TALABIRA: The shrieking chainsaws pierce the tranquility of Talabira and Khinda forests as trees, decapitated, pile up across the region. Not very far in Budhiapali village, 90-year-old Achyutananda Budhia sits awe-struck. The nonagenarian was appointed the last guard of the forest by the Panchpali, a cluster of five villages. Twenty-five years back, he was assigned the duty to guard the forests. Budhia would patrol the forests twice every day on his modest bicycle. Upon finding anyone chopping a tree, he would seize the axe and the timber smuggler would be punished by the forest committee of the village. It’s all gone now.
Over the past three weeks, Adani Enterprises Ltd, contracted with developing and operating Talabira II and III mines by central undertaking NLC India Limited has been logging the forest.
Over 1.3 lakh trees are targeted to be cleared for the mining project and so far, over 15,000 have already been felled. Budhia cannot believe what he sees.
“I have been guarding the forest for so long but never saw a forest official before. All of a sudden, how can they come and claim their rights?” His helplessness is palpable.
The cutting of trees started on the wee hours of December 5. The villagers are pained and shocked to see the deforestation carried out with the support of the State Government and under supervision of district administration and Forest Department.
As one makes into Khinda village, a group of villagers - mostly elderly members – are gathered near the chowk and desperate to find a way out to stop the green massacre.
A member of the Forest Rights Committee in Talabira village, Hemant Rout first informed villagers that residents of Budhiapali, Pradhanpali, Majhipada, Bhayenrapada, Mundapada, Khatpada and Sahupada will be displaced due to the project. The tree felling will leave Talabira, Dantamura, Orampada, Purna Khinda, Chaltikra and Landupali almost stripped of their natural cover. Sixty-year-old Judisthir Jhankar tears up explaining how the Sal and Mohul trees he had grown with so much love and care years ago on his four acres of land have disappeared. For more than a week, Jhankar’s daily routine includes a visit to his land every morning and helplessly staring at the land which now is barren.
As the coal mine development work starts, residents of three villages Sahupada, Mundapada and Budhiapali are looking at displacement. Sahupada village was established nearly 40 years back but none of the 35 households has land in their name.
During August, Asadhu Sahu recalls Adani Enterprises Ltd first came visiting but faced stiff resistance from the villagers which forced the company officials to go back. This time, they came with armed police.
On the first day, nearly 1200 villagers moved to the site to stop the company from felling the trees but the site was cordoned by 10 platoons of the police force.
During the survey by NLC India, a year ago, the villagers were assured of compensation for which they were also asked for copies of voter ID cards and Aadhar Cards which they submitted, said another resident Ashok Kumar Sahu.
“They promised to pay Rs 17 lakh to each household and a job to every person above the age of 18. Besides the RI had assured of giving 4 decimal of land to each household,” says Iswari Sahu, a village youth. Now, the villagers just want their forest to be intact over any compensation.
“Over 80 per cent of the women in their village depend on the forest. While most of them harvest mushroom from the forest, the rest use Sal leaves to make plates and cups,” says Laxmi Sahu.
Now that they have no land and bereft of the hope of saving the forest they so longingly grew, they are now preparing to leave the village if they get compensation. For the tribal inhabitants, the ongoing logging exercise is nothing sort of bereavement as the forests have been their part for so long.
Mundapada, predominantly inhabited by Munda tribe members, is a village with around 100 households which is dependent on forests only. All that they know is the government has ordered the deforestation. Samaru Munda, in his seventies, says no one asked for their opinion.
Recently, some people came to offer jobs for their children and land at another place because they will be displaced after all the trees are cut. Another villager Suru Munda recalls that it was during the kingship of Lal Girdhari Sai (heir of Surendra Sai), the forest was handed over to the villagers of ‘Panchpali’ which includes Bhayenrapali, Mundapada, Majhipali, Khatupada and Pradhanpali. Since then, the five villages formed their own committees for the conservation of this forest and each household was contributing a certain amount of rice and money (as low as Rs 1.5 to Rs 3) for the people who were entrusted with the duty of guarding the forest for a specific period of time. Budhia was the last guard standing. Suru’s son Bhagirathi informs Talabira forest is spread across 972 acre.
“For years, we knew the forest was given to our ancestors by ‘Raja Sai’ but recently, the Forest officials came and claimed that it belongs to the Government.” The forest abounds in Sal, Mohul, Char, Harda, Amla and the rare Bija apart from medicinal plants.
These are the only source of livelihood for the villagers here. “We have no land but only this forest. Where will we go? What will we do at any other place? All we knew is to take care of the trees here. What will they do by cutting down the forest?” Suru wonders. Samaru replies: “Tell them to chop us off along with the trees.”
Budhiapali, where Achyutananda Budhia belongs, is home to families who were displaced years back due to the Hirakud Dam project. Ninety-year old, Khirodini Das is one. She came to this village after being displaced during the construction of the dam and is shocked to learn that she will be displaced yet again. “God knows with what fate we were born with. How many times more shall I be displaced,” she says, desperation writ large on her wrinkled face. Though villagers likely to be displaced have been offered to shift either to Dantamura or Landupali, they are reluctant. For, they believe, once the green cover is gone and the operation of mines starts, the region – which once was their whole earth - will be unlivable.