The victory march, bursting of crackers and playing of musical instruments by people, mostly women, in Balarampur was narrating the tale as to how their faith in nature was vindicated with the bottling up of a proposed liquor plant inside a community-protected forest.
The decade-long hard work of the residents of Balarampur in Dhenkanal district didn’t go in vain with Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik asking to scrap the proposed beer bottling project to be set up inside the forest. The order came on the recommendations of the Revenue Divisional Commissioner (Central) DV Swamy.
People of at least 13 villages in the area had been protecting and regenerating 600 acres of the woodland around Jhirnkaragadi forest for decades. But the region came under tension after the district administration, about four years back, allotted a piece of land to a brewing company to set up its factory. It culminated on Saturday, after police vacated the proposed site by forcibly lifting some protesting women. The women, taking a cue from the Chipko movement of the 70s, were seen embracing the trees to prevent them from being felled down. By this time, however, irreparable damage had already been done with the chopping down of over a thousand sal trees for the proposed beer plant.
Green activist Ranjan Panda said, “The Chief Minister should have settled the issue much earlier respecting the voice of the people. If the Government had to allocate land at all for the beer factory to infuse fresh funds to the coffers, it could have picked up some other site but certainly not amid a protected forest. The patch of forest conserved by the community is also under the Mahanadi Elephant Reserves, which spreads over 1038.30 sq km of area. Though the CM’s decision came late, it is a welcome move. It should be followed in other cases too and no industry should come up in community-protected forests.” Other eco-crusaders also echoed similar sentiments.
The villagers, on the other hand, resented the Government’s decision for changing kisam from forest land to ‘Gochar’ and ‘Patit’ in the year 2014 in order to facilitate industrialisation in the State.
Khirod Patra, a local social activist said the administration has chopped down the trees that were preserved over last 45 years by the 13 villages with women playing a pivotal role.
The forest, flourished under the vigilant eyes of the villagers, not only offered livelihood options to them, it had a lasting impact on the ecosystem and the sustainability of wildlife. The villagers identified themselves with each and every tree of the forest.
Saraswati Maharana, a village woman, was actively involved in protecting forests. “The trees which we had groomed like our kids were brutally cut down by the administration. The officials killed our grown-up children,” she said with tears rolling down her cheeks.
Everything was fine till 2014 when the State-run Odisha Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (Idco), the nodal agency for facilitating land for industries, set its eye on the ‘treasure’ of the villagers by terming the large tracts of the nurtured land as ‘encumbrance-free’ land.
According to Y Giri Rao, a forest rights activist, “It is a clear violation of the Supreme Court order passed on 12.12.1996 in WP(C) No. 202/1995, when it had re-defined the meaning of forests and extended protection to all areas with natural forests irrespective of their ownership. In Balarampur case, however, the direction was ignored.
A look into the floral and faunal diversity of the land indicates clearly whether the land comes under forest land or ‘encumbrance-free’ land category. According to a study conducted by botanist Hemanta Kumar Sahoo in January this year, the land was rich in floral and faunal diversity and varieties of rare, endangered and threatened species. The forest categorised as dry deciduous sal forest, interspersed with a few moist patches, and composed chiefly of species, regenerated over the past 20-30 years under community protection drive. It provided immeasurable non-timber forest produce (NTFP) to the forested communities to lead a better life. Apart from Balarampur, people of several other neighbouring villages depend on the patch of forest for grazing their animals, non timber forest products based livelihood and several other purposes.
Sahoo said he had documented a total of 118 plant species during his short trip in January. Many species of birds, animals and reptiles were also documented during the survey.
The study had also suggested that if the forest land is diverted for any non-forestry purpose, it will have adverse impact on the socio-ecological sensitiveness of the area.
The forest that attracts picnickers due to its irresistible scenic beauty harbours 61 varieties trees, 28 climber plants, 14 herbs, 14 shrubs and a species of bamboo. The trees also host epiphytic orchids like Vanda species. The list of herbaceous and grass species will be much more if a study is carried out during rain and post rainy season, the report maintained.
Villagers report about existence of 35 species of medicinal plants which include myrobalan (harida and bahada), Indian gooseberry (amla), muturi, satabari, anantamula, gangasiuli, bhalia, kusuma, bhuinlimba (a neem species), limba (neem), wood apple (bela) and akanabindu. Trees like mahua flowers, myrobalan, amla, kendu and chironjee (Chara) provide livelihood opportunities to the forest-dependent communities.
Roots of various tuberous species like kasa kanda, pita kanda, bhata kanda are consumed by the forest dwellers to fight malnourishment.
The forest also hosts rare and endangered species like cambi resin plant , black oil plant, Indian Kino plant and cleaning nut tree enlisted as threatened medicinal plants in Odisha. It also houses mammals like elephants, wild boars, barking deer, hare, monkeys and squirrels and several bird species.
With such floral and faunal diversity, it is unfortunate that the State Government took the decision to set up a liquor plant inside the dense forest putting the land under ‘encumbrance-free’ category, lamented Sahoo.
The villagers now demand action against the officials involved in tree felling and plant of fresh saplings.