The trees of the Jhinkargadi forest have been nurtured for three generations by the villagers of Balarampur in Odisha. For more than four decades, since 1972 the villagers, especially women have been involved in taking care of the forest. Everyone from the village is part of the traditional rotational forest patrolling routine, under which two men from two families patrol 600 acres of forest each day to ensure smugglers and poachers aren’t destroying it.
Not only is the forest a source of livelihood to the villagers, it is also an important elephant corridor. According to Sushanta Kumar Dhala, Secretary, Balarampur Gramya Parichalana Parishad (BGPP), “Not only commercial are there plants, as many as 116 types of plants and medicinal trees are there.”
The forest has been a site of dispute between the villagers and the government since the state run Odisha Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation, the nodal agency for facilitating land for industries, had shown interest in acquiring the land as a land bank for industrial projects.
On 17 November, 2018, hundreds of villagers of Balarampur village in Dhenkanal district of central Odisha clashed with the police to prevent felling of sal trees in the old forest of Jhinkargadi which has about 5000 sal trees, says a Times of India report.
The trees were being cut down for a proposed liquor bottling plant by P&A Bottlers Pvt. Ltd. The massive ceremony of this brewery project worth INR 102 crores was conducted by the Chief Minister of Odisha, Naveen Patnaik, on November 3, 2018 through a video conference according to The Indian Express.
On 17 November, women used the method of the Chipko movement to hug the trees to stop them from being felled. They had been doing it since November 7 to prevent the logging of the trees. Close to 1000 trees were felled by the local administration, amidst protests, scuffles, arrests and live media coverage.
Dhenkanal SP Santosh Kumar Nayak confirmed that the police had arrested 13 people and forwarded them to court, who were later released in the evening. During this day and the next, the incident garnered a lot of media, activist and political attention.
Eminent social activists such as Prafulla Samantar, Debi Prusty and others addressed the villagers and expressed their solidarity. Many forest rights and tribal rights activists and advocacy groups such as Vasundhara were also reporting about the incident on social media including Twitter, and urging the chief minister to save the forest and listen to the protests of the people.
On 18 November, the opposition held a press meeting to register their concerns. Leader of the opposition Narasingha Mishra said as per law, trees cannot be cut without the Centre’s permission. Due to all the protests and the visibility, Naveen Patnaik ordered a probe into the matter by the Revenue Divisional Commissioner and also cancelled the brewery project. “Trees were felled forcibly which is illegal and a criminal offence,” he told Hindustan Times.
Women from the village performed the last rites of the felled trees by first performing a puja on the felled logs and then planting saplings of fruit-bearing trees on the same patch of land, and vowing to protect the forests against industrial projects.
A victory for the compassionate villagers of Balarampur who have started a new Chipko movement!