Massive Public Opposition to Konkan Refinery Project

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 an oil refinery project announced by Fadnavis’s government early last year. The protestors included not just men and women in equal numbers from the affected villages, but also several hundred people from neighbouring villages who had come to show their solidarity with them in their struggle to protect their livelihoods.

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.

The oil refinery is planned over an expanse of 14,675 acres (5,870 hectares) of land in Maharashtra’s Konkan region. Of this, only only 126 acres (52 hectares) belong to the state. The rest has to be acquired. The 17 villages identified for the project are in Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts along the western coast and include 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 flourishing farmers and fisherfolk of these villages will all be displaced if this project goes ahead.

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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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. The village gram sabhas have passed numerous resolutions opposing the project and have already submitted a bunch of “no-consent” applications to the government.

Unfair means

Even though the villagers are confident of their unity and say that 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, several investors, mostly from Gujarat, suddenly begun buying land from the locals. They paid high prices and bought land in bulk.

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.

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. 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?”