Thousands in Maharashtra Are Opposing What Could Be 'Globe's Largest' Oil Refinery 

The project in the state's Konkan region will displace farmers and fisherfolk from 17 villages besides impacting the environment. While the locals claim they want development, what they are asking is, at what and whose cost?

Ratnagiri: Last week, for the first time ever, 18-year-old Mariya stepped outside her village, Katradevi, in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra. Around eight other women, all belonging to the Konkani Muslim community, had travelled nearly 30 kilometres to participate in an agitation – a first for all of them.

They joined villagers from all over the region who got together last week to oppose an oil refinery, the “globe’s largest project”, as touted by chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. The reasons for covering this distance, as Mariya explains, was “machimaaranchya hakka sathi (for the rights of fishing communities).”

The oil refinery, planned over an expanse of over 15,000 acres of land in Maharashtra’s Konkan region, if it takes off, will inevitably displace farmers and fisherfolk from 17 villages – 15 villages in Ratnagiri and two in neighbouring Sindhudurg along the western coast.

The Rs 3 lakh crore oil refinery project which, officials say, will employ over one lakh people, is being opposed by all political parties, including the Shiv Sena, by environmentalists and also by human rights activists. But so far, the government has stayed resolute in its decision and in April, amidst opposition, it went ahead with signing a Memorandum of Understanding between Saudi Aramco and three state-owned companies – Indian Oil Corporation Limited, Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited and Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited. When completed by 2022, the project will be the world’s biggest single-location oil refinery project with a capacity to process 60 million tonnes of crude annually.

As the government sees it, the flourishing 720 kilometres long coastline of Konkan is the ideal place for the massive refinery.

The villagers, however, are not taking the government’s decision lying down. On May 30, around 15,000 villagers – the police had come prepared for around 10,000 protestors – gathered at the Rajiv Gandhi Maidan in Rajapur to demand an uncompromising roll-back of the ambitious project announced by Fadnavis’s government early last year.

The presence of both women and men in equal numbers from across the affected villages and several hundred more from neighbouring villages showcasing their solidarity meant only one thing, according to Mariya: “A strong message that all villages are 100% against the proposed project.” This was in response to the claims made by Fadnavis on several occasions that only about 10% of the villagers were “against development”.

The area where Nanar oil refinery project is planned. As many as 17 villages in Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts of Maharashtra would be displaced due to the refinery.

Manikrao Kamble, a 55-year-old farmer from Ratnagiri town, had travelled only to extend his solidarity. His 13-acres of farmland, 350 mango trees and an ancestral house are all safe, but he had still come in the blistering heat to participate in the rally. “It could have happened to any of us. I am here to tell the affected villagers that they are not alone in the fight,” Kamble said. His wife Suryalata called the government “anti-farmer”. “Taking away existing livelihood in the name of employment generation and development is the worst kind of human rights violation to happen,” she said.

Konkan, a biodiversity hotspot and one of the most prosperous belts of the state, is home to the famous Alphonso mango, among other produce. The picturesque western coastline of India has innumerable beaches, mostly unexplored and underexposed to tourist activities. With rains in abundance, the farmers of this rich land, unlike those from Vidarbha and Marathwada region, have managed to do well without needing the state to extend its loan waiver scheme to the region. Konkan  alone contributes 41% of Maharashtra’s GDP.

Of the total 14,675 acres (5,870 hectares) needed for the project, only 126 acres (52 hectares) belong to the state. The rest has to be acquired. The 17 villages identified for the project are Nanar, Sagwe, Taral, Karsinghewadi, Vadapalle, Villye, Dattawadi, Padekarwadi, Katradevi, Karvine, Chowke, Upade, Padwe, Sakhar, Gothiware, Girye and Rameshwar. Each of these villages has several smaller revenue villages under them. Nanar gram panchayat, for instance, consists of four revenue villages – Nanar, Ingalwadi, Palekarwadi and Wadi Chivari.

The villages here are divided into waadis (smaller colonies) that loosely operate as caste clusters. Brahmins reside separately in one waadi, and most Bahujan communities live in other waadis. The villages, largely peaceful, both on communal and caste lines, are economically interdependent. Across caste lines, people work as labourers, or agents at each other’s farmlands.

Coastal fishing here has remained a primary source of income for most Koli and Kokani Muslim communities who work harmoniously together. These fishing communities, unlike their farmer counterparts from the region, are only marginal landholders. And with this project underway, it is the fisherfolk who face the maximum risk of losing out on their source of livelihood without any reasonable compensation.

Majid Adam Bhatkar, former sarpanch (head of the village) calls these beaches the community’s ATM. “Absolutely no family has ever gone to bed hungry. One could just go into the sea for a few hours and return home with fish worth a few hundred. These beaches have been our lifeline for generations,” Bhatkar explains.

Majid Adam Bhatkar (centre), former sarpanch of Nanar village says the fishing communities will be the worst hit if the project takes off. Credit: Sukanya Shantha

On at least two occasions, representatives from the revenue department had visited villages for land measurements, but the villagers obstructed their way and they had to return. “When we do not want this project then what is the point of measuring our lands? We will not allow any kind of government intervention on our land until the state withdraws its decision,” said Sheetal Ghurav of Sagwe village, who is leading the women’s agitation against the project.

The district administration has made several attempts to speak to the village heads and convince them to organise meetings with the villagers, but these official efforts have not made any headway so far. The people are in no mood to listen – they want the project to be cancelled.

The Wire tried to contact Ratnagiri district collector Pradeep P. but was informed by his office that he was on long leave and no one else was authorised to speak on the project. Several attempts were made to contact him through calls and messages, but he has not replied. The story will be updated once he responds.

Salman Solkar, a young man from the fishing community and also an emerging leader in the ongoing agitation, says it is his community that stands to lose the most. “Almost all of us are landless. We only own our respective houses. Our lives are primarily dependent on the beaches we live on. We catch and sell fish and earn our living. Once we are displaced, we would lose both our livelihood and access to these beaches,” Solkar says. And with most of these houses built post-1991, the villagers fear their homes might end up being classified as “illegal houses” under the Coastal Regulation Zones rules. In Nanar alone, around 750 families live on the beach front and Solkar says almost 50% of their houses were built in the late 90s.

Women gather at Nanar village to discuss their campaign strategies against the proposed Nanar oil refinery project. Nanar and 16 other villages will be displaced if the state moves ahead with the project. Credit: Sukanya Shantha

Mango and paddy cultivation is the main source of earnings for the farmers. Vinod Suke, the newly-elected sarpanch of Rameshwar village in Sindhudurg explains that an average household here manages to earn between Rs 6-10 lakh from Alphonso mangoes alone. “It is a six-month-long work starting November. Even the poorest in the village owns over 100 mango trees. The earnings are enough for them to live a reasonably comfortable life,” Suke says. Last year, over 54 thousand metric tonnes of mangoes were sold from these 17 villages. This is over and above other produces like paddy, ragi and toor dal.

Yogesh Natekar, another resident of the village and an active member of the Konkan Refinery Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti, an organisation of affected persons floated to oppose the project, points out that no farmer in this region had to ever end their life due to failed crops. “Kokani (Konkan) soil has never failed its people. Even in the worst times, people have managed,” Natekar claims.

The farmers here boast of being self-reliant, which is also one of the primary reasons why they do not consider an oil refinery project as a “gateway to development”.

“What jobs will the government provide us. Even the poorest here employ four or five workers under them,” says 69-year-old N.D. Kulkarni of Sagve village. The villagers claim Ratnagiri alone has over one lakh migrant labourers working at the Alphonso orchards. Kulkarni, who worked in Mumbai for over three decades, said the project will, in fact, render a large number of people jobless. “At present, even an elderly person like me is able to earn for his living. Once our lands are taken away, the state will consider only the younger generation eligible for employment. What will the older generation, especially those living alone do?” Kulkarni asks.

Konkan and the people’s struggle

This is not the first time a massive scale project has been planned in Konkan. Also, this is not the first time that a project has been met with massive protest.

In 1992, Vedanta’s Sterlite Industries was allotted 500 acres of land in Zadgaon village of Ratnagiri to set up a 60,000 tonne per annum copper smelter and associated facilities by the state government. But a well-informed people’s movement pushed the company outside the state and the project finally moved to Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu.

This was followed by another project set up by the Dabhol Power Company in the early 90s. The project was initiated by the now-defunct US energy major Enron. This project went through a lot of political churning and people’s opposition. The land acquisition was forced upon the locals by the then Congress government. While the BJP and Shiv Sena had initially opposed the project, they too went ahead with the project when they were voted to power in 1995. The project since has run into major losses and its future is now uncertain.

Konkan is a 720-km long western coastline of India spread across the states of Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka. It is marked by the presence of major estuaries and narrow creeks. Credit: Sukanya Shantha

Another project, the Indo-French nuclear power initiative at Jaitapur,  has also faced vociferous opposition from the local people and the Shiv Sena. The project, with a capacity to generate 9,900 MW electricity, was planned in 2010 by the then Congress-led United Progressive Alliance. Though land for the project was  acquired amidst vehement opposition, it has barely made any progress because of concerns about the cost of the electricity that will be produced.

The political drama

People in Nanar say they understand the games of politicians all too well. “Every ruling party has had a chequered past. When in power, they have only taken an anti-people stand. Although the Sena and the Congress are extending their support, we aren’t relying on them in our agitation. It is a people’s movement, organised and executed by the locals,” said Nanar’s sarpanch Omkar Pabhudesai.

Seeing the popular mood, local political leaders and village representatives have unanimously decided to keep their party allegiance aside while participating in the agitation. Like, for instance, Rupesh Girkar, a newly-elected sarpanch of Girye village, who won the elections early this year with the BJP’s support. Girkar says his loyalty is towards his people and their cause. “My duty is towards those who elected me. I am in total agreement with their demands. I am not just an elected representative, but also a farmer. These are my issues too,” Girkar added. The village gram sabhas have passed numerous resolutions opposing the project and have already submitted a bunch of “no-consent” applications to the government.

Rupesh Girkar (right), a newly-elected sarpanch of Girye village, although, contested on BJP’s ticket, he has been opposing the state proposed oil refinery project in his village. Credit: Sukanya Shantha

Unfair means

Even though the villagers are confident of their unity and say with time the movement will only intensify, they fear that bulk buying of the land by “outsiders” could dent their agitation. Even before the state had decided on the project, Suke says several investors had suddenly begun buying land from the locals. “This was a sudden thing. They were ready to pay higher prices and buy land in bulk. Most of these investors are from Gujarat,” Suke told The Wire.

In his village, Rameshwar and the neighbouring Girye, a large chunk of land has already been bought. “The villagers might have sold just the surplus uncultivated land. But if these buyers manage to make inroads and start luring our people, our fight might get diluted,” says Suke.

Over 15,000 villagers gathered last week at Rajiv Gandhi Maidan in Rajapur to protest against the Nanar oil refinery project proposed by the BJP-led government in Maharashtra. The project would displace farmers and fisherfolk from 17 villages and the project is expected to destroy over 14 lakh mango trees, six lakh cashew trees, paddy fields spread over 500 acres along with huge parcels of flora and fauna. Credit: Ruchika Petkar

When villagers were served notice and asked to submit their consent letters to the revenue department, these new buyers – now considered “farmers” in official records – swiftly consented to the project. “It is pretty obvious that they had only blocked the land and were acting at the behest of the state,” says Prabhakar Devlekar, ex-sarpanch and vice president of the Konkan Refinery Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti.

The land, Devlekar says was bought from villagers for around Rs 3 lakh per hectare and upon acquisition by the state, could yield the owners anywhere around a crore of rupees, he estimates. There are fears that the state will use this way to show that the locals have acceded to the project.

Protests have intensified in the villages of Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg district against the state’s decision to set up oil refinery project in the region. As many as 17 villages would be displaced if the state goes ahead with its plans. Credit: Sukanya Shantha

Environmental impact

The project is expected to destroy over 14 lakh mango trees, six lakh cashew trees, paddy fields spread over 500 acres along with huge parcels of flora and fauna, hence endangering the region’s fragile coastal environment. Even before an exhaustive environment assessment could be carried out, Fadnavis had declared the project would emit “zero pollution” and that it would not pose any hazard to the environment.

But environmentalist Girish Raut says these are mindless claims made to keep the locals in the dark. He says the first impact of the refinery will be on the intertidal zone, which is a critical interface between terrestrial and marine ecosystems. “Globally, resistance has been building against such refinery projects and there is ample research pointing at the hazards of such plants on the coasts. But the state is refusing to look at these alarming statistics,” Raut claimed. Not just will the trees be felled for the refinery, but the habitat of marine life will also be severely impacted, Raut adds.

The villagers here are conscious of not wanting to be seen as “anti-development”. “There are at least a dozen different projects that the state can provide us. Why can’t they set up a processing unit to help farmers store and sell their produce?” asks Satyavan Palekar of Nanar. “We want development, but our question to this government is, at what and whose cost?”