Local women collecting mussels

From opposing the world’s largest nuclear power generating station to the world’s largest single-location integrated refinery and petrochemical complex, the residents of areas along the Konkan coast have been fighting for their land and natural resources for more than a decade now. Tabriz Chowk at Sakhri Nate village, Rajapur tehsil is a testimony of people’s struggle against the Jaitapur nuclear plant. It was named after a young man, Tabriz, who was martyred in April 2011. 12 years later, local journalist Shashikant Warishe was mowed down in Rajapur, descending a chill in the entire region. He was one of the few journalists who was writing extensively about the Ratnagiri Refinery & Petrochemicals Ltd (RRPCL) and the local opposition to it. 

During the Jaitapur struggle, the communities opposed the forceful land acquisition, threats due to nuclear leaks and nuclear waste, and environmental damage to local flora and fauna. During the protests, many people were beaten and arrested. The Jaitapur nuclear plant project still remains in limbo but the government immediately announced the RRPCL project, previously called West Coast Refinery in Rajapur in 2017. Once again the communities mobilised and have been resisting the project to protect their land, history, cultural practices and livelihood. 

“Konkan is special and I forget all the places of India when I visit there. We will fight till the end to save Konkan”, said a member of the local community who now lives in the city. 

Driving from Ratnagiri to Rajapur in February, the Konkan coastline looks pristine blue and roads are engulfed with Alphonso fragrance. The large swathes of mango and cashew orchards are laced with white and pink flowers, and raw fruits hang on the trees. The Tabletop plateau (called Sadaa) is covered with burnt grass which bursts into different colours during monsoon. On the Arjuna Riverside, women can be seen collecting mussels during day time. By late evening, the dock site at Nate is lit with usual hustle and bustle. Women sit in groups in one corner cleaning and adding salt to the ribbon fish, boats offload fish, and some boats prepare to leave towards the sea. It is no wonder why locals are fighting to protect the Konkan. The interdependency between the communities and natural resources in the region is continuously at risk with the government eyeing to construct a toxic project. 

The Ratnagiri refinery is planned to be set up at the Barsu-Solegaon area of Rajapur tehsil. Initially, in 2015 the Central government and the Maharashtra government proposed the project in Rajapur taluka and Sindhudurg district. It was planned across 17 villages. Due to the stiff resistance from locals over land acquisition in Nanar and support from Shiv Sena, the project was stalled there in 2019. Later, the government proposed a new site and shifted it 20 km away from Nanar to Barsu-Solegoan. However, both Nanar and Barsu are located in Rajapur tehsil and concerns amongst the local population remain the same. 

On 15 September 2022 Hardeep Singh Puri, the Union Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas while speaking at the Energy Technology Meet indicated that the Ratnagiri refinery project will be revived. He said the project is important for India’s energy security. The Maharashtra government is also keen on reviving the project. In October 2022 Uday Samant, the Industries Minister reaffirmed that the refinery will come up at Barsu. Towards this, he mentioned that the land acquisition process and soil testing has begun.  

RRPCL is a joint venture company comprising three state-owned refiners, Indian Oil Corporation (IOCL), Hindustan Petroleum Corporation (HPCL) and Bharat Petroleum Corporation (BPCL) holding 50 per cent stake, with Saudi Aramco and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company holding the remaining 50 per cent. Planned on 15,000 acres of land, the refinery has the capacity to refine 60 million tonnes (MT) of crude oil per annum and produce 18 million tonnes per annum of petrochemicals. Instead of 15,000 acres now, the government has downsized the project and is planning to acquire 6,000 acres of land for the refinery with 20 MT per annum refining capacity. Around 24 km from Barsu, a port will be constructed in Ambolgad village for unloading crude oil. Crude oil will be transferred to Crude Oil Terminal (COT) at the coast, and from there it will be transferred to the refinery complex through sea pipelines.

Waste land for government, biodiversity reservoir for locals

A cashew dealer from Goval village showed us cashew and kokum trees as we hiked towards the laterite plateau top. Goval is one of the affected villages under the new proposed site for the refinery. As we inched closer to the plateau, behind us the dense forest clouded Goval village. Atop, grey langurs were running in troops, dry grass covered the vast plateau and clear brown porous laterite rocky patches were visible in between. The dry grass is used as fodder by the people. With the onset of the monsoon, the dry grass turns green and the plateau is filled with colourful flowering plants. Medicinal plants are found in abundance in the forest surrounding these plateaus. 

Laterite plateau at Goval covered with dry grass and is the new proposed project site

This proposed site for the refinery is categorised as ‘rocky barren land’ in India’s wasteland atlas and gives an easy way for the government to establish industrial projects on plateaus. Contrary to the belief that laterite plateaus are infertile, these plateaus are biodiversity hotspots that support the local ecology and provide food and water to the communities. During the monsoon, the locals cultivate rice and pulses on their private land and catch fish in the small natural ponds on the plateau. 

Rainwater percolates into the porous rocks and recharges aquifers which provide drinking water to the villages located at the base of the plateau. A local naturalist and retired school teacher from Padel village explains, “Historically, the goat herders from the Dhangar tribe used to live at table tops, and habitations were located at the base of the plateau due to the availability of water. Plateaus are the actual source of water for us”. 

The refinery or any industrial project on the table tops will impact the groundwater and cause water scarcity. There is fear that toxic waste from the refinery will also seep into the drinking water sources. In the long term, this will make villages unlivable and can possibly lead to displacement.

Walking further, we were shown prehistoric petroglyphs, art forms engraved on laterite rocks. More than 200 engravings were found in Barsu and many still remain untraced. The archaeologists are keen to protect these ancient sites, and in April 2022,  they were added to a tentative list of UNESCO’s world heritage sites. Due to the construction of the refinery, these sites will be destroyed. Some project supporters are of the view that these petroglyphs can be cut and placed in a museum which will facilitate the construction of the refinery. Such is the height of desperation to keep a US$ 70 billion refinery project locked in Maharashtra. 

Desperate attempts

The killing of Sashikant Warishe highlighted the desperation of project supporters. On 6 February 2023, Warishe was allegedly moved down by Pandharinath Amberkar, a real estate broker. Locals remember Warishe as one of the key persons who used to write about their struggles. Earlier, Amberkar had assaulted and threatened another activist and his friend in Rajapur court in September 2022, following which they had registered a police complaint against him. 

In one of its investigative reports, the local newspaper ‘Sprouts News’ alleged that Amberkar had offered land worth crores to the journalists, while Anil Nagvekar, the chief public relations officer of the Ratnagiri refinery ensured that major newspapers in Maharashtra don’t cover the refinery opposition. 

The locals allege that a land scam has been taking place in the project area. Since 2017, outsiders from Gujrat, Uttar Pradesh and other cities of Maharashtra purchased land at a nominal rate of around Rs. 3 lahks per hectare. As per the Sprouts News investigation, Amberkar has also illegally sold land to people from Gujrat, Rajasthan, and Delhi and listed them as ‘local farmers’ Unaware of the happenings, local people now understand that once land acquisition notification is announced these non-locals investors will be the first ones to consent to the project and make way for the refinery.

Currently, in Barsu Solegaon around 2,500 acres of land out of 6,000 acres have been acquired under the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation Act. “There is no notification regarding the land use plan of 2,500 acres, and 130 local members had filed objections but nothing happened”, says Deepak. 

Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, the local communities are not losing hope. They have resisted big industrial projects in the region before. In 1992, they led the fight against Vedanta’s Sterlite Industries, and later against Enron, US energy company. 

Women are believed to play a major role in the refinery agitation. Recently, a video went viral in the villages after a pro-refinery supporter threatened those opposing the refinery. “He was saying that once women step aside and stop leading from the front, they will show their muscle power”, says a member of the Bhoomi Kanya Ekta Manch. 

Formed during the Nanar refinery agitation, the Manch has more than 350 women of all age groups who continue to extend support to Barsu Solegaon now. They are firm in their resolve that they won’t allow the refinery to come up anywhere in Kokan. All the women from the affected villages join their call for the protest. The women from the fisher community are also equally strong and vocal about the issue. Both groups extend solidarity to each other when needed during protests or any other event.

Threat to traditional livelihoods

The Maharashtra government keeps mentioning that the refinery will generate one lakh direct employment and five lakh people will be employed indirectly. For people in Rajapur tehsil, employment is not a huge concern as communities are largely self-reliant. Even the small farmers own around 100-150 mango trees and a dozen Alphonso mango fetches Rs 2,000 in the market. People are concerned about the threat the refinery poses to their traditional livelihood support systems. The region is primarily dependent on Alphonso, rice and cashew plantation, and fishing. In order to gather support from the locals, the project proponents along with politicians claim the refinery to be an ‘environment friendly and green refinery’. As one glances through the official website of RRPCL, the project is proposed to produce clean fuels with stringent emissions control which would cause minimal impact on the mango and cashew. 

However, these claims don’t go down well with the locals who have visited Mahaul, Mumbai or have heard about it from their fellow community members. “Bad air and water quality are affecting the lives of people in Mahual. Cancer is also prevalent there. I heard that trees have turned black there”, says a local Alphonso farmer from Nanar. 

Furthermore, along the coast, the fishing community, which is primarily Muslim-dominant, fear that they will lose their only source of livelihood. The transportation of crude oil via the Arjuna River, oil spillage and toxic discharge will disrupt the marine ecology. The community is already facing challenges due to purse seine fishing. It has pushed the fishermen involved in traditional net fishing to the corner. Finding it difficult to survive, these fishermen now repair fishing nets for purse seine fishers at nominal charges. The proposed refinery will severely impact both the purse seine and traditional fisherfolk altogether.  

Apart from this, the local people are dependent on prawn and mussel farming, medicinal plant cultivation, vegetable farming, etc. Refinery poses a serious threat to all these livelihood sources on which both men and women are dependent. 

Boats anchored at the Nate port

At Nate Port site, as evening descends the women pull out their phone lights and portable lights and clean fish under it. The signs of poor infrastructure are visible at the port. The government wants to use advanced technology for the refinery, but it is doing little for the development of the fishing sector and the welfare of the community in the region. The same holds true for mango farmers who would welcome a mango juice factory rather than a refinery. Developing the already existing horticulture and fishing sector will bring the needed prosperity to the region than establishing a toxic refinery which will disrupt lives and livelihoods. 

“Right now we live a dignified life. Once the refinery is constructed, those who will come here will own power and we will be rendered powerless because we are not even educated. So we need to fight and protect our identity”, says a woman activist. 

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