Puri Airport: Dalit and Landless Communities Continue Struggle for Land Rights
As the Odisha government announced its ambitious project to create a new airport in the Sipasarubali area along the coast of Puri district, protests by communities have mounted as they view the attempt as one to grab the land they have been fighting for over the past two decades.
While the government has claimed that the airport spread across 1,500 acres will be made operational by 2022-23 for Dalit and landless communities, this is a renewed threat to their natural habitat and land rights.
On July 3, hundreds of people under the banner of the Upakulia Jami o Jungle Surakhya Samiti (UJJSS) held a protest rally and meeting at the Sipasarubali Mouza in Puri against the government's proposal to hand over this coastal land to corporates for an airport. The movement has been aimed at calling off the project as it targets the livelihoods and cultural identities of the locals.
Speaking to Newsclick, Prafulla Samanta one of the petitioners who was instrumental in stalling the Shamuka eco-tourism project, explained: “For the past two decades the communities on this land have prevented activities which will violate the regulations of this coastal area. The government through its repeated attempts has ensured that the land is not given to the communities, but is incentivised by handing it over to the corporates; first by the means of an eco-tourism project and now by creating an airport on highly sensitive coastal land which has served as a barrier against threats like cyclones.”
The struggle for land rights in Sipasarubali began in 1994, when the Odisha High Court directed the state to distribute 214 acres and another 33 acres of ceiling surplus land among the poor with land titles. “Only a few of the families were given pattas, but not the land,” Land Conflict Watch said. Moreover, the Shamuka tourism project, launched 25 years ago, was to come up on around 3,000 acres of land near Sipasarubali, about ten kilometres south of Puri in public-private partnership (PPP) mode. Bids were planned to be invited for four and five star hotels and a golf course after obtaining necessary approval from the appropriate authority. Similarly, bids were planned for a golf course with golf villas covering 304 acres of land in the first phase of implementation. After repeated protests, the NGT had stayed the project in 2015.
However, the communities have faced brutal crackdown and repression amid the movement. Speaking to Newsclick, activist Srikant Mohanty explained: “According to our estimates, over five lakh trees will be cut for the airport. Moreover, it will cause irreparable damage to our environment and our livelihoods. The community has also faced serious attacks from the land mafia in the area while the state has imprisoned so many under false charges in a bid to stall our movement. We are against both these projects. Our movement against these projects is to ensure our land rights are given to us.”
Following a protest earlier in June, members of the UJJSS, including its convenor Batakrushna Swain, and Bideshi Nayak, Kalu Bhoi, Monoj Bhoi, Kumar Baral and Bijay Bhoi were arrested.
They were booked under various sections of the Indian Penal Code including Section 307 (attempt to murder). “We have been charged as we all all belong to the landless and Dalit community and our only crime is that we fight for the land rights which have been denied by the successive governments in power.
We demand that the airport not be here. The natural environment will be destroyed as will the jungle. What benefit will we get? We are fighting for our land, jungle and the environment; we all want all three. We are protesting because our land is being taken away. The police is still filing false cases against us," said Swain.
In April this year, twenty female members from the Sipasarubali area were attacked while they were going to pluck cashews from the government land on which these poor households have sustained from for the last 20 years or more. The female members gave a memorandum to the Puri District Collector and SP for immediate action against the notorious land mafia in the district. However, nothing of the sort happened.
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