December 20, 2019

People’s movement brews against Subarnarekha Port Project

© Basudev Mahapatra
As the government of the eastern Indian state of Odisha has pursued works to realize its dream of Subarnarekha Port, the third non-major port of the state, people of Chaumukh village prepare for their second battle, after the famous Baliapal movement of the 1980s raised against a proposed missile test base.

“This land is dear to us because it has everything to offer for our livelihood. This is a fertile land mass where we grow paddy and many other crops. The Subarnarekha River has been a perennial source of fish, crabs and lime shells for land holding as well as landless villagers to gather food and earn a livelihood. The port will disrupt all these ecosystem services,” said Subash Chandra Chaudhury, 72, a retired school teacher of Chaumukh village.

The Port project

With the vision to convert about 480 kilometer long coastline within its boundaries into hub of economic activities, the government of Odisha 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 eastern state has now started initiatives to make Subarnarekha Port the third operational minor port project of the state.

Odisha government signed a memorandum of understanding with Chennai based Creative Port Private Limited on Dec 18, 2006, for development of a port on Subarnarekha River Mouth, at Kirtania, in Balasore district. The concession agreement with Subarnarekha Port Private Limited, a subsidiary of CPPL, signed concession agreement with the provincial government in January 2008 to develop the port. While the location is finalized at Chaumukh on the river mouth, only recently, district administration of Balasore has started works on projects connecting the site to national highway.

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 Chaumukh 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 district administration came for consultation with people. But, as villagers strongly opposed the project, no consultation could happen but 79 villagers opposed to the project were jailed,” Khatua said.

Threatening livelihood

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

Another woman, Satadala Giri, 58, has similar apprehensions. “Dry fish business brings me about INR 70,000 (USD 985) a week from winter upto advent of the rainy season. According to rough estimate by the villagers, over 10 lakh rupees or more than 14000 USD come to the village every month for about six months 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, husband of Satadala, said.

The trend of erosion of Subarnarekha River banks, which started before 1972, has converted many of villagers from land holders to landless. With over 1000 acres of recorded land gone into Subarnarekha river, near the mouth, hundreds of people have shifted to either government land or bhudan land after losing their homestead and farm land into the river. While Maheswar De, 60, has made his house on a piece of bhudan 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 a government land because of similar reasons.

Asked about government plans to deal with the land 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.” So far, for the port and ancillary projects, the government has earmarked 1215.4 acres of the 1846.5 acre landmass in Chaumukh, part of it belongs to the government and rest coming under bhudan category.

Outcome of a movement that started in India in the 1950s with the objective to ensure prosperity of all, bhudan land is the category of land collected through land donation by the owners for distribution among land less poor to settle and grow crops. Such lands can neither be sold nor used for non-agricultural purposes.

As the government claims to develop the project on government land without causing any displacement, “how is it possible when the government lands are in occupation of people who have lost their recorded land to the river?” – asked Sankar Pani, an advocate working for causes of land right, forest and environment. “When their recorded land is submerged and they are forced to use the government land for livelihood activities, 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 other means to survive without the betel leaf vineyard raised on common land,” said Sulachana Badhai, 35. The village houses more than 2000 such vineyards making betel leaf business a major economic activity.

This apart, collection of lime shells from the river bed and sea beach has been another 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 to collect shells. “We shall lose everything if the port comes here,” she told.

Issues galore

It’s not only about 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.

“With the process of littoral drift (the natural system of transport of sand and non-cohesive sediments in the shoreline) disrupted, erosion in the other side of the mouth may be accelerated to a dangerous level. Pollution of water and soil may also lead to destruction of the fishery resource and local ecosystem,” he alerted.

According to the report ‘Harbouring Trouble,’ published by Bangalore based Dakshin Foundation, sand moves from the south to the north along the east coast of India for nine months of the year. With ports acting as a blockage of the littoral transport resulting deficit in the littoral drift budget, they cause lee side erosion along the adjacent shoreline. Thus, on the east coast, they cause erosion on the northern side and accretion on the southern side of the structures.

“We already have seen how coastal villages of Satabhaya region of Odisha’s Kendrapara district had to face severe erosion due to construction of Paradip port,” Prof. Sethy cited. A cluster of seven villages, most of Satabhaya is now lost to aggressive ingression by the Bay of Bengal, north of Paradip.

Taking this aspect into consideration, “(Sediment) Material will be collected using sand trap and material required will be pumped to the eastern shores towards protection of the beach profile,” the expert appraisal committee (EAC) mentioned in the minutes while granting environmental clearance (EC) for the port project. But, according to experts, “This would lead to further human interference and thus further danger to the affected shoreline.”

Environmentalists fear, the mangroves nearly two kilometer north of the site may be affected because of the project. Also, nesting activity of Olive Ridley marine turtle has been observed at beaches near the river mouth and parts of it serving as habitat to the famous red crabs, the port would be disastrous for the whole ecosystem, advocate Pani highlighted.

Nearby beaches serving as turtle nesting beaches was reported by senior forest department officials in September 2011. The EC was granted two months after this. “Based on the parameters including the turtle nesting, forests, marine sanctuaries, mangroves, tourist place, shoreline changes etc. the site (Chaumukh) at Subarnarekha was selected,” minutes of the EAC meeting clarified.

The application for extension of EC remained silent on hydrological impact on the river and the locality although it mentioned that required amount of water, i.e. around 50 cubic meters per day during construction and 1.312 million liters per day (Cumulative) during operational phase, would be met through Subarnarekha River.

While the land and livelihood based issues keep pumping a movement by people of Chaumukh against Subarnarekha Port project, the EC, which was expiring on March 20, 2019, has been extended upto March 20, 2022, by India’s ministry of environment, forest and climate change. The government of Odisha is now facilitating works for early realization of the project.

However, on the ground, a people’s movement is gathering strength with affected villagers claiming, “In 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.”

A previous version of this piece was first published on TheQuint.com.

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