Protests Brewing in Odisha Against Govt’s Dream Port Project

As Odisha government has started pursuing works to realize its dream of Subarnarekha Port, the third non-major port of the state, people of Chaumukh are gearing up for their second battle after the famous Baliapal movement of the 1980s raised against the proposed missile test base.

“This land is dear to us because it has everything to offer for our livelihood. Being a fertile landmass, we grow paddy and many other crops here. The Subarnarekha River has been a perennial source of fish, crabs and lime shells for landholding as well as landless villagers to gather food and earn a livelihood,” said Subash Chandra Chaudhury, 72, a retired schoolteacher of Chaumukh village.

Beach near Chaumukh village.

The Project Blueprint

To convert about 480-kilometre long coastline within its boundaries into a hub of economic activities, the Odisha government has planned 13 non-major or minor ports. With two of these projects operational, one at Gopalpur in Ganjam district and the other at Dhamra in Bhadrak district, the state has now started initiatives to make Subarnarekha Port the third operational minor port project of the state.

The Odisha government signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chennai based Creative Port Private Limited (CPPL) on Dec 18, 2006, for developing a port on the Subarnarekha River Mouth, at Kirtania, in Balasore district.

Villagers of Chaumukh engaged in fishing activity. 

The government signed the concession agreement with Subarnarekha Port Private Limited, a subsidiary of CPPL, in January 2018 to develop the port. While the location is finalized at Chaumukha on the river mouth, no major work at the site has yet taken place. According to Balasore district administration, recently, it has started works on projects connecting the site to the national highway.

Why People Are Protesting Against the Project

Although collector and district magistrate of Balasore, K. Sudarshan Chakravarthy, commits that everything is to be done in consultation with affected people whenever necessary, villagers of Chaumukha react differently. “Trees on both sides of the connecting road are felled and works are being done without consultation with people either through gram sabha (gram panchayat level) or Palli sabha (village level) meetings,” Lakshmikant Khatua, president of Upakula Bhitamati Suraksha Committee (UBSC), alleged.

“In 2010, the then collector came for a consultation with people. But, as villagers strongly opposed the project, no consultation could happen, but the 79 villagers opposed to the project were jailed,” Khatua said.

The villagers of Chaumukh are opposing the port fearing loss of all their sources of livelihood. To Sabitree Giri, 50, whose whole family is engaged in dry fish production to earn a livelihood, this livelihood opportunity would be lost once the port comes in their place. Around 10 women and four men engaged in her business would be jobless and deprived of livelihood if fishery anyway is hampered.

Another woman, Satadala Giri, 58, has similar apprehensions. “Dry fish business brings me about Rs.70,000 a week throughout winter and rainy seasons.” According to a rough estimate by the villagers, above 10 lakh rupees come to the village every month under this activity. “Many of the landless villagers are engaged in it and they make a good income from fishery and related activities,” Sudhir Chandra Giri, the husband of Satadala, said.

Satadala Giri and Sudhir Chandra Giri pack the dry fish produced by them. 

This apart, collection of lime shells from the riverbed and sea beach has been a source of livelihood for many of the women. “We collect the shells and make a livelihood by selling them,” Kabita Ghadai, 34, said while on her way to the beach. “We shall lose everything if the port comes here,” she told.

Women collect lime shells. 

Acquiring Land From the Landless

The constant erosion of Subarnarekha Riverbanks has converted many of villagers from landholders to landless. With over 1000 acres of recorded land gone into Subarnarekha river, hundreds of people have shifted to either government land or bhoodan land after losing their homestead and farmland into the river. While Maheswar De, 60, has made his house on a piece of bhoodan land after being displaced thrice due to submergence of his land in the river, Bishnupada Mahanty, 57, is living in a polythene shed raised on government land because of similar reasons.

When asked about the government’s plan to deal with these issues, collector and DM, Balasore, K. Sudarshan Chakravarthy stated, “We shall consider all the land-related issues sympathetically during land acquisition and deal with them as per policy and laws.”

As the government claims to develop the project on government land without causing any displacement, “how is it possible when the government lands are already in occupation of people who have lost their recorded land to the river?” — asked Sankar Pani, an advocate working on issues related to land right, forest and environment. “When their land is submerged and they are forced to use the government land, it becomes common land,” Pani emphasized.

Hundreds of acres of the government land around the coastal village of Chaumukh are now used by landless villagers for housing, raising betel leaf vineyards, cultivating paddy and other crops. “I have no means to survive without the betel leaf vineyard raised on government land,” said Sulachana Badhai, 35. The village houses more than 2000 such vineyards making betel leaf business a major economic activity.

Environmental Impact of the Port

It’s not only the land and livelihood, but the port also poses bigger threats to the shoreline, river mouth and landscape surrounding it, according to Dr Kabir Mohan Sethy, professor of geography at Utkal University, Bhubaneswar.

Bishnupada Mohanty, a resident of Chaumukh

“With the process of littoral drift disrupted, erosion on the other side of the mouth may be accelerated to a dangerous level. Pollution of water and soil may also lead to the destruction of the fishery resource and local ecosystem,” he alerted.

Part of this coast is a turtle nesting beach and habitat to the famous red crabs, the port would be disastrous for the whole ecosystem, advocate Pani highlighted.

All these issues now pump a movement against the Odisha’s dream of the Subarnarekha Port project. “In the 1980s, we could stop the proposed missile test base project in this locality. And, we shall fight till death against the port project to protect our sources of livelihood and the local ecosystem,” Arun Jena, advisor of UBSC claimed.

(Basudev Mahapatra is the Former Editor-in-Chief of Naxatra News. He tweets at @BasudevNews.)

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