Betel Cultivators in Odisha Up Against the State-Capital Nexus

Rural India faces many calamities be it natural disasters, corporate acquisition of forests, lands and village commons, or migrant workers walking back hundreds of kilometres from hostile cities due to pandemic lockdowns.  In Odisha on the eastern coast, the macabre theatre of capital’s insidious appropriation of agricultural land and village commons is being resisted bravely once again by villagers of Dhinkia of Jagatsinghpur district in collective barricading from the clutches of state-supported Jindal Steel Works Utkal Limited.

Village Barricades

It becomes pertinent to reflect as part of a larger global community on the operations of a militarized state apparatus that works at the behest of corporate capital to erode a cyclone ravaged coastline. Events in Dhinkia urge all of us once again who live outside the region whether we can let fertile agricultural land be swallowed up by steel production ventures. The eastern coastline is witnessing 21st century’s’ inexorable plunge into an ecological meltdown. The entry of JSW is a classic example of ecological crisis being inherent in capitalism’s unbridled drive for greater accumulation.

The entry of JSW is part of a larger plan

This is exactly the same area whose people had successfully resisted the South Korean steel conglomerate POSCO from 2005 to 2016. Villagers got to know about the entry of another steel plant in November 2017 when the construction of a boundary wall around the land began within seven months of the Odisha government officially announcing the exit of POSCO.  Two villagers immediately moved the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on grounds that it was illegal to divert forest land as it is in violation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and the Forest (Conservation) Act.

Dhinkia Chaaridesh, as the cluster of villages is popularly known as, comprises Dhinkia, Gobindpur, Nuagaon and Gadakujanga. On 19 October, 2019 the OSPCB announced a public hearing to be held on 22 November. According to the announcement, Jindal Steel Works Utkal Limited was going to develop multi-cargo all-weather captive jetties for handling 52 MTPA capacity cargos at the mouth of the Jatadhari River in Erasma tehsil of Jagatsinghpur district. But according to the website of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, the public hearing was being conducted for environment clearance of a 13. 2 MTPA (Million tons per Annum)  crude steel, 900 MW Captive Power Plant and 10 MTPA Cement Plant. Informed consent of people is a far cry as complete and correct information is systematically hidden in these procedures. Capital’s insatiable greed for land and natural resources each time finds an active ally in the state government. Mandatory provisions for land acquisition and environment clearance thus become an orchestrated ritual for corporations to acquire the relevant documents as their stakes are huge.

The Government of India plans four Petroleum, Chemical and Petrochemical Investment Regions known as PCPIRs in Andhra Pradesh (Vishakhapatnam), Gujarat (Dahej), Odisha (Paradeep) and Tamil Nadu (Cuddalore and Naghapattinam) to promote port-led industrial development. This read together with the Odisha government requiring 7000 acres of land along the coastal districts for its OEC project (Odisha Economic Corridor) seems a prophecy of sorts of what awaits the people of the region and its ecological sustainability. The state government has already got approval to be included in the National Industrial Corridor Development Program.

It is the people dependent on natural resources who categorically give a call for the protection of land, livelihood and environment through the only means available: direct resistance. In this way, the ideological and material tyranny of capitalism continues to be challenged.  

Villagers resist the state-corporate nexus

On the night of 4 December, 2021, when the entire coast of Odisha was under warning of Cyclone Jawad, the police reached the house of Panchayat Samiti Member Debendra Swain, the main leader opposing JSW in Dhinkia. A woman named Shanti Das whose hand got badly injured in the subsequent violence by the police describes the event:

“It was raining hard when we heard the police had entered the village. At least 200 of us rushed to resist the police from arresting Debendra Swain.  There were four Boleros along with two big police vans. The police bolted the doors of some of the adjoining houses so that people could not come out. They beat me too and used sexist language on me. They picked up Debendra Swain’s uncle Ayodhya Swain and his 22-year-old daughter and whisked them away. We demanded to see the warrants but they had none. They also beat up another paralytic person. We begged them to at least leave him alone. But we were able to stop them from picking up Debendra Swain.”[i]

The next day hundreds of people came out to protest against police violence even as it was raining heavily. The police registered cases on the villagers with allegations of hurling bombs at them and some policemen being injured. According to an investigation led by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL Odisha), in the two FIRs filed by the police, Dhinkia villagers have been booked under various sections of the Indian Penal Code  (IPC). Warrants have been issued against many women and men. Since then, Dhinkia is practically under siege as villagers cannot move out without showing their Aadhar cards as the police have a list of names to arrest. Just as in Soura neighbourhood of Srinagar where since 2019, the villagers barricaded the entry points to keep the Indian forces out, villagers of Dhinkia have also barricaded the three entries into the village and are on vigil throughout the day and night. Women, men, children, youth and elders were on vigil round the clock as in a warlike situation.

Protests and solidarity actions in other villages of the Dhinkia panchayat gathered momentum each day braving police highhandedness. The police entered houses in these villages in the dead of the night and threatened people not to oppose JSW.  On 14 December, people were woken up in the middle of the night in Mahal village and threatened similarly. While heading towards the public meeting in Dhinkia on 20 December 20, Prakash Jena, Nath Samal and Bhramar Das from Gobindpur were severely injured in the lathi charge by the police. 

The common rallying cry in these eighteen long years of resisting any steel plant is a call to protect the local source of sustenance and livelihood, Dhaana, Mina and Paana (Paddy, Fish and Betel). It is a small subsistence economy whose people take pride in their land, labour and autonomy. Therefore, there are daily mass meetings inside Dhinkia under the trees surrounding the temple of their cherished deity Ma Phoolkhai. Calls for unity to protect the land for themselves and future generations is continuously given. In one meeting, Chintu Swain, one of the youth leaders, urged the young:

You all are the true sentinels of the land.  By opposing the entry of Jindals this time, you will lighten the burden of the older generation who are in this meeting today. They have faced many hardships and had criminal cases foisted on them as they fought from the year 2005 to defeat POSCO. The sacrifices and struggles of our sisters and mothers present in this meeting should not go in vain. They have protected the land until today. It is our turn now to protect Dhinkia. [ii]

The speeches in the meeting were punctuated with the all-time slogan of the peasantry in Odisha, Maribu pache daribu naahin; Janma maati chaadibu naahin [Willing to die than live in fear; Will not let go of our birth land ever].

Part of subsistence production includes the labour to protect the land for the future generations. And their productive assets are in threat once again. The presence of women in protest meetings and at the barricades is overwhelming. Some expressed doubts at prospects of employment promised to the youth. Indeed, the betel growers and peasants of Dhinkia Chaaridesh have come a long way and seen through the empty promises made by the administration on behalf of global capital only to plunder and loot their lands. There are platoons of police all around the village under the pretext of land demarcation.

The public hearing carried out by the OSPCB in December 2019 had made villagers across Dhinkia Chaaridesh aware of the imminent threat to their land.  Some villagers registered a complaint with the OPSCB pointing out the irregularities in the proceedings and how those opposing the steel plant were not allowed to speak.  The raging pandemic and the harsh poorly planned lockdowns in 2020 caused immense economic hardships as the trading of betel leaves to Bengal, UP and parts of Odisha were hard hit. But JSW and the district administration worked throughout.

The divisions within the village communities have disappeared as resistance is growing. All sections have suffered the divisive tactics used to break village unity. When the Odisha government announced the withdrawal of POSCO on 18 March, 2017, there were still hundreds of police cases pending not only against antiPOSCO activists but also the pro-company lobby villagers. The pro-company lobby fostered and nurtured by the then BJD MLA Damodar Rout stood to gain nothing when POSCO quit. Most villagers of the Nuagaon panchayat had earlier taken compensation and been dubbed as “pro-company” by the anti-POSCO movement. Today, there is mobilization among the landless demanding patta rights. On January 8, youths gathered and burnt copies of a package offer made by the company.

Mamata Nayak, the former Sarpanch of Dhinkia, said:

“Eighty percent of our people are landless. Why should they be evicted? The land belongs to them as much as to those who own the betel vines. They work as wage labourers on betel vine plots. They get Rs 350/- per day and a square meal. After POSCO we had to fight the Indian Oil Corporation from usurping our village commons that were grazing ground for our cattle. Today they built a boundary wall and fenced us out of our own land. There are hundreds of fisherpeople.  Where will they go? We trust no one now.”[iii]

In the month of November 2021, the district administration held discussions with villagers in the panchayat headquarters. These meetings were marked by the presence of company officials, police and food arrangements too. Those with land spoke about getting pattas or official land rights.  Landless villagers spoke about their dependence on forest resources. Villagers demanded the withdrawal of earlier police cases and guarantee of employment. But the farce of discussions ended when the people of Dhinkia resisted the process of land demarcation for Patana and Mahala.

Akshay Das, a long-time communist activist, said:

The creation of these two new revenue villages – Patana and Mahala – from undivided Dhinkia is a ploy to weaken our unity.  They have brought armed police to the area for land acquisition. Land demarcation of the new revenue villages is as an excuse. The police is breaking betel vine plots not only of Patana and Mahal, but also of Dhinkia.  We have barricaded the village but our betel vine plots are among the sand dunes closer to the sea.  We cannot protect them. Resistance is the only way.[iv]

From leading people to believe land demarcation is happening, the Tehsildar along with Odisha Police and IRB began breaking betel vine plots. Requesting anonymity, a villager said:

After taking measurements, they take photographs and make us sign the consent forms. They say that the money will be transferred to our accounts after the entire process is over. We were also told repeatedly that we are ‘voluntarily’ giving up the plots of land.”

The administration in no time went ahead breaking betel vine plots of people from Dhinkia. Since people had barricaded themselves inside the village, they could not go out to see for themselves. The fear of arrests was real since the FIR made on the night of December 4 had a long list of names.

When the Odisha unit of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha visited the area on 6January, passions were running high as betel vine plots were being destroyed by the authorities. Women and men were breaking down hearing the news. Villagers had gathered at the barricades armed with wooden clubs, ready for any kind of confrontation with the police. The Odisha-SKM leaders appealed to people to restrain from being provoked by the administration and falling bait to police cases.[v] They said that the authorities were looking for a ruse and therefore there has to be careful planning and strategizing in much the same way the farmers had demonstrated and succeeded in the repeal of the three farm acts at the borders of New Delhi. A long march set out with Odisha-SKM from the gates of Dhinkia and walked through Mahala and Patana. People were getting to see their betel vine plots the first time. Slogans rent the air “Jindal Go Back,” “Condemn Industrialization by the Barrel of the Gun,” and “We want Development Not Destruction.”  

No Pasaran

The stand-off situation between the people and the district administration continued for a week more. However, the destruction of betel vine plots was accompanied by news of betel vine owners giving in from sheer terror. It is the dalit families who work as wage labourers in betel cultivation since generations that continued resisting.

On the morning of 14 January, the Odisha Police unleashed terror as it stopped a rally of villagers going to see the plots. People resisted the armed police physically and were overtaken by them. This turned out to be one of the most brutal police crackdowns with the police raining lathis, trampling down people, assaulting and wreaking havoc. The crackdown resulted in empty lanes and an eerie silence for the time being. has resulted in empty lanes for the time being. School girls were beaten sustaining head injuries. Many women were chased and beaten. The police conducted a flag march at the end of the day.

The leader Debendra Swain who is a betel vine cultivator and Narendra Mohanty from Campaign against Fabricated Cases who was visiting the area were arrested. The other four arrested include Muralidhar Sahoo, Nimai Mallick, Manguli Kandi and Trinath Mallick. They were arrested under sections 307, 147,148,323,294,324,354,336,325,353,332,379,427,506,186, 149 of the IPC, CLA and PPDP Act. An entire dalit family has been in judicial custody prior to this incident.

Debendra Sawian

The long one-year struggle of the peasant unions and agricultural wage workers’ unions on the borders of the NCR gained momentum with growing popular support leading to the repeal of the three farm acts. Its electric energy has infused peasant unions in Odisha who are playing a leading role in petitioning the Governor and the CM demanding the withdrawal of Odisha Police and for the protection of the traditional betel vine economy from JSW. The Odisha-SKM has in the process elicited active solidarity from other opposition parties.

Narendra Mohanty

Dhinkia remained inaccessible for an entire week. On 21 January, a 20-member team of 13 opposition parties reached Dhinkia and met the people in the same village square where protest meetings had been taking place. Women broke down as they spoke of the terror and intimidation experienced during this period of isolation. Many young girls spoke to a TV channel how they were stopped from marching to the  betel vine plots on January 14. They were accused by the police of being the main culprits and were assaulted mercilessly. A young girl reported of her 10-year-old sister still missing. Yet another girl questioned; “Why have we been beaten so much. Why did they inflict head injuries? Are we criminals? Why do the police come knocking on our doors at night? “ An elderly woman shared how she is avoiding her house and sleeps outside despite the night being cold. She fears arrest. There are many like her. 

Reports are yet to be confirmed of the number of people injured and those missing still.  Surrounding villages that had gone into deep shock are beginning to see the extent to which an elected government can go in claiming their land and productive assets.

Left and democratic forces are also beginning to see the dangers posed by aggressive capitalism in usurping people’s land and livelihoods. Also how this is the biggest threat to the entire eastern coastline and its ecological habitat.

An integrated steel plant on a coastline ravaged by frequent cyclones

It has not been all quiet on the eastern front since POSCO left and JSW entered. There was Cyclone Phailin in 2013, Cyclone Hudhud in October 2014, Cyclone Fani in May 2019, Cyclone Bulbul in November 2019, Cyclone Amphan in May 2020 and Cyclone Jawad in December 2021. Wherever the major impact of a cyclone might be, betel vine cultivators, subsistence producers and fisherfolk of this region were badly hit each time. As Cyclone Fani swept across the coastal regions with its landfall in Puri district, many houses and betel vine plots were damaged or destroyed here.  Within a few months, Cyclone Bulbul ravaged the area again as it headed for Bangladesh.  Cyclone Amphan affected Kendrapara, Jagatsinghpur, Balasore and Bhadrak most. Even as it headed for West Bengal with greater fury, it caused much damage to crops and livestock as tidal waves broke embankments and saline water rushed into thousands of hectares of crops. When people were overcoming unprecedented economic losses because of the blow dealt to the sale and transport of betel leaves during Covid lockdowns, the district administration approached them on behalf of JSW with offers of purchasing their plots due to the economic distress. More recently, Cyclone Jawad caused havoc. The highest rainfall in Odisha was recorded at Paradeep followed by Erasama, which is the area of these panchayats.

This region was devastated by the Super Cyclone of 1999 that claimed the lives of over 10, 000 people and rendered 1.5 million people homeless. It resulted in the setting up of the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA). The steps taken by OSDMA since then to prevent loss of lives have indeed delivered results.  However, by ushering in an integrated mega steel plant the Odisha government actively undermines OSDMA’s mandate of protecting the environment and preventing disasters.  How can they raze forests and betel vine plots that act as act as natural protective mechanisms to ward off the ravages of nature? Coastal erosion is a certainty with the building of a mega steel plant. 

Tuna Baral, a betel cultivator from Gobindpur said: “Our village has already lost 1200 acres of land when the administration made the last desperate effort of land acquisition for POSCO in 2013. But we were and still are opposed to the construction of a steel plant. We care for the habitat, the forests, the deer and the turtles. Our area is ravaged with cyclones that have become so frequent. We have suffered both cyclones and the lockdowns. It is in the worst of times that the administration approaches us and tries to pressurize people to give up the land.”[vi]

The melting of glaciers and the rise in sea level cannot leave the Odisha coastline unaffected. The area is under severe ecological threat from both constructions as well as from natural disasters that erode the coastline. A study in 2019 by Climate Central predicts how large parts of coastal Odisha like Ganjam, Puri, Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapara, Bhadrak and Balasore districts are at greater risk of deluge and inundation that will affect lakhs of people due to the alarming rise in sea level. It is due to global warming caused in the atmosphere by human activity as well as the destabilising of the land-based ice sheets in Greenland, especially Antarctica. Today, the natural protection mechanisms of the coastline are being undermined while the warming of the waters is infusing more energy that cyclones need to thrive. These questions have been raised since 2005 when land acquisition for POSCO was resisted.

The state-capital nexus ignores the urgency warranted by the global climate crisis. Statutory provisions and constitutional guarantees are openly manipulated in the interest of capital.

The State violates its own laws for land acquisition

The land required for the POSCO project when it entered into an MoU with the Odisha government in 2005 was for 4,004 acres of which 3000 acres were classified as forest land. The collective resistance of the people of Dhinkia Chaaridesh became the biggest obstacle for the administration. By 2013, the company had scaled down the production capacity of the plant from 12 MTPA to 8 MTPA and its land requirement to 2, 700 acres that were acquired by Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (IDCO). This came largely from Gobindpur, Nuagaon and Gadakujanga. Dhinkia had remained impenetrable for POSCO. The proposed JSW project that includes a power plant and a cement factory along with the even bigger plans of the Odisha Economic Corridor necessitates even more land acquisition.

Let us have a look at some of the controversial and anti-people measures adopted by the state government as they acquired 2, 700 acres and how it has revived the acquisition of the remaining land.

First, the administrative move to create two new revenue villages of Patana and Mahala deepened tensions, especially as the Tehsildar and his team began land demarcation work with a heavy presence of armed police personnel from 1 December, 2020. Villagers view it as the administration’s attempt to create divisions among the people to weaken the resistance to JSW.

This has become a standard operating procedure for forcibly acquiring forest land in Adivasi regions also.

Second, the National Green Tribunal had passed an order in 2018 to stop the construction of a boundary wall around the 2, 7000 acres acquired by IDCO when villagers had approached the NGT that it is illegal to encroach forest land.

Third, the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARR) of 2013 clearly states that land acquired but not utilised within five years of possession should be returned to the people. It’s worth recalling that the Supreme Court in 2015 passed a judgement that ordered the West Bengal government to return the land acquired for its Tata Nano project in Singur back to the people from whom it was acquired. Taking a page out of the Gujarat government’s trickery during Modi’s tenure as the chief minister, the Odisha government took refuge by making a policy revision in 2015 that mandated such land to be kept in a Land Bank by the state government. The state has become the biggest zamindar of our times.

Fourth, at the height of the anti-POSCO movement the people of the entire region had unequivocally rejected the plans of a steel plant in the area as per the Forest Rights Act (2006). In 2011, the gram panchayats had claimed their rights to forest land and given unanimous resolutions against the diversion of forest land to the steel conglomerate as mandated by the FRA. There has been no response since then by the administration whether these claims were processed. However, on 16 August, 2019 the MoEFCC transferred the forest clearance along with the available land in the Land Bank to JSW. The company was spared the ordeal of having to go through the process of obtaining forest clearance.  This is a monumental attack of people’s fundamental rights. The land is grabbed by the state and kept in land bank for years on end to be passed on from one industrialist to another.

Last but not least is the implementation of the mandate of the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA). In its own stated mission, the OSDMA is not only to mitigate the effects of disasters, especially cyclones and floods, but also ensure reconstruction and recovery. It aims to go beyond providing effective disaster management to “building a disaster resilient State and promoting a culture of safety.”  One wonders how a 13.2 MTPA steel plant along with a power plant, a cement factory and a captive jetty assure a disaster resilient state or promote any culture of safety?

From the cutting down of over 40,000 trees in Talabira village of Sambalpur for a coal mine to propose mining bauxite in Mali Parbat in Koraput, from the construction of roads over Niyamgiri mountain to poisoning the air and waters of Sukinda in Jajpur district to unearth chromite reserves, corporations have become adept at circumventing all statutory norms and provisions for the advancement of capital. The state-capital-industry nexus is swallowing up the land, forests, sand and pebbles. It is plain for all to see who is protecting the land and the water from the ruthless advent of capitalism. The fight of the villagers of Dhinkia Chaaridesh is a fight for the planet and for the entire humanity.


[i] Interview, 24 December, 2021

[ii] Public meeting, 24 December, 2021

[iii] Interview, 24 December, 2021

[iv] Interview, 24 December, 2021

[v] I had accompanied the team to the area.

[vi] Interview, 24 December, 2021

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Ranjana Padhi Written by:

Ranjana is a feminist activist and writer based in Bhubaneswar. She has co-authored Resisting Dispossession: The Odisha Story (Aakar Books, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020) and Those Who Did Not Die:The Impact of the Agrarian Crisis on Women in Punjab (Sage Books, 2012).

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