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Living dangerously among sea ‘shells’

Villagers near Orissa’s Chandipur testing range make their living by selling empty shells, often losing lives in the process, reports Soumyajit Pattnaik.

india Updated: Apr 08, 2008 03:35 IST
Soumyajit Pattnaik

Chandipur — Home to the Integrated Test Range (ITR), synonymous with India’s missile missions. And a witness to the dark underbelly of India’s missile success.

The Prithvi, Akash, Agni and BrahMos missiles have all been test-fired from here. The Defence and Research Organisation’s (DRDO) the Proof and Experiment Establishment (PXE) also has a test range here.

But the military success hides a story of lost livelihoods and desperate poverty. In 1991, the PXE started acquiring land for a new firing range. The main sources of livelihood here are fishing and agriculture. Having sold their plots, many villagers in Bhimpur, Bardhanpur and Khadupahi areas near Chandipur found themselves without a source of livelihood. They could not cultivate their land and the new range meant they lost access to the sea. Left with few options, they took to recovering fired shells and weapons and selling them.

“The district administration first acquired land paying Rs 50,000 an acre, but later changed that to Rs 18,000 per acre,” said Anirudha Panda, secretary of the Uchcheda Krushaka Mandali (Discarded Farmers’ Group) of Jayadevkasaba.

Fired shells fetch between Rs 400 to Rs 1,500 a piece from scrap dealers. Since the steel prices have gone up, any shell or recovered weapons with steel content fetches more prices. Shells with lead content are also sold at a higher price.

The modus operandi is simple.

Local residents get to know of PXE tests by watching the movement of military personnel along the sea. They gauge where fired shells will land by the presence of uniformed personnel. Once the uniformed men leave, villagers enter the sea armed with iron rods during low tide. During the low tide, water recedes to a distance of about 3-km into the sea beach.

The money may not be bad but it’s a life lived on the edge. Some have lost their limbs while recovering the fired shells and some have even died. In July 2002, seven people died when an anti-bunker rocket exploded while some villagers were trying to recover it from the sea. Hindustan Times came across at least four persons in Bardhanpur who have lost their limbs because of the fired shells.

Since they violate the laws by entering into a prohibited zone, any loss of life or other mishap is never reported to the police, as they will be arrested first for entering a prohibited area.

Worse, villagers say there are accidents even when they are not looking for shells. Bablu Dalei told Hindustan Times: “We were fishing in the sea when a shell fired from the testing range exploded near us. I lost my left hand. Two other persons, Gobind Dalei and Sukulia Dalei died on the spot. Another person Rabi Dalei lost an eye”.

“But I did not get a penny as compensation. I did not report it also as the cops would have registered a case against me for entering into a prohibited area.”

The villagers have petitioned the government on numerous occasions for proper compensation. On January 22, 2008, the Discarded Farmers’ Group had again petitioned the state government. In response, Joint Secretary MP Mishra of the revenue department of Orissa government wrote a letter to the Balasore district collector saying, “I’m directed to say that the representation may please be gone through and action taken on the problems and demands of the group may please be reported to this department for taking further action. This may please be treated as urgent.” But villagers have not received any communication so far.