Dhinkia: Betel plantation destruction hits local economy

With land being transferred, allegedly without consent of villagers for a "development project, and alleged police pressure, the future appears bleak

economic crisisImage Courtesy: india.mongabay.com

More than half of Dhinkia villagers in Jagatsinghpur district of Odisha are protesting the loss of a local Betel plantation, their main source of livelihood, to a “development project”.

For years now, Dhinkia residents have protected their land against government-sanctioned developmental projects. The people’s movement began with the anti-POSCO movement in 2005. Locals resisted the idea citing the issue of settlement of forest rights under the Forest Rights Act 2006. It was a triumphant moment for the people when the company backed out in 2017. Still, the High-Level Clearance Authority (HLCA) chaired by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik transferred the land to the JSW Utkal Steel Limited (JUSL).

This move in itself violated the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARR) of 2013. Yet, authorities even granted a forest clearance despite claims that the villagers faced severe oppression from police. By December 2021, locals voiced complaints of administrative attempts to destroy the betel vines in the area.

This forceful demolition of the traditional betel vines has particularly affected the women and children in the region. Majority of the women in the village either worked as daily labourers in the betel plantations, or were involved in the export process. With the destruction of the plantation, 50 percent villagers engaged in betel cultivation and another 30 percent vine owners have lost their main source of livelihood without any other alternative.

“They don’t have any [other] skill set. Forceful demolition of yards or vines resulted [in] them being jobless and penniless not only to them but also to their families,” said anti-Jindal movement leader Prashant Paikray.

More than 60 people were arrested then released on bail since January 2022, following 72 criminal cases against nearly a thousand people. While there are already over 400 false pending criminal cases against 2,500 people from the Anti-POSCO movement, the alleged police aggression this year adds to the physical and mental pain of locals.

Already, seven leaders have been arrested including the man who led the movement from the beginning, Debendra Swain. Aside from this Paikray spoke of how a family with an 18-year-old daughter were put in jail while their 20-year-old son had gone missing on January 14.

Impact on children and elderly

Following conflicts between local police and villagers, children have also been kept from attending schools. Police personnel occupied all nearby primary and secondary schools, making it impossible for students to attend schools.

“There is now a struggle to get a proper meal for most of the Dhinkia villagers who are mostly of a scheduled caste and were self-dependent upon their long traditional culture and were living happily before, depending upon their forest,” said Paikray.

However, with the heavy security deployed around the area, villagers also cannot remain dependent on forest produce any longer. It is noteworthy that the company has repeatedly attempted to get an environmental clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) since 2018. However, as per the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2006, the EC requires the permission of the affected people via gram sabha consent.

Villagers claim that authorities called a public hearing that was allegedly hijacked by District Collector Sangram Mohapatra, the Land Acquisition Officer during the earlier POSCO project. Villagers then called for a “palli sabha” (Village meeting) and passed a resolution rejecting the proposed project of JSW Utkal Steel Ltd. However, since the EC request is yet to be dismissed, Dhinkia villagers have repeatedly demanded the completion of their individual and community forest rights claims on land.


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