A state of siege

Thriving community: A bumper betel harvest

Thriving community: A bumper betel harvest   | Photo Credit: Photos: Manju Menon


Orissa is seeing the beginning of yet another struggle for land as the farmers and the state face-off over the industrialisation programme.

The idea of beautiful India for most people even today is the image of expansive stretches of paddy touching the horizon at the margin. Dhinkia in coastal Orissa is one such real village, and much prettier than this image. The beauty not only sustains a thriving agricultural economy but is held together by a hard working and proud farming community. Their love for their land has been put to severe test since 2005 when the Orissa Government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Korean Pohang Steel Company (POSCO) and committed to hand over these farmlands to set up a steel plant. The village has, since then, seen the beginnings of yet another land struggle.

Hub of the struggle

The 20 feet high sand dunes that form an arc along the margins of the village seem to now guard it like a fortress. Crossing the barricades put up by the villagers to shut away an insensitive government, we reach what is to be the stock yard of the proposed steel plant as per the Company’s maps. Here stands a small temple that has now become the hub of the struggle. Comrade Abhaya Sahoo, the leader of the struggle, has been living here for the last three years.

A long standing member of the CPI State secretariat, Sahoo looks relaxed. There was no way to tell that, two days ago, he led 3000 villagers to challenge an armed police force to enter Dhinkia and Paatana villages by force. The administration withdrew. According to the villagers, they had already broken into the defences of other villages in Gadakujang and Nuagaon gram panchayats of Ersama block with the help of local goons. Since that day, security around the village has been tightened and large numbers of villagers stand vigil through day and night.

Sahoo sits to talk with us in the afternoon in the shade of a pipal tree. The 4004 acres of land that POSCO requires for the project is all under productive use — a mosaic of brilliant green betel leaf plantations, soaking wet paddy farms, cashew and coconut groves. The sand and the sweet water below it is a farmer’s delight. The lay of the land aside, we are left speechless by the income figures supported by farming here. This year the price of betel shot up to 50 paise per leaf, the highest ever. All families in Dhinkia and Paatana are engaged in betel plantations; some have just one, the better-off farmers have many more. We met an ageing widow who owns a plot. Each betel plot also employs more than five persons per day for the highest wages in the area — Rs.100 and one full meal per day .The 3000 plots of betel that chequered the sands bear a bumper harvest for the farmers every day.

Suranna, a farmer from Paatana, tells us that there are 200 acres of paddy fields in the two villages; the maximum owned by a single farmer being 3-4 acres. With about Rs. 10,000 per month from betel and Rs, 30,000-50,000 a year from the cashew trees, it’s a good life.

Water problems

Why take away fertile, multi-crop lands for industrialisation, is the question several farmer communities are asking, in the absence of any meaningful dialogue with a government that has signed MoUs with over 45 steel producers. The Posco steel plant requires 12,000-15,000 crore litres of water. According to the MoU, the Government of Orissa will ensure all permissions and infrastructure for drawing and use of water from the Mahanadi barrage at Jobra. If implemented as per project reports, an 87 km pipeline will draw the waters allocated for drinking and irrigation needs of erstwhile undivided Cuttack district, now Jajpur, Kendrapara, Jagatsinghpur and Cuttack.

The Taaldanda canal from the Mahanadi barrage constructed under the Food for Work programme in 1966-67 is meant to irrigate 80,000 ha. Due to established industries already guzzling the Mahanadi waters, only 24,000 ha of Rabi crops and 56,909 ha of Kharif crops are irrigated by the canal. Sashibhushan Swain of the Jatadhar Bachao Andolan confirms these figures from his pocket-sized notebook.

The wrath of the Orissa farmers will be difficult to bear for the state government. Last year 30,000 small and big farmers in Sambalpur district, whose paddy fields were all meant to be irrigated by the Hirakud reservoir built in the 1960s, took to the streets in large numbers. They are bitter about the increasing allocation of water to industries from a reservoir that is already under-performing due to sedimentation. Exact figures of industrial extraction and sedimentation impacts simply don’t exist; the inadequate and contradictory data put out by different agencies are a statistical puzzle.

Dhinkia and Paatana are under siege now, surrounded by the state police and goons employed to harass those who oppose the project. Essential supplies like kerosene and movement of people have been stopped.

These are no remote areas; they are situated right next to Paradeep port and a mere 125 km from Bhubaneshwar. Two villagers sympathetic to the struggle have been suspended from their government jobs. The presence of the police ensures that no one from the village moves out to unite with those who could not hold out against the administration in the neighbouring villages.

There is rampant propaganda by administration in the vernacular newspapers that the Naxalites are hand in glove with the villagers. In response to this accusation, we hear giggles.

As we leave Orissa, the ninth farmer has ended his life.

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