The recent arrest of two Odisha adivasi activists who had campaigned against the Korean multinational company POSCO — Judhistira Jena, 60, and Babula Samal, 45, both residents of Dhinkia village, Jagatsinghapur district — is all set to turn into a major human rights issue, with a civil rights organization and two well-known legal luminaries saying it outlines “a frightening picture of hounding of adivasi villagers” in the state.
Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), led by Mumbai’s high profile human rights defender Teesta Setelvad, Justices BG Kolse Patil (retired judge Bombay High Court) and PB Sawant (retired judge Supreme Court of India) in an online petition to Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik have said, December 2017 saw “an intensification in repression through the escalation in the number of false cases and looming threats of impending arrests.”
Seeking to quash “false cases” registered on villagers in Paradip region, Odisha, instituted over the 12 years of the anti-POSCO movement, including against the two adivasi activists arrested last month, the petition is based on a letter they received on January 1, 2018 from Prashant Paikray of the POSCO Pratirodh Sangharsh Samiti (PPSS).
“All those who are being targeted appear to have been active in resisting the grant of rich and fertile land to the Korean company, POSCO”, the petition says, adding, “Apart from the latest arrest of these two villagers, throughout the course of 12 years of the movement against POSCO, the villagers in the impacted areas were embroiled in several allegedly fabricated and false cases. Several of these activists have multiple cases against them which seem completely illogical to us.”
Giving specific examples, the petition says, “One of their women leaders, Manorama Kathua from Dhinkia village is charged with a rape case. Similarly, many activists have been charged with Section 498A, the criminal provision of the Domestic Violence Act, 2005, in domestic feuds of other families of other households.”
Noting that “due to lack of resources they have not been able to provide a complete defence to all the activists and villagers”, the petition however, points out, “In the 10 cases related to charges of section 420 (cheating) filed so far, in which local lawyers have provided defence, these have all resulted in acquittals. This strengthens our belief that it is likely that a large number of these cases are false.”
“Because of the threat of these looming arrests, the villagers are not able to pursue their everyday livelihood options like beetle cultivation. It is an attack on both their life and liberty. They are unable to access even basic services like medical facilities in situations of emergency”, the petition underlines.
It recalls, the multinational giant, POSCO, “withdrew from the state of Odisha in March 2017 owing to the large scale public protests of the people of Odisha”, telling the chief minister, “In accordance with the Forest Rights Act, 2006, the rights of the forest dwelling communities need to be restored… Yet, despite the withdrawal of POSCO, the false cases that were charged to control the protests still remain intact, becoming a source of continued harassment.”
According to PPSS’ Paikray, the prime reason for the arrest Jena and Samal is “to sabotage our democratic movement and to hand over our land to JSW Steel Limited”, adding, the Government of Odisha is planning to sign an agreement to hand over land to the company, thus “helping the corporate forces avoid direct confrontation with land losers by floating land bank through Industrial Development Corporation of Odisha (IDCO).”
Calling IDCO “an unconstitutional body designed to promote ruthless land grabbing in the interests of private corporate interests”, Paikray says, at a time when PPSS is struggling to provide legal defence for a total of 420 individuals, “warrants have been issued against 1500 people, including 500 women. Of these, approximately 400 of these individuals were, in fact, arrested.”
“About 400 cases have been registered against 2,500 people who face the permanent risk of getting arrested anytime”, he says, adding, the adivasis in the region “live without liberty”, and “people cannot go out and receive treatment even in emergency situations because of the threat of arrests.”
“The inability to leave the village has resulted in a complete lack of access to medicines or any medical treatment to the villagers”, Paikray says, adding, “There is no doctor who visits the villages, and no health centers in the vicinity, and the virtual siege prevents us from taking medical assistance from outside the village. This is particularly difficult for women as they find it difficult in even carrying out their regular daily chores that demand them to move within or outside the village.”
He notes, “Our women leader Manorama Kathua from Dhinkia village had not left the village for 10 years due to the fear of being arrested, and if she had to, then she had to go out stealthily. She complained of severe joint pain, but she could not visit any doctor, as that would put her in the risk of being arrested.”
“The arrest of some of the members of the PPSS has resulted in tragic consequences at family front”, says Paikray, adding, “One Prakash Jena, who was arrested on September 12, 2008, lost his mother after she committed suicide in despair. His sister became mentally depressed and continues to suffer from severe depression. His brother Manas Jena was killed by hired goons of the company. Altogether four persons have lost their lives due to attack by hired goons of the company.”