The authorities at Bhitarkanika National Park and the revenue department of Odisha's Kendrapara district have demolished 174 prawn dykes and reclaimed nearly 350 acres of encroached government land on the fringe of the swampy mangrove forest.
These plots were occupied by prawn farmers without authorization for several years, Rajnagar Tehsildar Khirod Kumar Behera said.
The construction of prawn dykes is unlawful as these plots fall under the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) areas. The demolition was undertaken over the last weekend along a 10-km stretch from Khola to Talchua. As many as 174 dykes were dismantled, Behera said.
"The reclaimed patches are being taken up for mangrove regeneration programme so that prawn farmers do not get to reoccupy the areas. The mangrove plantation work would begin within a week," said Divisional Forest Officer, Rajnagar Mangrove (wildlife) Forest Division, Bimal Prasanna Acharya.
The reclaimed areas are conducive for mangrove regeneration as there is regular inflow of tidal waters.
In the past two years, the department had succeeded in regenerating mangrove species in about 300 hectares of denuded area. These areas, once ravaged by prawn farming, now have lush-green mangrove species.
The scheme would be extended to other deforested area in phases and this will go a long way in arresting the encroached mangrove cover in Mahanadi deltaic region of the park, he said.
Admitting that similar exercises undertaken in the past had not been entirely successful in checking mangrove degradation, he said the eviction drive is being launched in a well-oiled manner this time.
A task force comprising senior forest protection officials has been formed.
The government officials are also generating public awareness on mangrove protection and people have started realising that the tropical tree is a natural barrier against tidal surge and cyclones.
Green activists, however, are of the opinion that large patches still continue to remain under unlawful and environmentally-damaging prawn cultivation.
"Influential land-grabbers and prawn mafias are infringing Odisha land encroachment law. The revenue department is empowered to evict them and institute criminal cases against the encroachers, while the forest officials are also empowered to demolish the gheries," environment activist Biswajit Mohanty alleged.