A battle is raging in the Konkan region of Maharashtra between the people and the government. So far, over a thousand people were arrested and many were booked for rioting, unlawful assembly and disobedience to public order. Every day people come out in protest and the police had to use tear gas to disperse the crowd. You may not be seeing much about this in the mainstream media, but it is happening. What is all this about? 

Last week, the Maharashtra Govt started conducting soil testing at the proposed site of the Ratnagiri Refinery and Petrochemicals Limited or RRPCL project. This site at Barsu village is in the coastal Ratnagiri area, known for its mango and cashew plantations. 

The Refinery project, if it comes up, is going to be the world’s largest single-location refinery complex. With a capacity of 60 million tonnes per annum, RRPCL is a joint venture between Saudi Aramco, and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), with a 50% stake and Indian Oil Corporation Limited, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited, and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited, holding another 50% stake in the project. 

Initially, the project was supposed to come up at Nanar, about 20 kilometres from Barsu. But, due to strong opposition from the local residents, environmental activists and the Shiv Sena, the project was denotified in 2019. 

So are the people against the refinery, or do their concerns lie elsewhere?

The villagers fear that this project would destroy the ecology of the Konkan region and change their way of life. People in this region are largely self-employed, engaging in activities ranging from mango, rice and cashew plantations to fishing, and vegetable cultivation among others. Though the government claims that the refinery project would generate direct employment for about one lakh people and indirect employment for 5 lakh more, the locals remain sceptical. 

And what about the environment? 

The locals are concerned about the potential ecological effects of the petrochemical unit, which is bound to emit a large number of pollutants, and would slowly destroy their mango orchards and other traditional livelihoods. And then, there are also the health hazards of the pollutants! The people of Konkan already suffer from air pollution because of the coal-fired power plants in the area. 

Fouziya Tahzeeb, a researcher at CFA visited Ratnagiri, earlier this year, and noted the possible effects of the project on the ecology of the area. 

Fouziya Tahzeeb: See, this place will eventually become a petrochemical hub. The oil spillage, wastewater discharge, toxic emissions will impact marine habitat and Alphonso plantations there, cashew trees. But if we just go a little deep and name these impacts, this project will kill ribbon fish. It’s going to kill squids, lobsters, mackerel, pomp red, fishes that are in the river, Arjuna, and the sea. It’s going to destroy marine flora. There’s this seaweed Sargassum in which the fishes reside. It’s going to destroy that. It’s going to destroy the insects, bees, and the butterflies that help in the pollination of Alphonso and other fruiting trees in the area. And along with that, at the project site, the toxic discharge will eventually, it will contaminate the groundwater drinking source.

Yet the politicians are calling RRPCL, an environment-friendly and green refinery. They also claim to develop the Konkan region and ‘improve’ its environment. But so far, they haven’t taken any actual steps that would help the locals in strengthening their existing livelihood opportunities. For example, the local farmers would welcome a mango juice factory, but nobody is thinking about that. 

Fouziya Tahzeeb: What I have personally heard from people is that they would prefer if the local existing infrastructure is developed, for example, for the Alphonso farmers, for the Cashew farmers, or even for the fishing communities. And also they would prefer a car assembling unit than a toxic refinery or a petrochemical unit in the region.

In February this year, a Marathi journalist Shashikant Warishe was allegedly mowed down by a real estate broker and a supporter of the refinery project. ShashiKant Warishe was giving voice to the people’s issues with his writing and reporting. All this adds up to the shady dealings going on in the area. The current crackdown on the protesters, most of them women, is another sign of desperation coming from the top. Will the state go to any length to impose development on unsuspecting people? 

Read the detailed ground report from Fouziya Tahzeeb here.

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