By Prarthana Mitra
After hundreds of resolute protestors clashed with the police last week over the cutting of sal trees in Dhenkanal district for a brewery, the Odisha government stopped the felling of the trees on November 18, and scrapped the project the following day.
According to a report by Down To Earth, on Tuesday, the CM Naveen Patnaik government cancelled the Rs 102 crore brewing project in the face of the growing protest. In a move reminiscent of the Chipko movement, women of Balarampur village hugged the trees of the Jhinkargadi forest as the Dhenkanal district administration arrived to fell the trees on November 17. This historic win for the country’s tribal and rural communities comes at a time when the government is doggedly encroaching on ecological belts for the sake of corporatisation and economic growth.
Here’s what happened
The contentious Jhinkargadi forest is protected by the villagers whose livelihood and sustenance depends on the abounding sal trees. Covering an area of over 243 hectares, the forest is a common property resource for Balarampur and some 10 other neighbouring villages.
The government’s decision to hand it over to a private contractor, Kolkata-based P&A Bottlers, to repurpose it as a beer factory, met with severe backlash from the community and environmental activists alike.
On November 17, when men turned up to clear the land, about 1,000 households came forward and held their ground in central Odisha’s Dhenkanal district, until armed forces aided by the administration were forced to back off.
Women who have been protecting the trees for three generations stepped up, as threats to acquire the land became more imminent. “The forest is our life,” Chaturi Sahu, 70, told The Hindu as she clasped a sal (Shorea robusta) tree along with other women from her village. The temerity of the villagers made national headlines, causing the state government to halt the deforestation drive and call for an investigation into the matter.
Forest with a history: Under threat
The problem can be traced back to 2014 when the state forest department decided to earmark encumbrance free forest land to facilitate industrial projects. But the choice of Jhinkargadi forest, which has been under the direct control of villagers for over four decades and is denser than other forests under administrative control, was met with objections.
The Balarampur Gramya Parichalana Parishad (BGPP) moved Orissa High Court (HC) against the Dhenkanal district administration in 2017, besides approaching the National Green Tribunal. Patnaik, unmoved by these ongoing cases, unveiled the project in early November, following which the women of Balarampur harkened back to 1970s Chipko Movement. Hundreds of them gathered to hug the luxuriant sal trees that they had nurtured and had been nurtured by for years.
The villagers continued their vigil till November 17, when the district administration arrived with armed police to drive the protestors away with brute force. They managed to cut down over 1000 sal trees before the government intervened. A day after the scuffle with women protestors gained media coverage and solidarity from all corners of the nation, the government ordered a stoppage on the tree felling, further ordering a probe by the Revenue Divisional Commissioner.
“When our forefathers started protecting forests, the land was full of shrubs with little tree coverage. The village committee started traditional rotational forest patrolling and prevented timber smugglers from having free access to forests. Our efforts bore fruits and Jhinkargadi is now one of the finest protected forests,” said Sushanta Kumar Dhala, secretary of BGPP and leader of the agitation.
The news of the scrapped project should give the neighbouring states of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh some cause for hope in their ongoing struggle against violent disenfranchisement by mining, energy and industrial projects.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius
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