In Maharashtra Village, Locals Protesting Against a Refinery Allege Unprecedented Police Action

Arrests, notices and prohibition of gatherings greeted locals as they opposed a survey for an enormous refinery in Ratnagiri – about which they were allegedly not even informed.

New Delhi: Maharashtra law enforcement’s actions in Barsu Solgaon of the Rajapur block in Ratnagiri since April 23, when officials began conducting preliminary soil testing to set up an oil refinery, have been called ‘unprecedented’ and nothing short of brutal repression by locals and activists.

The Ratnagiri Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd (RRPCL) is largely touted to be the largest oil refinery in the world. Fifty percent of its stakeholders are the Indian Oil Corporation, Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited, and Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited, and the other 50% lies with Saudi Aramco. The ‘super’ refinery project is slated have over 6-million-tonne capacity and is expected to be the world’s largest oil refinery. It is also supposed to include a petrochemical complex including benzene, plastic, and more.

The process has been and is collectively being opposed by environmentalists across the Konkan and Maharashtra, along with locals who have gathered under the aegis of the ‘Barsu Solgao Panchkroshi Vidrohi Sanghatana.’ The deployment of about 2,000-2,500 police personnel at the site is being seen as an attempt to tackle and curb this resistance.

Locals say that the Maharashtra government should have sought permission from the respective Gram Panchayats before conducting the survey. They add that they were not even informed of the exercise.

A day before the survey, Ratnagiri police, on April 22, 2023, arrested senior environmentalists Mangesh Chavan and Satyajit Chavan.

The police claimed that the arrests were made merely as a prohibitory measure to avoid any disturbance during the survey and had sent them to three days of judicial custody. 

Locals protest at Barsu Solgaon of the Rajapur block in Ratnagiri. Photo: Twitter@aviuv

Even when the administration informed locals that Chavan and Chavan would be released on April 25, they were not released until April 26. By then, however, police had booked them under charges under sections 143, 147, 149, 314, 109, 186 of the Indian Penal Code, and Section 37 (1) (3) of the Maharashtra Police Act, 1951, and Article 135 of the Limitation Act, 1963.

Around April 22, nine protestors, including local leaders, were served with externment notices by Rajapur Taluka, seven of which have been signed by the District Collector and one by the Additional District Collector. Eight have already appeared against these notices.

The Maharastra government also prohibited public gatherings in Rajapur taluka from April 24 to May 31. This was, however, recently revoked.

Locals allege that policemen have manhandled women who have actively been protesting and that police also destroyed tents set up to protect protesters – mainly women and children – from the heat.

According to the protesters, about 110 arrests had been made by the afternoon of April 25. 

The Maharashtra government’s decision to go ahead with drilling in the region as part of the survey comes even though the fragile landscape is archaeologically significant, contains petroglyphs or rock carvings and is part of the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The region is also known for its cashew and mango orchards, its vast farmlands that grow rice, and its significance as a water source for villagers.

Locals say that although authorities had announced on April 25 that work had been stopped, drilling continued at the site on April 26.

The government is alleged to have blocked roads to prevent the entry of outsiders and reporters into the village. 

“During a time of climate change the government of India should be trying to preserve the environment. But here they are giving it away in the name of profit — ignoring what the locals have to say. Anyone who dares challenge them through legal means is suppressed,” a woman in her forties, said, requesting anonymity.

In a joint letter of protest, various civil society organisations demanded that the ongoing repression and soil testing in the region be stopped immediately and the cases filed against the environmentalists be withdrawn at the earliest. They also state that there cannot be any discussion with the government authorities until and unless the soil testing and the repression of the locals and activists stop.

Even after sustained criticism by civil society organisations, environmentalists, and the media, the survey has not stopped. As the survey still continues, the protestors had not stopped and continued to mobilise themselves, except for the mobilisation waning when internment notices were filed, after which it gradually picked up again.

Ankush Pal is an undergraduate student of sociology at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.