The lush greenery of mango orchards and jackfruit trees offers a welcome relief from the blazing May sun on the Rajapur laterite plateau of Maharashtra’s coastal Ratnagiri district. Yet, amidst the serene surroundings, residents of six villages — Barsu, Solgaon, Devache Gothane, Shivne, Goval, and Dhopeshwar – have been at odds for the past two weeks over two major issues: environment and development.
A section of villagers supports the proposed multibillion-dollar Ratnagiri Refinery and Petrochemicals Limited (RRPCL) project discreetly, believing that it will create much-needed employment in the Konkan region. Others oppose it, voicing concerns about its impact on the environment and the local community’s livelihoods and land rights.
“We don’t want such poisonous projects in Konkan. Nature comes first for us. The government is promising to provide employment to locals in that refinery, but every year we are providing employment to hundreds,” said Kashinath Gorle, 60, from Shivne village, adding that people from other States and even Nepal come to work here. Despite not owning any land, Mr. Gorle has emerged as the face of the anti-refinery protesters.
The Konkan region is ecologically sensitive with several species of flora and fauna endemic to the area. Apart from agriculture – cashew and paddy plantations also form a part of the landscape – fishing is critical to the local economy. The concern is that this ecosystem will be disrupted.
The contentious issue
At Barsu, locals reacted to the commencement of soil-testing work on April 25 by staging protests that are still on, with about 1,000 people showing up daily. A police force that at its height reached 1,800 personnel came out to maintain order. On the first day, over 700 protesters were detained, and cases booked against 111 people under sections relating to rioting, unlawful assembly, and disobedience to public order.
“They are trying to take our lands by using police force. We are not ready to surrender our precious lands so that they can ‘murder’ nature. The movement has become a freedom struggle for the Konkani people,” said Prakash Gurav, 46, from Solegoan village, while waiting to interact with former Chief Minister and Shiv Sena (UBT) leader Uddhav Thackeray, on the outskirts of their village.
Mr. Thackeray had suggested Barsu as an alternative site for the project instead of the initial proposal at Nanar in the same taluk, after he became Chief Minister in 2019. He now claims he was misled by “some people” (in an indirect reference to his rival and present Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and some MLAs from the Konkan region).
“Do you think I would succumb to their pressure and betray the people of Konkan? At that time, I was told that the people of Konkan want this project for the development of the region. Based on their suggestion I wrote to the Centre suggesting Barsu as an alternative site. Clearly, I was misled,” he said, responding to a question from The Hindu. Coastal Konkan region is the Sena’s traditional bastion. Seen against the 2024 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, the party cannot afford to anger voters.
The project is touted as the world’s largest single-location refinery complex, with an expected capacity of 60 million tonnes per annum (as of April 2022, India’s oil refining capacity stood at 251.2 million metric tonnes per annum, making it the second-largest refiner in Asia and the fourth largest in the world). RRPCL is a joint venture among Saudi Aramco, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), Indian Oil Corporation Limited, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited, and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited. It is estimated to cost around ₹3 lakh crore. Besides fuel, it also proposes to develop various downstream petrochemicals to meet India’s fast-growing petrochemical demand, apart from generating employment for over one lakh people.
An officer of the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation, the body in-charge of acquiring land from the farmers, said, “If the land is suitable for the project, which we will know after the soil test reports are out, we need to acquire 5,000 to 5,500 acres for the integrated complex, and another 1,000 to 1,200 acres for the crude oil terminal at Sakhari Nate, about 15 km from Barsu.” They are currently conducting soil tests at 73 locations on 2,312 acres; 46 land owners have given their consent for drilling, he claims.
While the refinery is classified under the red category (environmentally harmful), Mr. Shinde said that it is a green refinery.
“We are a people’s government...we will not proceed without the local people’s consent,” Mr. Shinde said, adding that ‘a former CM’ himself had suggested the Barsu site to the Centre, and after losing the CM’s post, is opposing the project.
It is barren land, says supporter
Though the Maharashtra government has been a strong supporter of the project, locals who are pro-refinery are hesitant to express their views openly.
A few supporters have formed the Refinery Samarthak Samanvay Samiti (Refinery Support Coordinating Committee) to coordinate with the district administration. Until February, the Samiti was headed by a land broker, Pandharinath Amberkar, who is now behind bars for allegedly killing a Marathi newspaper journalist Shashikant Warishe for extensively reporting on issues related to the setting up of the unit.
Siddesh Marathe, whose family own nearly 50 acres at Shivne village, said that he is ready to give his land for the development of the region. “The entire area selected for the project is barren. There is no plantation on it and if there are any mango orchards, the cultivation has come down drastically. If the project comes up in our district, we will get jobs, transport, and health facilities. But some people are scared to express their wishes for fear of a backlash from those who are opposing the project,” he said.