the management’s duplicity seem to have triggered the violence that erupted at the JSPL plant in Angul. Bibhuti Pati reports

SINCE 28 JANUARY, work at the Jindal Steel and Power Ltd (JSPL) plant at Angul, a 6 million tonne facility yet to be operational, has been paralysed by villagers. Things have come to a sorry pass after four long years of peaceful cooperation by the locals.

District Collector of Angul Shiv Prasad Mishra agrees the people of 44 villages displaced by the project have not been given all the benefits due under the Industrial Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy of Odisha. When the agitated villagers met JSPL Executive Director Rajesh Jha, he assured them he would visit the village in the evening and sort out matters amicably. Forty-eight hours passed; Jha seemed to have vanished. The villagers peacefully gheraoed JSPL. What ensued was a physical face-off between about 400 JSPL security personnel, dubbed a private army by observers, and irate villagers. It resulted in 140 getting injured, 20 of them critically.

Later, the police arrested JSPL’s security officer KK Chopra and Angul unit security head Ajit Singh. Superintendent of Police Satyabrata Bhoi admits the police were inactive, as alleged by villagers: “A hundred policemen were stationed there because we knew that villagers will be heading to the factory. Once the fight started, the police were left behind. The villagers were unarmed and the guards had lathis. We have asked the company to give us the names of the security guards on duty.”

But the roots of the mayhem go deeper. Environmentalist Biswajit Mohanty alleges, “Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is directly protecting the Jindal management since JSPL was found guilty of violating environmental and forest laws earlier. Yet no action was taken.” It is a fact that the chief minister declined to take action even after the Central government directed the state to file cases. Now the company’s writ runs across 4,000 acres and it does not want to abide by the laws of the land.

Price of protest Hari Hara Barala, Krushna Raut, Kumudin Raut, Nilamani Dhala and Sarojini Barala were all injured when a virtual armed militia of the company attacked them during a gherao

Binodini Raut, a 51-year-old widow who is being treated at the Ashwini Hospital in Cuttack for head injuries, grimaces in pain as she recalls, “The JSPL officials paid me Rs 40,000 and promised Rs 4 lakh in the second phase, as well as a job for my son. For the last four years, I have been trying to meet the officials concerned but their security personnel have been shooing me off from the gate. When I sat in a peaceful protest, they beat me up brutally. The police were silent spectators.”

Nilamani Dhala, 71, has a similar story. He says the local people clashed with security guards after JSPL authorities discontinued monthly allowances of Rs 3,000 each to those who had given up their land.

“We offered unstinted cooperation in the last four years to the establishment of JSPL,” he says. “Fifty per cent of the villagers of Basudevpur were displaced. Thousands are yet to be adequately compensated — they were only given hollow promises. None of the villagers have been given permanent jobs as yet,” he laments.

Dhala too was brutally attacked when he demanded his rights. His nephew Biswa is in the ICU of the Cuttack hospital. “Jindal security guards beat me up with an iron rod,” said Bhashanti Pradhan Jarodha, who has a fractured arm. Daru Sethi, 40, says, “The doctors have told me that I cannot work for the next three months, my finger and legs are fractured.”

The clash took place after JSPL stopped monthly allowances of Rs 3,000 each to those who had lost their land

“Three years ago, I sold my land to the company,” says Lili Vishwa, 33. “I have still not been given employment. They did not even spare little children.” Pointing to a kid with a broken leg, Thora Pradhan says, “We have been meeting company heads, Collector, police but nobody listens to us. Should we remain silent and just die?” Collective action seems to be the only way forward. “We will not relent till our demands are met. We will intensify our agitation,” said Sanatan Sahu, secretary of the Birankeswar Kyatigrastha Praja Sangh.

A local leader Hadibandhu Sahu accused the Angul district administration and company officials of unleashing oppression at them for demanding jobs at the plant. “We will continue our fight till our demand is accepted and those responsible for the attack are punished,” he says.

“This is the gratitude we received from JSPL for our cooperation. After being repeatedly cheated, we were peacefully agitating at the JSPL gate,” says Krushna Raut of Goroda village, who was also injured.

JSPL spokesman Himanshu Hotta, on the other hand, says villagers resorted to brick-batting and were forcibly trying to enter the factory premises. “Our security tried their best to stop this,” he claims. “This sudden attack of the villagers brought about the law and order situation.”

COUNTERING THIS, Sarojini Barala, an elderly woman who was also injured, says, “I am certain that the JSPL sent a few security personnel in civilian clothes to mingle with the village mob. It is these people of JSPL who actually started brick-batting so as to give the JSPL’s security personnel an excuse to act. We did catch these culprits, but during the lathi-charge and in the melee, the JSPL security staff succeeded in whisking away their own people.”

Soon after the barbaric violence, JSPL’s Rajesh Jha called a press conference wherein he was asked why the just demands of the villagers were not met despite four years having passed, and why he had not visited the village as per his commitment. All he could say was, “I was ‘overbusy’ that day and could not spare the time. Our company has taken several steps for fulfilling our commitment.” Jha skirted specific queries on the land and forest scam, and whether the bills of injured victims would be paid by the company.

A relative of Basanta Raut, one of the patients in the ICU, says, “The lives of the hospitalised patients remain critical as we are penniless.”

In the upcoming Panchayat polls in the state, the pent-up ire and anger will undoubtedly affect the BJD’s poll prospects. In fact, the villagers have already notified the district administration that they would boycott the forthcoming polls en masse if the state government does not take appropriate stringent action against the perpetrators of such uncalled-for violence. The opposition parties, BJP and Congress have joined the villagers to take the wind out of the sails of the BJD. In case the government fails to resolve this crisis, the other upcoming industries in the pipeline would face insurmountable hurdles in establishing their projects.

With inputs from Garima Jain

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