Baliapal-Bhograi, India: Theater of War, Theater of Displacement


On the east coast of India, along the Bay of Bengal, a small area of land in the far north of Orissa state has become the stage for a life or death struggle waged by peasant farmers and fisherfolk against the central government and military establishment of India. In the Baliapal and Bhograi village areas of Baleshwar district, the inhabitants of 54 villages(approximately 45,000 people, according to government estimate) are facing forced eviction and relocation from their homes and lands to make way for the government's National Testing Range-a site for the testing and launching of satellites, rockets and long-range missiles.

Faced with eviction from the land which has nurtured them, the villagers have formed a people's movement which has engaged in a three-year struggle of resistance against the state. The conflict is taking place against a backdrop of increasing militraization by the Indian state, a process that not only threatens the local culture and prosperity of the people of Baliapal but also portends dangerous implications for the whole region.

The Land and Its People

Named "the granary of Orissa," the Baliapal Bhograi area contains some of the most fertile agricultural land in India, producing a variety of crops such as coconuts, groundnuts, oilseeds, cashews and paddy. The betel leaf orchards play the most important economic role, however, since the richness of the soil enables both Jagannath and Banarasi varieties of betel to be grown and exported. Proximity to the coast and the Subarnarekha River also enables people to earn a living through sea and inland fishing and gives rise to various cottage industries such as the manufacture of coil rope, bamboo baskets, mats and mattresses and haulier machinery as well as salt factories an oil extraction mills. According to a recent survey(Resistance Movement Against the National Testing Range 1986), the aforementioned activities, including orchards, homestead land and government land under cultivation, are valued at approximately Rs. 450 crores (US$360 million). Taken together, the total cost of the lands, properties, crops, cottage industries and temples that are threatened by the Testing Range amounts to Rs 712 crores (US$548 million)(The Other Side 1986).

One of the most densely populated poor areas in Orissa, Bhograi, with 600 persons per km², and Baliapal, with 397 per km², are fare in excess of the state average of 169 persons per km². Approximately 35 percent of the village populations are wealthy landowners and middle peasants, the average plot size varying between five and 10 acres for middle peasants and 30-35 acres for wealthy landowners. The other 65 percent of the population consists of agricultural laborers, sharecroppers, fisherfolk (Dhiwars) and tribals. The nature of the crops grown in the area often requires the entire family to participate in the agricultural process.

Because the prosperous landowners can offer wages up to Rs 30 per day (US$2.35) - the highest for any agricultural laborers anywhere in India- approximately 200,000 seasonal laborers from Mayurbhanj and Midnapore districts in West Bengal migrate to Baliapal-Bhograi for employment. Another 100,000 people obtain indirect employment from the cash crop economy while 30,000 fishermen from Baliapal Bhograi and the adjacent areas work along the Subarnarekha River and the coast. Although some of the village populations are in favor of the test rang-most notably absentee landlords and some of the wealthy landowners who support the Congress(I) Party (the faction of the Congress Party that supported Indira Gandhi)-the majority see the project as a direct as a direct threat to their livelihoods and culture.

The Militarization of Orissa

The original decision to set up National Testing Range (NTR) was made in 1979 by the Janata government and was pursued by the Congress(I) government when it came to power in 1980. In 1985 the Congress(I) government announced that the range would be located in the Baliapal area, costing Rs 3,000 crores (US$2,310 million), covering 160km² and necessitating the evacuation of 70-100,000 people from approximately 130 villages. Although the government gave its formal and final approval to the siting of the range on 21 May 1986, by 6 August 1986, due to criticism of the choice of site because of its dense population and agricultural fertility, the size of the range was reduced to 102 km² (68 km² for the range and 34 km² for a safety zone) This revised project would cost Rs 1,100 crores (US$840 million) and affect 45,000 people in 54 villages (41 in Baliapal, 13 in Bhograi). According to the government, the people in the 13 villages that comprise the safety zone would be allowed to continue cultivating the land, although all the villages must be evacuated. The official figures, however, do not take into account hose people who receive seasonal and indirect employment from the area, nor the fishermen displaced by the range, which, according to B.P. Sahu, the Assistant Director of Fisheries for the area, will include 1,500 families living in 27 fishing village.

When considering the purpose of the range and its long-term requirements, it becomes difficult to imagine that the requisition of land will remain at the official figure of 102 km². According to Brig. R. S. Kannan, Area Commandant for the entire Baleshwar district, the NTR should properly be called the National Range, indicating that it is to be more than a testing site, contrary to initial government statements. Indeed, V.S. Arunachalam, scientific advisor to the Defense Ministry, stated on 21 May 1986 that "the nation's premier missile test range would also be used for launching missiles and space vehicles." One function officially listed for the range is the "practice firing of long-range missiles". On 31 July 1985, the Chief Minister of Orissa announced that the range would fire missiles extending as far as 5,000 km. The Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, has stated, "Our Polar satellite launch vehicle project will be very much more feasible from this site, as will our surface-to-air and other tactical missile projects".

According to Brig. Kannan, the NTR is part of a wider integrated military system that is being developed within Orissa. Military sites include an "Interim Test Range," the Balasore Rocket Station and Proof and Experimental Establishment at Chandipur, a radar observation and ground control station at Nilgiri, air force bases at Charbatia and Rasgobinpur, naval bases at Chilka Lake and Gobalpur, an ammunitions industry at Saintala and a MIG fighter assembly plant at Sunabeda. Increasingly, the local economy of Baliapal will be tailored to service the needs of armed personnel located there, leading to price increase, an influx of hitherto unnecessary consumer products, alien social values (of the military) and the inexorable movement from civilian to military rule. Within the context of increasing militarization and given Defense Ministry acknowledgements that 400 km² will eventually be required for the NTR, it is difficult to accept government assurances that the site's present size will be a finite land requirement and that more people will not have to be evicted in the future.

A dispute also exists over the areal extent of the safety zone. According to some sources, a safety zone of 2,500 km² is necessary given that the shock waves from a missile launch can be felt up to 100 km away from the launch. Such a zone would include the Baliapal-Bhograi and Basta village blocks and the Bay of Bengal coastline up to Kanthi and Junpur in West Bengal's Midnapore district. The concern over the size of the safety zone may well have been aroused by the launching of a 39-ton ASLV rocket from Sriharikota on 24 March 1987 which with a projected course of 400 km, rose only 12 km into the sky before falling into the Bay of Bengal.

Although these development are disturbing enough to the lives of the people of Orissa and Baliapal in particular there is increasing suspicion that the range will ultimately be used to deploy missiles with nuclear capability. Notes Mohan Ram:

India is a threshold nuclear power, having carried out a peaceful nuclear explosion while vowing not to use nuclear energy for military ends. India thus retains the nuclear bomb option but lacks a delivers system. So the decision to set up a range capable of launching long range missiles has roused apprehensions that India might be developing such a system. Skeptics argue that a missile capable of delivering a conventional warhead can be used for a nuclear warhead if need be.

Certainly a missile range of the sophistication and magnitude of that planned for Baliapal would be necessary for the deployment of nuclear warheads. Such a development portends serious consequences for the stability of the region, especially given the belligerent relationship between India and Pakistan. Alternately accusing the other of being on the verge of developing nuclear weapons, both countries have a ready rationale for pursuing their own arms build-up. Indeed, rarely a day goes by without the Indian press announcing a new revelation about Pakistan's new arms technology. The scenario is being played out against a backdrop of superpower rivalry, Pakistan receiving arms from the United States and India conducting most of its arms trade wit the Soviet Union.(1)

Within the context of a state undergoing increasing militarization - the 1987-1988 budget allots Rs 13,000 crores (US$10 billion) to defense expenditure (about 20 percent of the total central government expenditure)-the state of Orissa, and particularly the Baliapal area, is being developed as one of India's prime theaters of war operations.

Rehabilitation As Cultural Dislocation

In order to offset popular resistance to the location of the NTR, the government has proposed an elaborate rehabilitation and compensation plan worth Rs 127 crores (US$100 billion). Briefly, the plan intends to relocate the people of Baliapal into model villages up to 15 km away from their present homes, each family receiving a house costing Rs. 15,000 (US$1.140) and built on 10 decimals of land (one-tenth of an acre). The model villages will contain schools, hospitals, community centers and post offices. As if to assure people of its good intent, the government is constructing one such village on the Baliapal outskirts. Nine industries (including oil, leather, spinning and tool manufacture) will be set up to provide direct and indirect job opportunities for one member of each displaced family, providing a total of 4,000 jobs; the range will provide another 470 jobs.

Several factors, however, draw into question the feasibility and supposed "good intent" of the government scheme. First, according to a government announcement on 4 September 1986, 11,00 out of a total of 21,000 acres required for the range are considered government land that has been "encroached" upon for many years by local farmers.(2) The government has announced that it will evict all encroachers without compensation for the land and will only compensate for any structures on the land and for the standing crop; if evictions occur after harvesting there will, of course, be no standing crop to compensate for. Secondly, given the population density of Baleshwar district, it appears improbable that even the official estimate of 45,000 people can be resettled within 10-15 km of their present residences (unofficial - i.e., nongovernmental-estimates of the number of evictees are closer to 100,000 people).

Concerning the establishment of industrial complexes, certain economic and cultural factors need to be considered. First, evictions are planned before the new factories are due to be completed, which forces evictee to seek work elsewhere until employment at the factories become available. Second, there is no guarantee that the evictees will be able to perform the industrial jobs: only those who obtain training at the special Industrial Training Institutes to be set up in the area will be eligible for such employment. Past experience of development projects in India has consistently shown that local people do not eventually obtain the bulk of the new jobs created, except those that are insecure, temporary and contractual. Third, the Orissa state government (which will implement the plan) says it cannot rehabilitate the families by giving them cultivable land because of the shortage of agricultural land.

Hence the traditional farmers and fisherfolk will be forced to apply for work in the factories, becoming skilled, semiskilled and unskilled factory workers or employed artisans and shopkeepers. Also, since the government plans to create only one job per family, the other family members will be left out without any alternative employment.

For the people of the Baliapal-Bhograi area, whose livelihood and culture are intimately bound to the land the rivers and the coastal waters, the severance of their working relationship with the natural environment and the community culture that has developed as a result of this relationship amounts to cultural ethnocide - a process that is occurring throughout India as local culture is destroyed for the sake of development.

Finally, the Orissa state government's past record on implementation of rehabilitation and compensation plans sets a grim precedent for the present scheme. The Chief Minister of Orissa stated in 1986 in the Orissa State Assembly that of the 30,000 people made homeless by the Rengali Dam project 11 years ago, 22,000 have yet to be rehabilitated. Also, the survivors of the village of Badakhanpur, which was washed away by a flash flood of the Subarnarekha River in October 1985, have yet to be rehabilitated.

The response of the people of Baliapal-Bhograi has been one of total resistance to the missile range and the rehabilitation scheme. As Sashadhar Pradhan, the Baliapal panchayat samiti (village committee) chairman and local Janata party leader, has stated, "the villagers will not vacate their land whatever the compensation".

The People's Movement

The resistance to the NTR can be dated back to the 1985 government announcement, whereupon the Uttar Balasore Khepasastra Ghatti Pratiroda Committee (North Balasore Testing Range Resistance Committee) was formed. The committee was comprised of local political party representatives from the Baliapal-Bhograi villages and cut across political and ideological lines. An "outside front" made up of communist and socialist political parties, trade unions, student groups and writers' forums was also formed to lend support to the resistance movement. Because the resistance committee only consisted of political party representatives, the various "landless" groups (agricultural laborers, sharecroppers, tribals) along with the fisherfolk and some of the middle peasants formed their own resistance movement, aided by activists from the Unity Committee of Communist Revolutionaries of India (Marxist-Leninist) in Baliapal block, and activists from the Institute for the Motivation of Self Employment in Bhograi block.

The villagers have adopted a non-violent, non-cooperation approach to their protest, drawing inspiration from the area's historical involvement in the noncooperation, civil disobedience and Quit India movements. A "Janata Curfew" (people's curfew) has been set up whereby government officials and representatives are prevented from entering the area. To enforce this, four checkposts have been set up barricading the approach roads to the Baliapal-Bhograi area with bamboo and trenches in order to stop government vehicles. At the Kaliapadra Naighati checkpost, for example, 500 villagers constantly form the barricade. Above the barricades a sign clearly states in Oriya, "Land is Ours, Sea is Ours. Government Officials Go Back." In order to warn the villages of approaching vehicles the people staffing the barricades blow conch shells and beat Thalis (metal plates), thereby quickly drawing thousands of villagers to the barricade to form human roadblocks. Indeed, a Maran Sena (Death or Suicide Squad) of 5,000 people comprised of women, children and men has been created to form these roadblocks in the case of emergencies; their slogan is, "After killing me the range will be established on my corpse."

The area has been effectively sealed off for 30 months. The villagers also refuse to pay taxes-according to revenue officers, only 2-3 percent of the government dues were collected from Baliapal in 1986-1987 - and hold people's courts to settle area disputes, thus keeping any cases out of the regular revenue, civil or criminal courts. In concert with these forms of resistance, the movement has also held bandhs (strikes), printed posters, held mass public meetings, conducted demonstrations and painted wall slogans. In June 1986, for example, 10,000 people demonstrated at the Balasore Collectorate demanding the relocation of the base.

The government's reponse to this resistance has taken several forms. First, it set up an unofficial economic blockade of the area, preventing essential commodities such as kerosene and sugar to be sold to the villages. The commodities were available, however, at a distance of 10 km away, allowing people to obtain necessities. The government also imposed deterrent fines on bullock carts and vehicles leaving the area with coconuts, betel leaves and cashews bound for market. The area has also been deprived of any help from developmental, anti-poverty or 20-point programs for more than three years on the plea that personnel are not allowed in the area. In a threatening posture, personnel of the Orissa State Armed Police have been deployed in the area, which follows the state's air-dropping of notices onto the villages around Amchua Hat (market) on 1 December 1986. Warning the people against resisting the range, the notice stated, "Halt these activities at once. If they [resisters] continue such illegal activities, then the Government will be forced to take punitive measures against them." It also informed the villagers that the District Collector would be available in the Baliapal block office to inform residents about eviction and rehabilitation plans. By 7 January 1987 the District Collector was forced to leave because of resistance by the villagers; from April 1987 on, he stopped visiting the area altogether.

Most recently, in February 1988, 24 magistrates accompanied by 3,000 armed police attempted to enter the area to "explain" to residents the reason for the choice of site for the missile range and the nature of the rehabilitation scheme They were met by 20,000 villagers and prevented from entering the area.

At the time of this writing (April 1988), the area remains in a state of tense uncertainty, and the final phase of the struggle waits to be acted out. The inexorable logic of India's National Security interests threatens to create a theater of displacement in Baliapal - through coercion and seduction the state is attempting to remove the villagers from their homes and land The resistance movement, however, is well organized, has the experience of three years' struggle against the state and is in no mood to capitulate. As one of the movement's leaders, Sasadhar Babu, has stated, "We are ready to give our lives in front of armored vehicles and tanks. But if that kind of incident occurs, its protest will not be limited to India alone. The whole world will condemn the Indian government, saying that these messengers of peace have built the missile range on the corpses of innocent Orissa peasants".


(1) During the 1970 the USSR supplied 80 percent of India's total imported arms and between 1980 and 1983, tour trade agreement on various types of missiles were reached between India and the USSR (as well as four with France and one each with the United Kingdom and the US).

(2) It is a common phenomenon for farmers to cultivate unused government lands, especially in this type of coastal area where land is created by sedimentation. The Collector's Office generally institutes proceedings against such encroachers and collects a regular fine which amounts to a low rent.

(3) When I.C. Das, the District Collector, and other officials attempted to visit Baliapal in March 1986 to explain the eviction, they were gheraoed (surrounded) by more than 1,000 people for more than 10 hours and forced to leave the area on foot.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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