Odisha govt lures industries via land banks, alienates people from commons

Down To Earth travels to some of the areas in Odisha worst hit by a government-sponsored land grab;to lure industries and investments
Till a few months ago, this teak plantation of the Odisha forest department was a thick forest on which residents of Gurjanga village, Dhenkanal, had traditionally depended for living (Photos: Ishan Kukreti)
Till a few months ago, this teak plantation of the Odisha forest department was a thick forest on which residents of Gurjanga village, Dhenkanal, had traditionally depended for living (Photos: Ishan Kukreti)

Life has never been easy for the residents of Gurjanga village in Odisha’s Dhenkanal district. The only motorable road to the village ends five kilometres from it. After that, a muddy trail along a thick forest of kendu, mahua and karanja to access the village. So last year, when forest officials offered to build the road, residents of the 70-household village were overwhelmed. “In return, they wanted us to give up our village forest so that the department can set up a teak plantation,” recounts Arun Shamal. “It was a difficult decision because most of us depend on forest produce for a living. Our livestock also graze here,” says Kirtan Pradhan, another resident. Last year, he earned Rs 15,000 selling mahua flowers and kendu leaf plates. The officials, claim the residents, particularly persuaded Shamal and Pradhan whose 0.3 ha of private land was surrounded by the forest. “They felled the entire forest and trees on our plots soon after receiving our consent and have planted 6,000 teak and 400 gambhiri saplings,” says Shamal, adding they have not received any written document or compensation for forgoing their land.

When Down To Earth (DTE) visited the village in August, barb wires and pillars were lying along the road. Gurjanga residents said the department was fencing the plantation and converting it into a protected forest. The promised road was nowhere in sight. When enquired, Rinki Kumari, divisional forest officer of Dhenkanal, told DTE the plantation has been set up under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAF) Act, 2016. It has not been established by felling the village forest but is on a reserve forest, she said. While Kumari’s claim of afforesting a reserve forest defies all logic, the fact is Odisha government is alienating people from the commons in its drive to make the state one of the best investment destinations in the country.

Even though the state has slipped three places, from 11th to 14th, in the Union government’s “Ease of Doing Business” rankings this year, it has seen a significant rise in attracting manufacturing projects with over 118 large projects approved in last four years. A recent Invest India-World Bank survey on investment promotion preparedness ranks Odisha as an “aspiring leader” among 21 states.

Analysts say the government has achieved this by eliminating the biggest hurdle in setting up projects—land. For this, it has set up two land banks. In 2015, it created an industrial land bank under the Industrial Development Corporation of Odisha (IDCO) for making land immediately available to industries. The second one is being set up for establishing protected forests under the CAF Act, also to facilitate industries. Let’s elaborate this point.

Forests are routinely felled, or diverted as it is known in official language, for developmental or industrial requirements. In such cases, the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980 requires that non-forest land, equal to the size of the “diverted” forest, is afforested. Since afforested land does not become a forest overnight the law requires that the Net Present Value of the diverted forest is calculated for a period of 50 years, and recovered from the “user agency”, which can then be used for afforestation and creating protected forests. As 37 per cent of the state is under forests, any diversion of that land to create an industry is not possible without compensatory afforestation. In fact, in October last year, the state’s Chief Secretary AP Padhi admitted that projects have been stuck in the pipeline as areas are yet to be identified for compensatory afforestation.

However, DTE analysis shows that in its rush to attract investments the government is acquiring the commons ignoring people’s dependency on them and undermining community rights (more on this later).

A bank to hit livelihood

Data with e-Green Watch, a portal maintained by the Union environment ministry for monitoring compensatory afforestation activities, shows since 2009, about 598 ha of revenue forest land in the state has been converted into protected forest for compensatory afforestation. Data available on the website of the Odisha forest department suggests 33 per cent of the communal land declared protected forest since 2010 fall under patita (fallow land) or gramya jungle (village forest) categories, while the remaining is pahad land (hillock). While people have traditionally depended on gramya jungle and pahad land for sustenance, fallow land is usually meant for future use when the population swells.

But once they are converted into protected forests, people’s access to forest resources would be limited. They would also be out of bounds for livestock. This would seriously affect the livelihood of those dependent on forests. According to the SocioEco nomic and Caste Census of 2011, some 55 per cent of the population is landless in the state. "Forests not only help these households economically by providing minor forest produce, they also serve as grazing areas, which reduces the burden of buying feed," says Sricharan Behra of Campaign for Survival and Dignity, non-profit in Bhubaneswar. A 2012 study by the Foundation for Ecological Security based in Anand, Gujarat, shows the contribution of commons to household income was as high as 30 per cent for the landless, 25 per cent for marginal farmers and 23 per cent for small farmers. The contribution is highest in Odisha, shows the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data on commons released in 1998.

In Khheto village of Sundargarh district, the forest department has afforested a hill slope, where the residents had been traditionally growing crops. These people belong to a primitive tribe, Paudi Bhuyan, who practise multi-cropping by scattering seeds. “This year they have no land to grow food. Since their rights have not been settled, they are not able to oppo se the plantation,” says Kedar Mandal, a land rights activist in Bonai block.

Worse, at places, people are being alienated from private land and the ones settled under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 to fill the land banks.

Another bank to evict people

Half-way across the state in Kalahandi’s Lanjigarh block, IDCO has identified 40 ha in the tribal village of Dukr igura for industries. Residents were shell-shocked when DTE told them about the status of their land. “No one has come to survey the land or inform us about land bank,” says Rusi Majhi.

An analysis of the data on IDCO’s website shows all the earmarked land in Dukrigura fall under categories of pahad, dungari and dangar. These are hillside land and include 31 ha of revenue forest and the land on which people’s rights have been settled under FRA. In 2007 Rusi and his neighbours Sunna and Dana received 0.46 ha, 0.4 ha and 0.73 ha under FRA. The trio have since been depending on the land for forest produce and grazing their livestock. These are now part of the land bank. In other words, the trio will be barred from using the land as soon as a company is allowed to set up its shop there.

Interestingly, the village cremation ground has also been included in the land bank. In several other districts places of worship, also considered the property of sarva sadharan (the commons), have been earmarked for land bank. In Puri district, 3.2 ha of cremation ground in Aragar village and 5 ha debasthali in Goriputmati apara village are part of the land bank.

“The government cannot alienate people from the commons,” says Hrusikesh Panda, former secretary with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs during whose tenure FRA was implemented. “Villages have historical rights over commons as they have been using those for centuries. In Punjab and Haryana, laws are in place for protecting such lands,” he explains.

IDCO officials, however, claim that the village residents do not have rights over the commons. “The land belongs to the government and we don’t need to pay anything to people,” a highly placed land acquisition official at IDCO told DTE on condition of anonymity. When asked about the rationale behind including land over which individual forest rights (IFR) have been settled and cremation grounds, he says it is due to administrative oversight but heaps the blame on the district administration. “They should have surveyed the land before its inclusion in the land bank.” When contacted, district collector of Kalahandi P H Gavali said he is unaw are of the issue as he is a recent recruit.

A former official with the Odisha Space Applications Centre (ORSAC), a state government body instrumental in identifying areas for the land bank using satellite technology, however, says the inadvertent inclusion of IFR lands in the bank has happened due to sheer callousness. ORSAC officials have prepared the land bank digitally based on land records of the Odisha government. But it seems land records have not been updated to include all land use changes. The officials never visited villages to identify the land’s nature of occupation. They just demarcated non-private land and put it in the bank, he says, requesting anonymity.

But why the land banks

As uncertainty weighs heavy on Rusi’s mind, he stares at the Niyamgiri hills, revered by tribal communities in the region. Located just a few kilometres from his village, the hills hit the headlines a few years ago when London-based Vedanta Resources wanted to mine Niyamgiri’s rich seams of bauxite (aluminium ore) for its Lanjigarh refinery. The hills reportedly contain 80 million tonnes of bauxite. But Vedanta faced a stiff resistance from the Dongria Kondh tribe, who traditionally inhabit the hills, and backed off after all the 12 gram sabhas voted against mining. Their decision also prompted the Union environment ministry to ban mining in Niyamgiri.

Similar protests against land acquisition prompted South Korean steel giant Pohang Steel Company (POSCO) to shift its US $12 billion project, the single largest FDI in India to date, from Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur district to Karnataka in 2017.

The IDCO official says the idea of setting up a land bank was conceived to avoid such incidences that make arranging land for industries “next to impossible.” Small wonder, most lands in the industrial land bank are from bauxite bearing areas of Kalahandi and Koraput. To speed up the process, the revenue department through a notification dated January 20 this year, has entrusted district collectors with the power to take advance possession of the land. So far, the government has identified 0.2 million ha for the industrial land bank and 0.43 million ha for land bank under CAF, as per ORSAC.

Faulting in desperation

Activists are worried because the government is demarcating land for the land banks by flouting laws and a Supreme Court order.

Some 44 per cent of Odisha is under Fifth Schedule Areas, which are governed under the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996. Here, the consent of the gram sabha is required before taking up any activity. But this was not followed in any Fifth Schedule Area DTE visited. In Dukrigura, the sarpanch was clueless about land bank.

Historically, these were the places where most projects had been set up, says Panda. “These are large stretches of land and sparsely populated. The government thought the tribals will not resist. What we are seeing now is the extension of the same logic,” he says, adding that what the government is doing is against the Supreme Court order of 2011.

In the order, the apex court noted how commons have helped sustain populations across the country, and ordered states to clear encroachment on such land. However, Odisha is doing otherwise. The Odisha Govern ment Land Settlement Act, 1962 grants the state the power “to reserve such portion of the lands as they deem proper for the purpose of being used as house-sites or for any communal or industrial purpose or for any other purpose whatsoever.” But experts say the government is reading the law from a narrow perspective. “It is alienating land for industries, while the law also talks about reserving land for home-sites and other communal purposes,” says Sricharan Behra of Campaign for Survival and Dignity. An assessment by non-profit Community Forest Rights-Learning and Advocacy shows that communities in the state have CFR rights over potentially 2.5 million ha. Titles have been settled for 6 per cent of the land.

Panda says the concept of land bank introduces a layer of non-transparency. “Lands are being acquired for ghost companies that will come up in the future. No one knows about their impact and whether they would generate employment.”

People have already started challenging land banks. In Dhenkanal, the residents of Balrampur village have approached the National Green Tribunal and the high court opposing the diversion of 64 ha of village forest first to the land bank and then to a bottling and brewing company. “In 2015, when we came to know that the land has been reserved for industry, we sent a letter of objection to both the tehsildar and the district collector,” says Sushant Dhala, a resident. “We never received any communication from them. And in 2016, the land was given to a bottling company,” he says. Saray Pradhan, who lives adjacent to the forest, says people from 12 villages are dependent on it. In 2016-17, 30 families earned Rs 1.2 lakh by selling just kendu leaves.

“What will we do if the company destroys the forest?” he asks.

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