How an Odisha Village Saved its Forest From an Upcoming Brewery
Balarampur, situated 20 km away from the district headquarters of Dhenkanal and 80 km from Odisha’s capital city of Bhubaneswar, has scripted a success story while emulating the famous Chipko movement.
Community members in this Odisha village have managed to save trees from the vagaries of an allegedly ill planned alcohol factory and bureaucratic insensitivities towards the green cover.
Spearheaded by the women folks of the village, the mini-movement forced the Odisha government to re-locate the project.
For the uninitiated, the Chipko Movement of 1973 was an organized non-violent resistance, essentially by women, against the destruction of forests of India in the name of development. It was termed so as people or members of the resisting communities used the method of embracing and hugging the trees to prevent their felling.
Alcohol v/s Trees
The Balarampur incident of 17 November, 2018, left the state shaken when a team of tree fellers equipped with electric cutters felled about 1,000 trees during the wee hours under heavy police protection.
“The district administration fixed two earlier dates this month for cutting of the trees but didn’t turn up. This time, on 17 November last, they came at around 4 am in the morning, not by the road that goes through our village but by taking a different route and started felling trees. As we learnt about it in the morning, we rushed to our forest and embraced the trees to protect them from being cut. But the police force overpowered us and pushed us into their vehicle by physically manhandling the women,” she said.
The district administration was all set to clear the forest on 12 acres of land since the Chief Minister laid the foundation stone for a brewing industry of 2.5 lakh hectolitres per annum capacity to be set by Kolkata based P&A Bottlers Pvt Ltd at an investment of 102 crore rupees. However, the project faced strong opposition from the villagers since its approval by the Chief Secretary of Odisha on July 26, 2016.
The patch of land proposed for the brewing plant was part of forested landscape spanning 600 acres and bordering more than eight villages. It is home to a variety of plants like Sal (Shorea robusta), Piasala or Malabar kino (Pterocarpus marsupium), Amla (Indian gooseberry), Harida (Terminalia chebula), Bahada (Terminalia bellirica), Mango among others.
Named Jhinkaragada, the forest is known for being the habitat of Porcupines, called Jhinka in Odisha, and serves as a passage for elephant movement, according to the villagers.
“Our people have planted variety of trees and have been guarding and looking after the forest since 1972. However, the forest even existed before,” Dushasan Parida, 75, said in a choked voice, while looking at the trees felled by the local administration.
“One member each from two of the families living in the village used to guard the forest from morning till the night to keep it safe. These trees were like our children,” said Sakuntala Jena, 33, who has been living in the village since for the last 15 years.
The forest played an important role in maintaining the ground-water level. “Otherwise we would have been suffering a lot due to water scarcity as this is almost an arid region,” observed 36-year-old Sasmita Sethi. “Our life will be spoilt without this forest,” she adds.
A Sabik Kisan forest land till 1988, the forest patch was later converted into non-forest land. After this, it was transferred in Favour of the Industrial Development Corporation to include in the land bank for industrial development.
At the time of transfer, the patch was characterised by physically dense forests and included matured timber species. Any patch of the area used for industrial activities would adversely affect the entire landscape. But the administration didn’t bother about all these things. No body bothered about these aspects because the land was marked as non-forest land in recent government records.
“As the Forest Conservation Act came into force from 1980 and the entire de-reservation and conversion has been made without approval of central government after 1980, hence it is a violation of Section 2 of Forest Conservation Act 1980. It is also a violation of Supreme Court Order where the Hon’ble court has clarified that the Forest has to be understood in its dictionary meaning irrespective of its ownership,” said Sankar Prasad Pani, Advocate and Legal Advisor to the Village Committee for protection of the forest. Pani is fighting the case at the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on behalf of the villagers.
It must be noted that the state government of Odisha is yet to comply with the NGT direction for submission of a report on the status of the land. Instead, in violation of all these norms, the district administration ordered the cutting of trees when the next NGT hearing was only three days away, according to advocate Pani.
“Ordering for and ensuring that the trees are felled in such a massive scale despite public opposition in order to uphold the interests of a liquor industry reflects the kind of apathy from the district administration and the Odisha government towards people’s issues as well as the bigger environmental issues the world is worried about, said Prafulla Samantara, the Green Nobel winner as well as president of Loshakti Abhiyan, Odisha.
A Glimpse of Wisdom
As cutting trees in such a scale for a brewing plant drew reaction from all sections, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik ordered cancellation of the existing lease agreement and, also, for relocation of the project. Earlier, the CM had instructed to stop felling trees and ordered a probe by concerned Revenue Divisional Commissioner.
“This is for the first time that the Chief Minister has initiated quick action in response to a movement raised by the community to protect their forest. I hope, this wisdom should sustain and the government should be equally responsive to the voices of people in the state,” said Prafulla Samantara urging further that instead of setting liquor industries the government should envision a dry Odisha.
According to Jayant Dhal, a leader of the forest protection movement, “Our movement will continue till the land is officially taken to forest category.”
(Basudev Mahapatra is the Former Editor-in-Chief of Naxatra News. He tweets at@BasudevNews.)