India Business
Posco protests cripple Orissa's betel leaf farming
May 21, 2007 - 9:24:05 AM

Jagatsinghpur -, May 21 - As thousands of people continue their stir against the proposed Posco steel plant to protest displacement, betel leaf farming - the main economic activity in the area - has been severely affected.

Orissa's betel leaf, especially the 'kujang pan' variety, is popularly not only in different parts of India but is also exported to other countries like Pakistan and the Middle East. But its cultivation is now under threat.

Posco, one of the world's biggest steel makers, signed a deal with the state government in June 2005 to set up a plant near the port town of Paradeep in this coastal district, some 120 km from Bhubaneswar, by 2016. But since then over 20,000 people from around 15 nearby villages, including Dhinikia, Gada Kujang and Nuagaon, have been protesting the project saying it will take away their homes and their betel leaf farms.

Villagers have erected at least nine wooden gates in the Dhinikia and Gada Kujang panchayats to prevent government and company officials from entering into these areas, virtually amounting to an economic blockade.

'Even betel leaf farmers who have chosen to stay away from the protests are not getting access to their farms because they need to cross the entry gates. As a result, betel leaf farming has been severely damaged,' says Kasinath Mudli of Patna village.

More than 400 families in the region depend on the betel leaf business. While in other regions of the state the farmers produce green betel leaf, kujang cultivators grow a yellowish variety. There are more than 50 betel marts in the Posco-affected regions.

But growers have sustained huge losses because traders have not been able to enter the villages nor have local farmers been able to go out to sell their product. Some anti-Posco activists have also destroyed the betel vine marts owned by pro-Posco groups.

Many women who were traditionally engaged in the plucking and packing of betel leaf have now been taking part in the anti-Posco movement.

'The livelihood of hundreds of betel farmers has been completely paralysed due to the stir, the erection of entry gates and the economic blockade in the Posco affected area by protesters since one year,' said B.N. Naik, president of Kujang Pan Farmer's Association, told IANS.

Farmers send nearly two truckloads of betel leaves out of the region every week.

Betel leaves produced in the region are not only popular in the state but also in other parts of the country such as Mumbai, Solapur, Varnasi, Ahmedabad, Kolkata and New Delhi.

'Some Mumbai-based betel leaf traders even export kujang pan to Pakistan, Singapore, Thailand and the Middle East,' said Naik.

'This area boasts of nearly 400 odd betel leaf farms. The total betel leaf business in the region could be nearly Rs.80-100 million annually,' Naik said.

Posco wants over 4,000 acres of land for the project. While 430 acres is private land, the rest belongs to the government. The state government recently provided 1,500 acres to the company on paper. However, the company is yet to get its physical possession.

While Posco says the plant would affect only 500 families, protesters say the figure is much higher.

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