How humble paan has taken on mighty steel in Orissa

By Satya Sivaraman, IANS,

Dhinkia (Orissa): It is a simple, spade-shaped, green leaf that stands between the South Korean steel giant POSCO and its ambitions of carrying out a $12 billion mega-project in this sleepy cluster of villages in coastal Orissa.

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For the past five years now it is the cultivators of paan, or betel leaf, traditionally chewed by millions of Indians, who have resisted the steel major’s plans to acquire over 4,004 acres of land for an integrated steel and power plant.

While much of the land that POSCO needs for its purpose belongs to the state, around 438 acres is in private hands, mostly paan and paddy cultivators in Ersama block of Jagatsinghpur district.

“Paan, dhaan, machch or betel, rice, fish — is the magic formula that has kept the people of this region going for centuries. The steel plant will only take what they already have in hand for dubious returns in the future,” Abhay Sahoo, leader of the POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samithy (PPSS), an umbrella organisation of villagers opposed to the steel plant project, told IANS.

The PPSS has undertaken a seven-day march from Paradip to Puri, mobilising villagers against the project, which they say will ruin local livelihoods.

Enquiring into the economy of cultivating paan, it is not difficult to see why these farmers are so passionate about holding on to their land. Depending on the quality and size of the betel leaf cultivated on an acre of land each farmer today makes Rs.4-4.5 lakh annually, a tidy sum by even urban standards leave alone rural ones.

“Each bundle of 1,000 leaves can fetch Rs.250-500 and every month we can harvest around 15,000 leaves,” says of Khiroda Sahoo, who owns one-third of an acre — the typical size of land-holding in the area.

The paan leaves grown in the Dhinkia panchayat, the epicentre of the anti-POSCO movement, are in particular popular for their big size, special fragrance and flavour.

Around three million leaves are sent out every year to big cities like Mumbai and Bangalore with a significant portion exported to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. While prices fluctuate a lot, in recent years they have steadily risen making paan cultivation extremely lucrative.

Once folded and served with other traditional spices, each paan, mostly eaten as a digestive after an Indian meal, can fetch up to Rs.20 or more in urban centres.

The investment in paan cultivation is also quite reasonable working out to Rs.15,000-20,000 per acre, which can be recovered within a month. Most of this money is spent on procuring the saplings, construction of the support scaffolding on which the paan vines climb and the shade that is required to protect the leaves from the sun.

“If one were to calculate the annual income possible from paan cultivation on 4,000 acres, which is the amount of land that POSCO wants in the area, the sum would be around Rs.180 crore,” Dhirendra Panda, a Bhubaneshwar-based social activist working on displacement issues, told IANS.

That is far more than anything POSCO or the Orissa government can offer by way of compensation for land acquisition, he points out.

The employment potential of paan farming is also large with each acre of paan providing regular employment to around 10 people and casual work to several dozen more. In the three panchayats of Gadkujang, Dhinkia and Nuagoan, where POSCO is trying to set up the steel and power plant complex, there are over 10,000 cultivators.

Some of the land on which paan cultivation is being done in Dhinkia and around is actually on encroached government property, though this has been happening for a few generations. Successive governments have ignored repeated pleas from the local farmers for regularising their holdings and as a result many cultivators also fear that if their land is acquired they will not receive any compensation.

The POSCO project, billed as India’s largest foreign direct investment, also involves construction of a private port nearby and the mining of over 600 million tonnes of high-grade iron ore in northern Orissa. With land acquisition running into trouble the company is now reported to be trying to shift out of Orissa, in particular to Karnataka where it has been offered similar financial incentives and the promise of an agitation-free environment.

If the exodus really happens the Orissa government would surely be left with a bad taste in its mouth and POSCO with the realisation that it had bitten more paan cultivators than it could ultimately chew.

(Satya Sivaraman can be contacted at [email protected])