Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Poachers turned protectors fight for their survival

Nature and wildlife can be better conserved if local communities are duly educated and motivated. Nearly 70 km south of Bhubaneswar, the Mangalajodi village on the edge of Chilka lake, Asia’s largest brackish water lagoon, is a testimony to that argument.

 About 25 villagers, many of whom were once-known bird poachers, have now become saviours of the avian winter guests coming in from different parts of the globe including the Siberian and Arabian countries.

Birds are drawn to Chilka's ...

The swampy edge of Chilka near Mangalajodi receives approximately 1.5 lakh birds every winter. Experts believe that the reason for this is its huge as well as diverse fishery resources and a unique eco-system comprising varieties of aquatic plant species, which together make Chilka the place of ample food opportunities for its winged visitors. The lake received about 9 lakh migratory birds in 2013 while the number was less last season possibly because of the impact of the cyclonic storm Phailin that hit the Odisha coast in October 2013.

A report published in Current Science based on a study conducted by the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS), Phailin has altered the concentration of salinity, silicate and ammonia, which may lead to an alteration in the composition of the phytoplankton species and may also affect the “food web” and the “lagoon's economy".

Sri Sri Mahaveer Pakshi Suraksha Samiti is formed

Motivated by Nandakishore Bhujabal, a nature and wildlife lover who founded the NGO Wild Orissa, villagers of Mangalajodi formed a bird protection committee named Sri Sri Mahaveer Pakshi Suraksha Samiti in 2000. “The committee members look after the protection of migratory birds and make some income by taking tourists into the lake for a closer view of the birds,” says Ramahari Behera, President of the Samiti.

With support from Wild Orissa, they started out with only three boats. Then, the Samiti added one more while members have added eight of their personal boats to bring up the total to 12 boats. “During the three months when the birds are in this part of the lake, each member earns about Rs. 5000 per month by carrying tourists into the lake,” says Madhav Behera, Secretary of the Samiti.
“This income is not enough to run the family but there is no alternative we can think about,” adds Madhav.

Income source taken away

Traditionally, people living around Chilka Lake have depended on the lagoon and its fishery resources that comprises about 225 varieties of fish. Per data provided by the Chilka Development Authority (CDA), “Chilika Lake has 132 fishing villages with a total population of more than 0.15 million,” of which “about 30% (46,500) are active fishermen, although many others depend indirectly on fisheries”.

Mentioning that the lake provides livelihood to about 2,00,000 fishermen living in surrounding villages, a report published in the Fishing Chimes says that “The fisheries output shares more than 70% of Chilka’s economic value with a fish catch composition that includes fish (65%), shrimp (33%) and crab (2%)”. Sadly, fishing which was the primary source of livelihood for centuries earning fishermen as much as Rs. 300 - 500 per day, has not remained reliable for the villagers of Mangalajodi as overfishing and shrinking of the lake have made it difficult for the local fishing folks to get a good catch.

Shrinking lake, shrinking revenue

Though official data provided by the Odisha government says that the lagoon is spread over 1100 sq. km and 1165 sq. km as per the CDA, the report on Phailin impact on Chilka Lake, published in Current Science, indicates that the area has come down to 1020 sq. km during monsoons and 704 sq. km during the summer. 

Villagers say that the lake, which was once close to the village, is now 3 km away. “Again as the edge has become swampy, we need to go 5 km further into the lake for fishing. Even then, we hardly get a good-size fish in Chilka these days,” says a local fisherman.

A standard catch makes 5-7 kg of fish on average and fetches between Rs. 300-500 per day per fisherman apart from meeting his own consumption needs. However, this is possible only when one gets good-sized fish each weighing over 1 kg because such sized fishes are in great demand in the market. This hardly happens nowadays.

As the daily catch has not remained as alluring as before, the youth of the village have begun migrating. “About 90% of the youth is migrating to other states to work as wage labourer,” said Jadu Behera, vice-president of the Samiti. 

In order to keep the community engaged in conserving the lake and its ecosystem, it is essential that alternate livelihood options be offered to these villagers. Unfortunately, "nobody bothers for us. Neither the union of fishing folk in the area nor the government understand our problems and try to resolve them. Everyone rather plays with the poor people only”, Madhav says with grief.

The report first appeared on November 23, 2014, at the India Water Portal

Friday, October 17, 2014

Disaster risk management is not just evacuation

On Sunday, October 12, 2014, the very severe cyclonic storm Hudhud mauled the coastal city of Visakhapatnam and adjacent districts in India’s southern state of Andhra Pradesh. But the storm couldn’t gather further strength or last longer because of the geographical gift in form of the hill range that cushioned the city where the storm made the landfall.

The southern part of Odisha was also partially affected by the storm but there was no large scale devastation one normally associates with such powerful storms.

Disaster mortality reduced

The loss of lives has been largely controlled. So far, the death toll of Hudhud cyclonic storm remained 24, three in Odisha and 21 in Andhra Pradesh.

Cyclonic storm Phailin that hit Gopalpur coast, in October 2013, and subsequent floods killed 44 persons.

Over the last decade the death toll due to cyclones has come down drastically in comparison to the loss of around 10, 000 lives during the super cyclone of 1999 that hit the northern Odisha coast.
“Government cooperation, preparedness at the community level, early warning communication and lessons learned from Cyclone contributed to the successful evacuation operation, effective preparation activities and impact mitigation,” observed United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) while admiring Indian government’s response during Phailin cyclone of 2013.

In order to save human lives from the wrath of Hudhud cyclone, vulnerable villages in low-lying areas were evacuated and over seven lakh people were shifted to different cyclone shelters in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, as per the government bulletins.

Early warning from India Meteorological Department (IMD), timely action by disaster response forces, administrative preparedness at the state, national and local levels indicate that India has enhanced its capacity to deal with natural calamities like cyclones and floods effectively.

Growing magnitude of economic loss

Even though India has gained success in minimising loss of lives, the social and economic impacts of hydro-meteorological disasters have become a bigger concern. 

“Globally, the number of lives lost to hydro-meteorological disasters, such as cyclones, has decreased 10 times, yet the recorded economic losses have increased 50 times,” says UNEP.

While official assessment of damages caused by Hudhud cyclone is yet to come, it’s believed on basis of general estimations that the cost of damage could be around Rs.10,000 crore or USD 1.6 billion.

“India used to spend around $300 million a year on disaster preparedness, evacuation and relief in the early 2000s. But last year, the country spent over $1.6 billion,” says Ajay Sreevatsan of The Hindu.

“The expenditure on disaster relief has gone up from 5712.04 crore rupees in 2011-12 to 10684.02 crore rupees in 2013-14,” Sreevatsan reports.

As per the Global assessment Report, 2011, of United Nations’ International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), “Since 1981, economic loss from disasters is growing faster than GDP per capita in the OECD countries. This means that the risk of losing wealth in weather-related disasters is now exceeding the rate at which the wealth itself is being created.”

Disaster displacement on the rise

With over seven lakh people shifted to safer places during the Hudhud cyclone, displacement due to disaster has become another issue of global concern.

As per a UN backed report ‘Global Estimates 2014: people displaced by disasters,’ about 2.14 million people were displaced in India last year due to natural disasters placing it at third position after the Philippines and China in regard to displacement in 2013.

22 million people were displaced worldwide, in the year 2013, by disasters, almost three times more than the casualties of conflict in the same year, said the report.

During 2008-2013, a total of 26.13 million people were displaced in India alone, second only to China that had 54.25 million displacements.

In 2013 alone, 2.14 million people were displaced in India due to events of natural calamities while conflict and violence displaced about 64,000 people.

While in October 2013, widespread monsoon season floods displaced over a million in several Indian states, cyclone Phailin, the strongest to hit India in 14 years, brought widespread devastation to eastern coastal areas and forced the evacuation of almost a million people.

“Between 2008 and 2013, 80.9 per cent of displacement took place in Asia. The region accounted for the 14 largest displacements of 2013 and the five countries with the highest displacement levels: the Philippines, China, India, Bangladesh and Vietnam,” the report said.

The report by Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) shows that the risk of displacement due to disasters has more than doubled over the last four decades.

Integrated management approach needed

“Despite the magnitude of potential costs and loss of income, reducing disaster risks is still often perceived as a lesser priority than fiscal stability, unemployment or inflation,” says UNISDR in a paper titled ‘Towards a Post-2015 Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction’ while suggesting that “It is essential to continue to harmonize, integrate and embed disaster risk reduction within poverty eradication and sustainable development policies and programmes.”

So, apart from taking measures to save lives of the disaster prone communities, India has to integrate disaster risk management as a component of development planning and poverty eradication programmes.

As observed by UNISDR, involvement of communities, and more in general the adoption of a participatory approach to risk management, could be the most cost-effective and sustainable mechanism for reducing risks.

This piece first appeared on October 16, 2014 at the Odisha Sun Times.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

From starvation deaths to surplus

Farmers of Kashipur region in Odisha revived traditional practices to deal with ecological ruin and malnutrition.

GROWING CROPS had never been easy in Kashipur. Farmers practised shifting cultivation, depending on rains to produce whatever little was possible on the rocky slopes. But with onslaught of bauxite mining, large scale felling of forest trees and changing weather patterns, the going has got tougher.  
The region in Odisha’s Raygada district has always been in news for wrong reasons. More than 50 starvation deaths were reported from this area in 1986-87, which forced the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to pay a visit along with his wife Sonia Gandhi. He made loads of promises to the people of Kashipur but over the years, the situation has only worsened. There were 21 alleged starvation deaths reported from the region in 2001 July-August. However, the government blamed it on food poisoning. Now the block has over 700 children with symptoms of malnutrition. It suggests that various government programmes haven’t done well in ensuring food security. 
But thanks to women of this area, the situation has started to change for better. Agriculture has been transformed from an unreliable livelihood option to a viable economic activity as farmers started working in unison with nature. Kashipur is a sub-tropical hilly and forested region inhabited by both tribal and non-tribal communities who are primarily agrarian.
A badly hit agriculture
Agriculture was a reliable occupation till forest cover was intact to check flash floods and soil erosion. “The rain was timely and climate was conducive. Today the forest cover has reduced to make space for developmental works, mining and industrialisation besides fulfilling the commercial needs for timber. Changing weather pattern has added to the problem,” says Sumani Jhodia of Siriguda village, who is the president of Ama Sangathan, a local women’s society.
Late rain, early winter and increasing incidence of heavy rain have become frequent in the area. Heavy rain causes flash floods thus eroding the loose soil of cultivated lands on hill slopes. Crop season has been squeezed to only three months instead of the usual five. Late rain delays farming activities, particularly in cultivation of major crops like paddy and ragi. On the other hand, early winter season damages crops before they are ready for harvest. This pushed the poor farmers further into deprivation. “Because we lost our crops, our financial condition worsened. I couldn’t even arrange proper medical treatment for my husband who died of prolonged illness a few years back,” says 40-year-old Jaimati Majhi of Dandabad village.
Food insecurity and poverty led to distress migration of youth. “These days, one or two members from each family migrate to other states to work as labourers. Some of them even die at their workplaces. Last year, two youth of Madigaon village died in Andhra Pradesh,” says Sumani. In such a scenario, Agragamaee, a non-profit working for sustainable development in Odisha, suggested eco-village development through involvement of members of local women groups. 
The land will yield again
Taking clues from the non-interfered natural growth of tropical forests and Masanobu Fukuoka’s idea of one-straw revolution, a modified common model of farming was developed on the basic principles of no tilling, no weeding, no use of inorganic fertilisers and chemical pesticides.
Following methods of one-straw revolution, farmers do not loosen the soil by ploughing the land. They sow seeds and cover them up with a layer of straw or grass. This grass cover helps in germination as it usually happens in natural forests. Not only the cover protects seeds from sparrows, it also holds the moisture for longer time to help the crops grow. Though this method was not new to the tribal farmers, it was out of practice because of the invasion of commercial agriculture which leads to high input cost and soil degradation.
No ploughing and no weeding saves the farm land by checking soil erosion in events of extreme rain whereas no use of chemicals makes farming economically viable and ecologically sound. For manure, farmers leave the vegetative wastes like leaves, shrubs and chopped grasses scattered on the farm land so that they get decomposed into compost. Besides supplying essential nutrients, compost also helps the soil retain moisture at the subsurface level to support plant growth for a relatively longer period. Scientifically, apart from revitalising the land for agriculture, this natural process helps with soil formation as well.
Benefits harvested
The success has reaffirmed the fact that natural farming is the most sustainable option against high input chemical agriculture as well as shifting cultivation. It also re-establishes the fact that subsistence agriculture, unlike mining and large industries, can bring development to the communities without causing any harm to the environment.
The report first appeared on October 4, 2014, at the GoI Monitor.

Friday, August 15, 2014

A letter to dear Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik

In view of the involvement of several of Biju Janata Dal leaders and ministers of his current as well as the previous cabinet in the land allotment scam in the state of Odisha, one must hail Naveen Patnaik for tracing and inducting so many talented leaders in the party and his cabinet. In spite of the fact that a part of responsible media is genuinely critical about Naveen Patnaik and his government, this letter in form of a satire intends to hail Naveen Patnaik for his search of talents that make his cabinet transparent and principled.

My dear Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik,
Going beyond just offering my sincere regards, I must hail you for spotting some of the best talents from Odisha to take into your party, get them elected so you can ride the stairs to power and to include in your most transparent cabinet, as you and your party colleagues most often claim, to make it completely honest and stainless, perhaps fairer than the quality of the steel you want to produce in the foreign investor’s plants you have planned in the state.
To me, talents may not necessarily be in areas people appreciate. It may be in non-appreciated areas as well like managing to win elections by whatever means, loot public properties by violating and manipulating laws, [mis]using power to grab public resources like land, mines and, even, parts of the Ocean. If you do not know, you must be excited to know that your party colleagues have acquired parts of the Bay of Bengal at places where you have planned ports.
As per the news reports came in last few days, several of your party colleagues have truly excelled in those non-appreciated talents, may be, due to your relentless exercises and encouragement. I believe, your party colleagues must be obliged or, at least, appreciative of your support and encouragement. 
Wednesday, August 13, I saw one of your cabinet ministers, who availed the privilege of discretionary quota (DQ) in violation of basic norms of eligibility, claiming his readiness on TV screens (it was just a scrolling but) to surrender the land on a single word of instruction from you only. I was really thrilled to imagine your minister's confidence of honesty in spite of the fact that his indulgence in illegal occupation of government land under DQ and forcible grabbing of the adjacent land, larger than the one he obtained under DQ, terming it just a surplus cut-piece, were all known to public.
I was further delighted to see the kind of loyalty he had for you while claiming loudly about his readiness to return the land on your single insistence.
I must hail you for the kind of behavioural culture and sense of respect (exclusively for you) you have instilled in your party colleagues who are so loyal to you openly.
The same minister demonstrated his loyalty, few days back, saying that he had no issue accepting you or any other from your family, citing the name of one Arun Patnaik, as the leader of the party. If you still remember, the said minister compared himself with Lal Bahadur Shastry when the former had to vacate his ministerial berth, on your instruction, for alleged link in a rape and murder case in his constituency. Then also he said he stepped out of your cabinet to keep your image clean. His concern for your image and commitment to keep it clean must be applauded. Hope, you must have recognised this.
So, I must also hail you for keeping your colleagues committed to protect your image and imbibing in them the highest regard for it knowing very well that they have least regards for the state and its people.
However, this reigning minister of your cabinet, though is hugely talented in many areas, is no better than the minister in your last cabinet, whom you preferred to send to the Rajya Sabha as representative of your party, who could manage to allot ‘n’ numbers of plots and flats in his name and in the names of his family members under DQ. I am not sure if his ideas are inspired by you but his derivation of the newer definition for the word “family” as “one member one family” should certainly be seen as the newest view of Indian family system.
We didn’t see such talents in your cabinet now for the first time. Another of your cabinet colleague who was holding responsible berth of law ministry in your last cabinet was also in news for acquiring land in violation of norms.
There are many more examples and, I believe, you don’t need to be briefed about all such cases because your own media cell and bureaucrat counsellors must be briefing you about all minute developments related to your government and ministers.
One thing I must appreciate that none of your colleagues involved in the above cited cases has denied to the fact of acquiring land under DQ, certainly, in violation of norms. Rather two did immediately return their land and houses in acceptance of their fault. I appreciate the guts of your colleagues believing that accepting faults while in power needs lots of guts!
Hailing you once again for your modesty reflected in your tolerance to those persons even after so many bombs hurled on them, and on your government of course, by several media, I have a reason to believe that you must also be thinking the same way.
Grabbing land or houses under DQ in violation of norms, admitting their mistakes after it came in news and continuing to be in power even after acceptance of their mistakes make me recall an old story I heard during my childhood.
The story in the beginning explained how a benevolent king who, after giving a patient hearing to a case of crime committed by one of his subjects granted amnesty as the subject admitted that he committed the crime and promised not to do so in future.
King’s son, who was present during the trial, asked his father, why did he grant amnesty to the man who committed the crime?
The king politely replied, the subject had no criminal intent as he didn’t try to lie about the crime and admitted the truth.
The king’s son, during his rule, made it a point and made it a principle as well so that criminals who admitted their crimes were granted amnesty and criminals thrived in his state as crimes were mostly forgiven.
I must hail you and salute you for setting a similar kind of principle to guide your government, colleagues in your cabinet and the party.
Whatever your critics and the genuine media of the state say about you, your cabinet and party colleagues and your government, you still have a point in your defence - "it's all guided by principle!"
An insignificant admirer
This piece was first published on August 14, 2014, at the HotnHitNews.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Environmental issues ignored in India

India on May 16 witnessed the crushing victory of its new prime minister, Narendra Modi, leader of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The 63-year-old promised to improve the lives of all Indians and vowed to "make the 21st century India's century."

However, desperate to keep pace on the highway of economic growth, the flip side of India's success story is the tale of ruining the environment. Even though every cross-section of its population faces the wrath of environmental degradation and climate change, green issues are yet to become priorities for the newly elected government.

Ecological consequences

"Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change," said Rajendra K Pachauri, chairperson of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change.

India's meteorological department has warned about the disastrous consequences of the weather phenomenon El Nino and agriculture, an important contributor to the Indian economy, would be the first hit.

"The Himalayan glaciers are receding, agricultural yields are stagnating, dry days have increased, and patterns of monsoons have become unpredictable. India is increasingly seeing the effects of climate change," Jairam Ramesh, India's former environment and forest minister, said in 2009.

Five years on, the threat to environment has only increased and climate issues have become larger worries. Although rapid economic growth has brought many benefits to India, the environment has suffered, exposing the population to serious air and water pollution, said the World Bank in March.

It added that environmental degradation can cost India $80 billion per year or 5.7 percent of its economy.

"India needs long-term action. We need to protect our forest, agriculture, land and the ocean for effective carbon sequestration," said Dr Rahas Bihari Panda of Environment Science Department at North Odisha University.

"Unfortunately, all these sequestering agents are under threat," Panda added.

Meanwhile, India is losing forests to make space for industries and other development projects. According to government reports, India's forest coverage now has come down to 21.05 percent of its total geographic area, with a loss of 367 square kilometers between 2009 and 2011.

Government failure

However, India's Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) found many of the forest and environmental clearances issued to such projects were in violation of Supreme Court orders and government regulations.

CAG report also pointed out that most projects don't comply with laws and the expectation of compensatory afforestation.

"Even where the companies have done this, it's mostly commercial monoculture at the cost of natural forests," said Ranjan Panda, a water conservation activist and member of the Waterkeeper Alliance.

Citing the example of eucalyptus plantation by companies on land previously used for sustenance farming, Panda said that the companies "benefit from the raw materials" for their products, and by obtaining carbon credits that give them the needed green tag to raise more finance.

In the business, such projects snatch away land from hundreds of thousands of farmers, pushing food insecurity upon them.

"Government absence at the grass roots coupled with weak (almost non-existent) mechanisms to monitor the implementation of regulations targeted at these companies that manage to get carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol, makes the situation still worse," Panda added.

"Environmental governance has failed in the country," Pune-based ecologist Madhav Gadgil noted last year, criticizing the inadequate role of the government in protecting the environment.

"The corporate lobby mostly wins in the game because India has been blind to everything else for industrialization," said Biswajit Mohanty, a nature conservationist and anti-corruption activist.

However, "The priorities of the next government are not going to change as long as the desperation for an economic miracle rules over the policies," Mohanty added.

To most of the activists and environment lovers, a major issue that puts environment under threat is that the government doesn't abide by the laws of the land and often compromises with the laws when big investments or industrial projects come on the way.

"It happened in the case of South Korea-based Posco, the UK-based Vedanta Resources and even the government's own nuclear plant at Koodankulum in Tamil Nadu," said Prasanta Paikray, a Communist leader involved in the people's movement against Posco's proposed steel plant.

Low expectations

As the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance will form the government under the leadership of Modi, environmentalists are skeptical about the new government's policies with regard to environmental protection while pursuing development.

The environmental governance section of the BJP manifesto has a headline saying "Flora, Fauna and Environment - Safeguarding Our Tomorrow." However, the rest of the document does not say anything about how they are going to improve environmental governance in India or if they even see this need, noted Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

It makes very clear on what to do in its industry section, which can only be disastrous for India's environment, Thakkar said.

The BJP's track record has little to show that it is serious on environmental issues, Thakkar added.

Keeping in view Modi's high sounding promises for industrialization and infrastructural development during the election campaign, one can hardly say that environment will feature in his list of priorities.

This piece first appeared on May 28, 2014, in the Global Times under the headline: Modi likely to bypass green policy.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Turtle disaster: Gahirmatha to be abandoned by marine turtles?

Coastal erosion and climate change have forced hundreds of thousands of endangered olive ridley marine turtles to skip this breeding season at Odisha's Gahirmatha beach, one of their favorite destinations for mass nesting.

Named after their olive-colored, heart-shaped shell, these Pacific turtles migrate thousands of miles in the Indian Ocean for mating and nesting. Gahirmatha beach drew international attention after its discovery in 1974 by American zoologist Dr H R Bustard. For centuries, the beach has hosted the world's most spectacular arribada, the Spanish word for "arrival by sea" that is used to describe arrival of turtles en masse. Last season, more than 200,000 turtles visited this beach in a single night.

The marine turtles routinely visit the coast during October-November to mate, while annual mass nesting usually takes place between January and March each year.

However, the event has not occurred this year even though the season is almost at its end.

Human interference

In order to offer a peaceful atmosphere for the turtles, a ban on fishing within 20 kilometers of the coast was imposed from November 1, 2013, till the end of May 2014.

The ban is to restrict the local fishing community but "the turtles are in trouble due to the frequent and illegal movement of trawlers in the prohibited area," said a local volunteer.

Apart from fishing, regular missile tests by the Indian Defence Ministry's DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) during turtle breeding seasons are also believed to have affected migration.

"Despite requests from the government to restrain from testing missiles during turtle breeding seasons, test firing is conducted. This seems to be an act of irresponsibility from the DRDO," Biswajit Mohanty, a known turtle conservator and noted wildlife activist, told the Global Times.

Since November 2013, at least four tests have been carried out by the DRDO at Wheeler Island, which is close to the turtle nesting site. The last of the tests took place on April 11. It has been reported that the DRDO has plans to carry out more than a dozen such tests during the next 45 days, throughout the turtle breeding season that extends up to May 31.

Apart from the missile tests, operational activities at Dhamra Port are also thought to be disturbing the turtles. However, the negative impact of the port on the annual breeding activities of turtles was known in the port's planning period. In fact, project works for the port at the mouth of the Dhamra River were delayed for about a decade.

If wildlife officials at the forest department are to be believed, Gahirmatha still waits for the turtles to visit the beach to nest as the event has previously taken place during the latter part of April.

"Unusual rain during the peak nesting season might have played deterrent to the annual breeding activity of the turtles. But, huge numbers of female turtles are still in the river mouth and the coastal sea. As the event of mass nesting has taken place late in April in many past years, we still hope that it may be the same this year too," Kedar Kumar Swain, the Divisional Forest Officer of Rajnagar Mangrove Forest Division, told the Global Times.

However, apprehension that the turtles may skip the annual activity this year rather grows stronger with every passing day.

Same fate as Costa Rica?

To nature conservationists and wildlife experts, the turtles are deprived of the space they require because rapid coastal erosion and frequent high tides have geographically deformed and shrunk the beach they nest on.

"Erosion at an alarming scale is the biggest threat to the beach and the marine species that travel so long in the ocean to reach their favorite ground for nesting. If the trend continues, the turtles may have no other option but to abandon the beach and look for other destinations," Jivan Das, an activist involved with India's leading animal welfare body - People for Animals - told the Global Times.

"Remarkable changes in climate are also a factor behind making the beach unsuitable for nesting activity," Das added.

"Unusual rain in the peak nesting season, frequent high tides and variation in coastal temperature are some of the indicators of climate change that might have disturbed the balance of moisture in the air and sand, which is an essential factor to keep the beach conducive for nesting of turtles," Dr Rahas Bihari Panda of Department of Environmental Science, North Odisha, told the Global Times.

"The delay in the activity of the turtles may also be attributed to El Nino. As scientists have predicted about the possible impacts of the phenomenon over Indian weather, the marine reptiles might have sensed it early from the transportation of heat by sea currents," Dr Panda said.

Looking at the recent trend with Costa Rica's national parks, host to nesting activity of the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle, coastal erosion and climate change has forced the turtles to change their migration route. It's not absurd to imagine a similar fate for the Gahirmatha nesting beach.

But the question is, if they skip Gahitmatha, is it just for this year or forever?

The report was first published on April 28, 2014 in the Global Times.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Fear of Maoist extremists overshadows India’s elections

As India goes to the polls in the world’s biggest democratic vote, left-wing extremism and mistrust in government threaten free elections in the eastern state of Odisha, writes Basudev Mahapatra.

As voting begins in India’s 2014 elections today political tensions are rising, as is the fear of violence by extremists intended to disrupt the biggest ever political event in a democracy. The country is going to polls today in the first phase. Poll management preparations are in full swing with security arrangements in areas of armed conflict at the top of the agenda.
A few days back, Odisha’s Director General of Police (DGP) Prakash Mishra said, “Proper coordination has been established with the police of neighbouring Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Jharkhand for conduct of peaceful elections in the state.” It’s to be noted that the states mentioned by the DGP are also affected by Maoist extremism.
Despite assurances from police people remain nervous, and for good reason. The exchange of fire between police and the extremists in Odisha’s Malkangiri district on March 28, the torching of 15 trucks and an excavator in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district and abduction of villagers in Jamui district of Bihar – all on the same day – has caused panic among some voters. In Odisha, the whole forested strip bordering West Bengal and Jharkhand in the north to Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh in the south remains a hotbed of left-wing insurgency and clashes could continue as the election runs its course.
Asked about the state of affairs in Narayanpatna, a journalist friend in the area said, “Any question about politics and the election in particular scares people in the villages. They don’t want to meet a journalist fearing that any comment regarding the election would dissatisfy the Maoists and endanger their life.”
Hostility and conflict
Narayanpatna, the forested and tribal populated block in Odisha’s Koraput district, is said to be an active base of left-wing extremists. Located in the areas bordering Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, the forests of Narayanpatna serve as safe operating ground for the insurgent Maoists, who claim to be firm believers in the ideologies of Mao-Tse-Tung.
Growing hostility among the tribal people towards authorities amid prolonged negligence and apathy by the local administration and the state as a whole has allowed leftwing extremism to flourish in this area. Meanwhile, tribal people who want no part in the confrontations are being dragged into the conflict.
Narayanpatna is also home to one of the fiercest tribal movements of India led by a tribal youth Nachika Linga, often referred to as a modern-day Spartacus. Declared as ‘most wanted’ by the government of Odisha, Nachika is the leader of ‘Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh’ (CMAS), the tribal outfit that runs the movement to free the community from exploitation by the outsider trading class and to uphold the constitutional rights of the indigenous people over land and the forest.
The movement run by CMAS impacts the whole of the Koraput parliamentary constituency, which has a dominant tribal population. During every election parts of the constituency boycott voting, protesting the apathetic attitude of administration towards the issues of indigenous communities.
Many tribal communities have decided to boycott polls again this year, with other areas coming under pressure from rebel Maoists not to exercise their right to vote and not to allow politicians to enter villages for campaigning.
So, holding the elections peacefully seems to be a challenging job amid tensions in the southern part of Odisha. In the last three years the area has seen two high profile abductions, one of an Indian Civil Servant and the other of a law maker, by the Maoist rebels.
An abducted lawmaker
Jhina Hikaka, the lawmaker who was abducted by Maoist extremists in 2012 and later released, is contesting the election in the Koraput parliamentary constituency as a Biju Janata Dal (BJD) candidate.
Hikaka was abducted on allegations, as made by the extremists through posters, that he grossly failed in his duties to the people. He was then Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) representing from Laxmipur assembly constituency, reserved for tribal candidates only.
Hikaka was in captivity of leftwing extremists for 32 days and was released on condition that he had to raise the issues of people and work to resolve them, or resign from the post he held being elected by people.
After his release, Hikaka was given a fortified government house in the state capital city of Bhubaneswar and remains under heavy security.
Now, as Hikaka is fielded as an MP (Member of Parliament) candidate by Odisha’s ruling party BJD, his election campaigning certainly involves security issues because a significant part of his constituency is affected by leftwing extremism and tribal uprisings.
This is not the case in Narayanpatna alone. The situation is similar in every place of conflict. Ordinary people are sandwiched between threats from Maoist rebels and counter actions by the state armed police. In such a situation, expecting a free, fair and peaceful election seems unrealistic.
The immediate need is to bring the indigenous people to the political mainstream, because armed action by police and suppressive measures by the government only help the hostility to grow. To facilitate political involvement, what is essential is to build confidence in the mass and mobilise people to participate in the electoral process. This can be done by initiating dialogue with people and by educating them about their electoral rights. Sadly, such efforts are absent for the current election.
The report was published on April 7, 2014, at the Asian Correspondent.

Friday, March 28, 2014

BJD red carpet for royals, short shrift to women

Democracy, they say, begins where feudalism ends. But political parties in Odisha, the poorest state in the country, obviously have other ideas. At least 13 scions of ‘royal’ families have been fielded by various political parties for the simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in the state this time.

Curiously, as many as 10 out of the 13 have been nominated by the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD), a party that has never tired of tom-tomming its ‘pro-people’ and ‘pro-poor’ credentials. While seven of them have been fielded in Assembly elections, three have been nominated for Lok Sabha polls, ironically from constituencies that comprise some of the poorest regions in the state: Kalahandi, Bolangir and Kandhamal.

Known for the highest number of cases of malnutrition and starvation deaths in the state, Bolangir district alone has got five members from one royal family contesting the coming election. Of these five, three are from BJD – Ananga Uday Singhdeo from Bolangir Assembly Constituency, his son Kalikesh Narayan Singhdeo from Bolangir Lok Sabha constituency and Prakruti Devi, a woman from the same royal family, from the Patnagarh Assembly constituency.

The other two from the Bolangir royal family in fray this time are Kanak Vardhan Singhdeo and Sangita Singhdeo fighting on Bharitaya Janata party (BJP) tickets in the Patnagarh Assembly seat and Bolangir Lok Sabha Seat respectively.

In another glaring dichotomy between what he professes and what he does, BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik has named only two women in the list of candidates for the 21 Lok Sabha seats in the seats, which accounts for less than 10%. It is hardly the kind of percentage that a party that incessantly talks of ‘women’s empowerment’ can be proud of.

The proportion of women in the list of candidates for Assembly elections is not much to write home about either. There are no more than 14 women in the final list of BJD candidates for 147 Assembly constituencies – which again works out to less than 10%. Revealingly, three out of these 14 are from ‘royal’ families.

The other major parties like the Congress and the BJP have not fared much better when it comes to fielding women candidates. But, Naveen and his party certainly deserve the lion’s share of the flak on this count since it is they who keep shouting from the rooftops about ‘women’s empowerment’.

Naveen’s claims on ‘women’s empowerment’ rest primarily on the large number of self help groups (SHGs) his government has helped form in the state and the reservation of 50% of seats in urban local bodies. But when it comes to the Big Prize of Lok Sabha and Assembly nominations, the BJD boss has been as stingy as the others in handing out party tickets to women.

This piece first appeared on March 26, 2014, at the Odisha Sun Times.

Friday, March 7, 2014

In maoist land: A story of deprivation and victimisation

It was half past eight in the morning when we landed at Laxmipur, a small town in the Koraput district of south Odisha. Laxmipur is about 22 km from Narayanpatna, home to one of India's fierce tribal movements led by the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh (CMAS).

On the way we passed two Border Security Force (BSF) camps–one at Palur between Laxmipur and Narayanpatna, and the other at Podapadar, the striking ground of the CMAS in 2009. Our guide, Anil Subudhi, a local journalist told us that the BSF personnel stationed at Podapadar would verify our identity and purpose of visit. They might even deny us entry into the forest, which was considered the seat of the conflict between the tribal and non-tribal communities, between the armed forces of the state and left-wing extremists.

We reached Narayanpatna, the block headquarters town after half an hour’s journey, had our bath and started for the villages in the forest.

It was Shivratri day. A few of the BSF personnel were on duty. Most of the others were busy with rituals at the newly built roadside temple near the camp. We were not checked. We moved forward.

Part of the village of Podapadar was in shambles. Broken houses had been further vandalised. The burnt remains of a torched bus were strewn about on the ground. The village continues to remain deserted following an attack by the CMAS in May 8, 2009.

We met Sahadev Parida, a teacher from a nearby school, who had been jailed for being a supporter of the tribal rights movement run by the CMAS. As the polls are imminent, I asked him about the situation in the area and people’s views on the forthcoming elections. “People are not in favour of an election. But, they may participate if someone from their area joins active politics and stands as a candidate,” Sahadev said.

Regarding CMAS leader Nachika Linga, Sahadev added, “It’s he himself who has to decide whether to come to mainstream politics or not. Fighting to liberate the tribal community from the age-old tradition of bonded labour and also to ensure the rights of the tribal people over their lands and natural resources, Nachika Linga, the leader of the movement, is often referred to as a modern-day Spartacus.

Not far from Podapadar is Bhaliaput, the village Nachika Linga comes from. It is under the radar of the armed forces and the local police. The roads reaching this village are relatively better but commuting in the interior of the villages is really challenging because of the condition of the terrain and the lack of good roads.

The scenic terraced green fields on hill slopes bear testimony to the agrarian activities of the tribal communities living in the forest. They grow paddy in the usual kharif season and a variety of millet during winter.

Although these fields are cultivated by the tribals, they have no right over them. Even though many laws like the PESA (Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas) and the FRA (Forest Rights Act) have been formulated to give the tribals their rights, the defined objectives are yet to be achieved.

In 2011, during the negotiations for the release of the abducted Collector of Malkangiri, R. Vineel Krishna, the Odisha government agreed to hand over the land rights to the tribals. A committee was formed under the leadership of the Revenue Minister to expedite the process, particularly in the Narayanpatna, Bandhugaon and Laxmipur blocks. Three long years have passed and yet nobody knows what steps the committee has taken and how far the process has gone.

After passing three or four tribal hamlets, we reached Talagumandi village. The police and the armed forces consider Talagumandi, which is surrounded by hills, to be the village of several Maoists. Here we met Singari Tadingi, aged 20 or so, who spent ten months in Koraput jail for reasons she never knew.

“I had been on a visit to a relative’s house nearby. The police suddenly raided the place and arrested me from there. I was taken to a BSF camp where I was beaten severely and asked about my links with Maoists and their activities. I denied all the charges they made against me. Still, I was sent to the district headquarter jail in Koraput. After ten months in jail, I was granted bail,” said Singari, whom the police term a dreaded Maoist.

As she has lost her father, Singari is struggling to survive. She shoulders the burden of her family. She starts crying each time she describes the misery her family was subjected to during her days in

“The police termed me a Maoist. My family faced humiliation. They had to run from pillar to post to free me. They had to live a miserable life after I went to jail. Who is going to compensate for that? Why did I have to spend ten months in jail without any reason?” she asks.

Singari’s is not a lone case. We also met Dinu Sirka of Jhodipadarvi llage and Jira Kendruka of Dumsil village. Both were hiding in the village as the police had targeted them by declaring them to be Maoists.

Dinu Sirka was a big farmer engaged in livestock farming and poultry. He used to have 250 cows, 30 goats and over 30 poultry birds. His family supported the movement raised by CMAS to secure the rights of the tribal people. One day, when his brothers were going to Damanjodi-a township that grew after Nalco started its bauxite mining-to sell groundnuts, the police picked them up on the way and
subjected them to severe torture.

“They were beaten because we all supported the cause being fought by the CMAS. The police then raided our house and all my cattle, goats and hens were taken away. We came to know that they sold all our animals and birds. We lost everything. They looked for me in order to arrest me. I was afraid and, thus, came to this remote village to avoid a police assault on me,” Dinu said. “Later when I met some people from my village, they told me that the police had declared me a Maoist,” Dinu added.

Jira Kendruka left his village under similar constraints. As the police raided his house in his absence and started beating his 12-year old daughter, alleging that the whole family was engaged in Maoist activities, Jira abandoned his village out of fear.

“We don’t know who is a Maoist and who is not. And, we wonder how the police can consider anybody and everybody dwelling in the forest to be a Maoist? As we live in the forest and gather our livelihood from it we are bound to go into the forests. But, because of such police actions, we are deprived of our own forests,” said Jira in an aggrieved voice. People standing around also supported his arguments.

Initially, the tribal people opposed such acts of the police. But they didn’t get support from anybody in the police or even the administration. Rather, tribal people were taken to camps, put to torture, jailed and had to face trials for years. So, the tribal voice got suppressed and a courageous tribal community had to live in fear in order to avoid illegal and immoral police reprisals that the system
sees as lawful.

On the other side, conflict keeps growing in the forests and in the tribal hinterlands. Innocent tribals who just want to live peacefully and with dignity, depending for their livelihood on forest produce and forest lands, are finding themselves sandwiched between the opposing forces involved in the conflict. As the real issues relating to these tribal communities seem to get missed out in the noise and din about tribal empowerment and protection of tribal rights, these tribals are forced to live a life of deprivation and agony.

In such a situation, movements like the CMAS look more relevant than those motivated by any other force or intent.

The conflict over rights can be resolved through discourse instead of applying force and intimidating the tribals. In fact intimidation, irrespective of the source, widens the gap between the communities and the whole system of governance. The approach must be inclusive rather than suppressive. Repeated attempts to suppress the movement may only help it to grow, forcing more and more tribals to adopt a hostile attitude. This tale also present another picture; one about the failure of democracy in ensuring basic rights to the indigenous communities of India.

On my way back, I was carrying the news–perhaps the only good news in recent times–that Nachika Linga, the modern day Spartacus, may go to the tribal people and solicit their opinion about joining mainstream politics in order to raise the issues of tribal rights within a larger political forum.

This piece was first published on March 2, 2014, at The Citizen and republished on March 5, 2014, at the Sanhati.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Posco steeled for trouble

Posco's proposed steel plant near Paradip in Odisha, India, seems to be plagued by conflict.

Recently, the supporters of the project have taken up to agitation against Posco alleging non-fulfillment of promises made by the company and the local administration. While the movement opposing the project has delayed its execution, this fresh agitation by supporters has become another problem for Posco and the Odisha government.

Angry over the callousness of district administration and the Posco authorities toward their long pending demands, over 1,000 pro-Posco villagers from Nuagaon destroyed a 300-meter boundary wall in the project area on February 16. They also set the temporary camp offices of Posco and IDCO, the state agency to facilitate industrial development, on fire. Most of the agitating villagers were land losers who have handed over their land for Posco's proposed steel plant.

"We gave our land for the Posco project believing the government that promised proper rehabilitation packages and employment to at least one member from each family. It's more than five years since many families have lost their land to Posco. The Posco project is being delayed for many reasons and we people who have sacrificed our land and livelihood sources are only suffering," said Tamil Pradhan of Nuagaon, who is a land loser and leader of pro-Posco villagers.

"We have all decided now that we are not going to allow the company to enter the area and start its construction work till our demands are fulfilled," Tamil added.

Demands unmet
The six point charter of demands put before the Rehabilitation and Peripheral Development and Advisory Committee (RPDAC) meeting of 2010 included assured employment to each land-losing family; separate and enhanced prices for homes, homesteads and agricultural land; monthly allowance for landless laborers engaged in agriculture and betel vines; and project construction works to be done by local people through engaging members of local communities.

"None of the demands are fulfilled. Even though they promised to give unemployment allowance to the youth of land-losing families, they haven't listed anybody," said Prabhat Pradhan of Nuagaon.

The company and the local administration made promise after promise in order to acquire land for the project. The government, through the district administration and its industrial development agency, IDCO, has acquired 2,700 acres of land required for Posco's 8 mpta (million tons per annum) plant. Everybody expected that Posco would fulfill all its promises made to people after the land acquisition. But people's demands have never been met.

Broken promises
Apart from the apathetic attitude of district administration and Posco authorities, these land losers have been victims of the multi-core chit-fund scam that took place in Odisha.

"As people received their compensation money, this place became heaven for agents of chit-fund companies like Artha Tatwa (AT) and Seashore. With promises of lucrative growth they have taken away all compensation money from almost 90 percent of land losers. People were just allured by absurd promises made by chit-fund companies. Now the scam is uncovered and these people have little hope of getting back their investment money. Their distress is doubled," Prabhat added.

So the first benefit of industrialization has been looted away by the chit-fund companies that allegedly operated in close connivance with the political leadership of Odisha.

It's because of all these reasons that discontent is simmering. In January, a group of supporters sat in protest at Gadakujanga for more than 20 days. Nobody responded. On February 16, pro-Posco villagers in Nuagaon showed their anger by destroying the boundary wall and setting offices on fire. The villagers have now erected bamboo barricades at village entry points to stop the Posco people and government officials from entering the villages and the project area. Now their one point demand is "Fulfill the promises before doing any construction."

Misleading the people
In January, a senior BJD (Biju Janata Dal) leader and the health minister of Odisha Dr Damodar Rout made open allegations against the company and the district administration saying, "A group of Posco's Indian employees and Jagatsinghpur district administration are misleading the people living in the proposed plant site villages."

He also alleged "the people are not being given compensation as per the decision of the RPDAC. While some people get maximum benefit, others do not get the same."

A senior leader of the ruling party BJD and minister in Naveen Patnaik's cabinet making such allegations carries huge importance.

Now, it's not only the members of PPSS (Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti) who are opposing Posco's proposed steel project. The so called supporters are emerging as a bigger trouble.

"We have been opposing the project from the beginning because we know it's a design to grab the land and loot our resources. Now the supporters of the project have also realized that the single agenda of Posco is to acquire their fertile agricultural land and construct a boundary wall. They have started opposing the project now," said Prasanta Paikray, spokesperson of anti-Posco outfit PPSS.

Recent developments have only added to Posco's woes. Once the troubles at the site are over, the biggest hurdle will be mining at Khandadhar. Even though it managed to overcome the legal battle over a Khandadhar mining lease, who knows if Posco won't struggle with tribal groups like Vedanta Aluminium in Niyamgiri.

Posco may be right worry. Khandadhar is inhabited by Paudi Bhuyans, a primitive tribal group, whose land rights are protected in the Indian constitution.

It seems the war for steel is not yet over

The report was first published on March 4, 2014, in the Global Times.