05/19/2011 09:22 am ET Updated Jul 19, 2011

Turning People Turtles in East India

Go back about 2,300 years, when one of India's most epic battles was fought, in the kingdom of Kalinga in eastern India. If you were to trace the boundaries of Kalinga today, it would largely coincide with Orissa, an Indian state as infamous now for its pockets of dire poverty as for giant investments in mines and ports that locals fiercely oppose. In 265 BC, the Emperor Ashoka, who attacked Kalinga to annex it, was horrified at the bloodshed and the deaths of thousands of soldiers on both sides. He firmly embraced Buddhism and with it, non-violence.

Emperor Ashoka then set up rock pillars to tell the story of the Buddha and mark sites linked with his life. One of these was at Sarnath, in the north, which was erected at the point where the Buddha gave his first sermon. The four lions on the pillar are now India's national emblem. But the non-violence they should be associated with is not part of national policy.

Many indigenous people and other local residents of contemporary Orissa will tell you about a brutal battle they are fighting to ward off anyone annexing their natural resources today. Most of these they are losing. The Dongria Konds people have temporarily stalled the Vendanta company from mining bauxite in their sacred forests. Not elsewhere. On the coasts, large Indian business houses are building ports and processing and exporting steel, although they face stiff opposition and their plans stand delayed. And no one has been able to stop POSCO, one of India's biggest foreign direct Investments from South Korea, which will now mine iron ore exclusively for export, in an area the state has declared an export promotion zone. They will ship off the iron via a private port they will also build. In the process, activists estimate that about 280,000 trees will be cut. For doing this, POSCO got a 10-year tax break, while the indigenous people received injuries, even a few deaths, when the police fired at them for protesting this destruction of their livelihoods and a fragile ecosystem.

Few other creatures embody this ghastly state of affairs as poignantly as the olive ridley turtles, which just completed their hatching cycle. There are very few places on the planet where the olive ridleys come ashore for mass nesting. Orissa's coastline is one of them. They follow a well-predicted cycle here. In March, female turtles come ashore to the beach by the thousands, and lay their eggs on the sandy beaches near two places -- Gahirmata and Rushikuliya. They then return to the sea. When the eggs hatch, the babies move towards the water, guided by the light from the reflected moon on the sea. For less than a week, these spots house a spectacular sight, as hundreds of thousands of hatchlings travel a few hundred meters within an hour of their birth, and swim away into the ocean. The males will never return ashore. The females carry a geomagnetic footprint of the site and will return, 15-20 years later, to lay their own eggs here.

Unfortunately, the turtles find themselves displaced by development. In their prime nesting site, their habitat has reportedly reduced from 32 kilometers to 950 meters of beach, in part from beach erosion and projects. A recent report described what lack of space could do. It said that after the turtles lay their eggs, another set of turtles come ashore, destroy their nests and lay their own eggs. The Dhamra Port, which will be largest in South Asia, is expected to pollute their nesting site irreversibly and its lights will interfere with their natural processes. Offshore drilling is on the anvil too, and the turtles will bear the cost of the pollution, noise and ecological disruption. Mechanized trawlers have been killing the adults for a while now, their shells washed ashore providing the gristly evidence. Litter, particularly plastic fishing nets that local, subsistence fishermen use, are also washed back on the beach. When the hatchlings walk across the beach, they are entrapped in these. Some die.

We notice what's happening to the turtles because it is tangible. A large chunk of the big picture is present right in front of us and it breaks our hearts when these endangered creatures are displaced from a place they call home just for a few months each year. But this dislocation is also happening to the people here, something that's harder to see. Some of India's poorest administrative districts, with the highest rates of malnutrition, are located in Orissa. Large numbers of people here are indigenous, fighting back to keep their lands and exercise their democratic choices, despite promises of jobs. Some have taken to armed resistance and declared the government their enemy. Orissa has scarcely embarked on any plans for development. Yet it is already on its way to destroying its forests, coasts, wildlife and people to mine the oil, coal and aluminum in the earth below. For many ordinary people here, this would have been their modern-day Battle of Kalinga, but for one thing. It is unlikely to end, and the teachings of the Buddha -- caring for the environment and non-violence -- will not inform the policy makers' decisions. Here's where, sadly, history won't repeat itself.