The sand laden landscape bordering Dhinkia; in the center is a betel vine locally known as ‘baraj’
Dhinkia village, Jagatsinghpur district, Odisha: I am at the epicentre of a six-year long movement against a project claiming to bring the largest foreign investment to the country. But can see no visible signs of protest. I almost draw out my camera at the sight of red and yellow banners fluttering and a podium being set up at a corner of a field. But soon discover the activity is for a volleyball tournament in the evening.
A few years ago, the world’s third largest steel maker, Pohang Iron and Steel Company (POSCO), announced its intention to set up a 12 million tonne steel plant and a captive port at Jagatsinghpur. The 22,000 people from Dhinkia and three adjoining gram panchayats did not want the project. They did not want to lose their ‘paano dhano meeno', (betel leaves, rice and fish). They cared little that their sustenance had no place in the books of those talking about growth and high GDPs.
After two committees sent by the Union environment ministry pointed to forest rights violations, it was upon the minister himself to take a decision.
Sitting cross legged on the sand, Abhay Sahoo, the leader of POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS), told me, “Jairam Ramesh will allow the project with conditions- that’s my information.” I nodded in agreement. It was only yesterday that the Reserve Bank of India lamented how the so-called “green” policies were making the country lose precious FDI. POSCO was threatening to move to Karnataka. The South Korean President was speaking to the Indian Prime Minister. The build up was near perfect.
I resumed work. A tired Dhruvacharan Swain repeated what he had told scores of reporters, activists and government officials. There was a minor fortune he was being asked to forsake: betel vines earning over hundred thousand rupees every year, cashew plantations adding another 20 thousand, an acre of land producing enough rice to feed his family of 10— a minor fortune. “We have lived off these lands for more than four generations and I don’t want my son to labour in a steel factory.”
I decided to walk up to where river Jatadhari meets the ocean, the site for POSCO’s captive port. But people from Dhinkia refused to accompany me. There were criminal cases against them and they do not venture outside the village for the fear of being arrested. I pestered a diabetic Toofan Swain to walk the four kilometres up and down. Toofan, a farmer turned trade union leader from Paradip had excitedly joined me when I told him about a visit to the POSCO sites. With an if-you-say-so-what-can-I-do look, he started walking with me.
After crossing the village we entered an expansive sandy landscape dotted with scrubs, numerous upturned rectangular boxes, betel vines, cashew plantations and patches of green surrounding ponds. The January sun scorched our senses and sand dunes as high as 40 feet blocked our view.
The dry sand dragged our shoes down and we walked at a snail's pace. An hour and a half later, from atop the hills, I saw the river Jatadhari with cows grazing and a handful of boats lined up along its banks.