Landless Women in Odisha Attacked For Asserting Forest Rights

As the powers that be in Sipasarubali, Odisha work to take over forest land to build a beach resort, villagers who are trying to fight them are under attack.

Puri, Odisha: On April 28, a friend and I went to Gola and Gopinathpur villages in Odisha to meet activists who, in the early 1990s, had been successful in stalling Tata’s proposed integrated shrimp farm project. As we were leaving, we learnt about an attack on a group of women land rights activists, six of whom had sustained grievous injuries. We stopped to meet these women at the district headquarter hospital (sadar mukhyo chikitsala) in Puri. Seventy-year-old Hira Swain from Gorualo village had her left arm fractured at three places. Haramani Behera (55), Dhobi Parida (52), Padma Naik (70) and Basanti Palai (56) from the same village, and Mohorogi Bhoi (47) from Sondhopur village, also had multiple injuries. Both villages fall in Brahmagiri block of Puri district.

There were anxious relatives who had rushed to the hospital when they got the news. There were reporters from Odia dailies. Supporters from Puri were doing all that they could to get medical attention for the women. While Swain was traumatised and in too much pain to speak, Palai recounted the incident. She said that while returning from collecting cashews from a nearby forest, she and another woman sat under a tree to rest. Just then, they saw eight men rush towards them armed with rods and pick axes, who started assaulting them. They were part of a big group of men, who had by then descended on the spot. Many women who were being chased got hurt as they tripped and fell down. Some of them received injuries from the branches of trees and tree trunks that came in their way. Later we learnt that Bikash Bhoi from Sondhopur was also kidnapped by the attackers and released 24 hours later, after much negotiation.

According to other villagers whom we met at the hospital, over 20 women sustained injuries. They said that people from a neighbouring village, Borudi, who claim the cashew crops to be theirs, came and attacked them while over 500 people, including 300 women, were out collecting cashews to assert their rights over the forest land and its produce.

The struggle for land rights in Sipasarubali

All of those who were out collecting cashews are part of the Upokuliya Jomi O Jongol Surakshya Samiti of Sipasarubali, a movement of landless Dalits and forest dwellers that has been fighting a long and protracted struggle to regain their rights on forest land and access to its resources. The samiti has been resisting the planned cutting down of the forest for the setting up of the Shamuka Beach Resort ever since Sipasarubali was declared a Special Tourism Area (STA) by the Odisha government.

Basanti Palai, injured in the attack. Credit: Ranjana Padhi

Basanti Palai, injured in the attack. Credit: Ranjana Padhi

Almost all these families are landless and have been dependent on forest produce for many generations. In November 2011, when the first round of litigation resulted in the government securing the land from an affluent ‘high’-caste Odia family, villagers from 20 villages in the two panchayats of Ambopada and Gorualo decided to come together to organise themselves under the banner of the samiti. Immediately after that, people of the area began accessing and claiming forest produce. It has a vast cashew plantation and many casuarina trees. Livelihood opportunities from the forest also includes a variety of fruits and fuel wood that people sell.

To set up the Shamuka Beach Resort, the government first had to take the land away from a range of powerful Odia lobbies that had become deeply invested in timber and sand mining. Through a series of court orders, 1,307 acres of the total 2,860 acres were first recovered. The rest of the land has been recovered from upper class landowners in the area, except for 500 acres that belongs to a religious trust called Radhakanto Math.

The people of these two panchayats have a historical claim over the land. The Estate Abolishment Act of 1951 had sought to break down the hold of landlords on large estates and distribute the land among the landless. In Odisha too, ‘upper’ caste, powerful interests laid claim to the land with the help of administration. Therefore, 1,307 acres of the 2,860 acres was owned by a single family – the Puspalaka family. A total of 66 families, including the Puspalaka family, took possession of the land. These families also managed to circumvent the Land Ceiling Act of 1977. Only a few landless families were able to get some land as a result of this Act. The powerful hold of these families was finally taken on by the government with the advent of the neoliberal era, when the Odisha coast showed promise of bringing in high returns if opened up to the global tourist industry. Land was recovered from these 66 families through a series of legal cases. It was only as recently as November 2011 that villagers got access to the land.

When the first round of recovery began, with the 1,307 acres being recovered from the Puspalaka family, the people living in this area organised themselves to protect their access to the land. With each subsequent recovery of land by the government, the samiti asserted people’s right to the forest and its produce. Cashew collection was organised along with an outlet for its sale.

Women have played a major role in this movement. In early 2012, they had physically thrown out a caretaker of a family occupying acres and acres of land. People kept vigil on the forest and began cashew collection for themselves for the first time after five or six decades. The samiti’s programme included all aspects of protection and distribution of resources among the landless, largely Dalits.

Confronting the administration and mafia nexus

Ever since then, the samiti has been engaged in organising the people to resist the setting up of the expensive tourist complex. With the razing down of the forest, the Shamuka Beach Resort would not only deprive the people of their livelihood but also damage the ecosystem of the region. The area would become more vulnerable to the cyclonic storms erupting from the Bay of Bengal, against which the forest cover is an effective barrier. It is commendable that the samiti has been able to retain its unity in the face of much opposition from the local mafia and an apathetic administration that is always favouring the rich and powerful. It has been able to steer its way through many disputes fomented among the villagers.

However, it has been a tough struggle. Backlash from the mafia and indifference from the administration meant there were obstacles at every step for the landless to live in safety or have access to the forest land that is rightfully theirs.

The genesis of the April 28 incident lies in the dispute that arose among the villagers, leading to a split where one half of the villagers of Borudi distanced themselves from the samiti. This section continues to pay a Rs 2,50,000 rent per year to the Radhakanta Math. The split in the movement with this section happened following a dispute on July 2, 2013. The incident in 2013 had left many people injured, including a rickshaw puller and a coolie from the area. Tensions have been simmering for a long time and the dispute has remained unresolved. There have been many efforts at reconciliation that failed. Ignoring FIRs by the samiti and keeping such issues unresolved helps the government keep prospects of the Shamuka Beach Resort alive.

Whose hand is it that dealt the hardest blow to the most marginalised? As Odisha soars to new heights, their hardships only seem to deepen. Swain’s injuries speak volumes of the political economy that their lives are being hurtled into. Palai earns a small income by giving tuitions to village kids. Yet, they need forest produce to make ends meet. A mafia that is nurtured and protected by the powers that be is crushing their livelihood to set up a beach resort – a resort that will complete the development paradigm by putting Odisha on the international tourist map. Yet, the people dream of a day when their hardships will come to an end. They hope for some reconciliation with villagers who have links with the mafia. They hope to convince the state that their lives matter. They live on hope.

Ranjana Padhi is a writer and feminist activist based in Bhubaneswar.