The Bhitarkanika National Park, in the Kendrapara district of Odisha contains India's second largest mangrove forest, after the Sundarbans, covering 672 km2. According to the 2011 census, there were 310 villages with 145,301 people living inside the park, which results in a high population density of 216 persons per km2. It was designated as national park on 16 September 1998 and as a Ramsar site on 19 August 2002 due to a large variety of endemic flora and fauna, including the leopard cat, sambar, salt water crocodile, python, water monitor lizards, marine turtle, brahminy duck, to name a few (1).
This high density population of tribal groups dependent on the biodiversity rich forest is a source of triangular dispute between conservationists, small paddy farmers and inland fisherfolks, and the illegal prawn industry. The first major conflict is between the traditional fisherfolks and the forest officials. Each year there is a ban on fishing in a 20 km radius from the coast for a period of seven months (November 1–May 31) coinciding with the breeding period of the Olive Ridley turtles, which is enforced by the forest department to protect these endangered turtles, under the Orissa Marine Fishing Regulation Act, 1982 and Orissa Marine Fishing Rules, 1983; as a result of which, nearly 20,000 traditional fisherfolk in Kendrapara district are affected every year (Banerjee 2017) (2). They are often arrested for alleged trespassing and their nets and boats seized. In 2014, 221 fishermen were arrested and 32 boats and trawlers were confiscated in the region (3) (4).
Apart from conflicts on livelihood, there have also been conflicts for land rights. The forest department claims rights on the land and seems interested in evacuating the whole village from the area, which has been partially accomplished. Due to which, one can see the decline in the area of the village from 499 acres in 1971 to 244 acres in 2011. Interviews revealed that many people were evicted in the middle of the night as the forest department torched their houses claiming that the land belongs to the government, which has led to various protests and finally, the villagers were forced to migrate to nearby villages (Banerjee 2017).
Another such protest was witnessed in the year 2001. The villagers protested for two days for the construction of a river embankment which was affecting their livelihoods but were beaten by the forest department in the process. The embankment was needed as it would prevent the salt water from the creeks from entering the fields. The forest department was not in favour of the embankment since they were of the opinion that the flow of water would be disturbed. Despite this stand off the embankment was constructed. Till date, the people are protesting for their land rights in the region. Most of them have grievances against the government for not granting them their rights and providing better amenities (Banerjee 2017).
The second major conflict is between the fisherfolks and the illegal shrimp farms, controlled by the shrimp mafia. Hundreds of farmers of the seaside villages blame the mushrooming of illegal shrimp farms and its effluent for destroying their fertile agricultural lands. Noted environmentalist and president of Marine Turtle and Mangrove Conservation Society (MTMCS) Hemant Rout said effluent of the prawn gherries is released into the nearby rivers and ponds. The discharge also pollutes the groundwater in villages. Besides, the illegal farms also pose a direct threat to the nearby rich mangrove forests. In 2017 the district administration and Forest department had demolished large tracts of illegal prawn farms in villages near Bhitarkanika. However, the prawn mafia repaired their gherries and were back in business within two months of the demolition drive. In March 2018, it was reported that the forest officials again demolished illegal prawn gherries within Bhitarkanika National Park. Forest Officer (DFO) of Bhitarkanika, Bimal Prasanna Acharya, said illegal shrimp farms were spreading over 100 acre of forest land at Rangni, Gumura, Sailendranagar and Talachua villages within Bhitarkanika National Park, they had been demolished with help of police. He added: “We will demolish illegal farms over another 2000 acre in many villages within the park soon”. (5)
On May 20, 2015 it had been already reported that in Bhitarkanika National Park, the “shrimp farming mafia” felled mangroves and other trees to make way for shrimp farms blocking the flow of water in the Partasala River, threatening the livelihood of the people. By building embankments around 5,000 acres of river-side shrimp ponds, the river’s water can’t flow to the sea and is flooding local crops. In addition, the shrimp farms release their effluents into the fields, which increases the salinity level in the soil. Girija Mandal (62), a farmer of Talachua Village, said, “I used to grow paddy [rice, vegetables] on my two acres of land. In 2012, some persons converted ten acres of land near my field into shrimp farms and started releasing all the effluents onto my land. As a result, my land turned barren and is now unfit for raising paddy crops. Hundreds of other farmers have been ruined due to mushrooming of shrimp gherris." Sources said almost all shrimp farms in Bhitarkanika are illegal as they violate Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) norms and the directives of Supreme Court and High Court. It is mandatory for shrimp farms to be registered under Coastal Aquaculture Authority Act and Rules. But none of the shrimp farms in the national park are registered. (6)