Oil and water

Tensions rise as Shiv Sena prepares to cancel a project backed by the Centre

24-villagers-protest Women on a mission: Villagers protest the refinery project at Nanar.

On April 23, Maharashtra Industries Minister Subhash Desai announced that he was cancelling a notification his department had issued for acquiring land for the proposed Ratnagiri Refinery and Petrochemicals Limited (RRPCL) project. The senior Shiv Sena leader was with Uddhav Thackeray, the president of his party, when he made the announcement. The people in Nanar village, Ratnagiri, erupted in applause. A battle had begun. The minister had announced the cancellation of a project backed by the Union government.

In fact, every party other than the BJP has opposed the project. On May 2, state Congress president Ashok Chavan felicitated Sunanda Tukarul, a feisty old lady who had been protesting the project. She had thrown herself in front of a police van when revenue officials had come to measure land for acquisition. “We will not allow people’s lives to be destroyed in the name of development. We are with you, and we are against Nanar [project],” said Chavan.

The project, which includes a refinery and a petrochemical complex, is reportedly worth 03 lakh crore. It is a joint venture between Saudi Aramco, the Saudi national oil company, and a consortium of Indian Oil Corporation, Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum. The project will be spread over 15,000 acres, covering 12 villages in Rajapur taluk of Ratnagiri district and two villages in neighbouring Sindhudurg district. It will process 60 million metric tonnes of crude oil a year. The government says it will generate about 20,000 direct jobs and 1.5 lakh ancillary jobs.

But, the farmers and fishermen will have none of it. Atmaram Pendurkar, a resident of Nanar, told THE WEEK that he would lose his 30 acres, on which he cultivates paddy, ragi, toor dal and mango. “My mango plantation gives me about 800 boxes of mangoes a year,” he said. “Each box has four to five dozen mangoes. I sell most of it in Mumbai and Pune. Why should I support the project if all this is going to be taken away from me?”

Nandkumar Kulkarni, a retired teacher living in Mumbai, returned to his village, Katradevi, in 2015. His family owns 250 acres there. “I earn 03 lakh to 04 lakh from my mango plantation,” he said. “We also grow rice. We are primarily losing our farmland. Thankfully, our houses will be spared.”

Omkar Prabhudesai, sarpanch of Nanar village and one of the leaders of the agitation, said that the issue is not about opposition to development, but more about “opposition to a certain kind of development being thrust on villagers”.

Hand’s on: Maharashtra Congress president Ashok Chavan felicitates a protester at Nanar. Hand’s on: Maharashtra Congress president Ashok Chavan felicitates a protester at Nanar.

Nanar gram panchayat consists of four revenue villages—Nanar, Ingalwadi, Palekarwadi and Wadi Chivari. “The population of Palekarwadi is just about 500, but that entire village will be uprooted and all villagers displaced,” said Prabhudesai. “The number may look small, but when you visit the village, you will understand their passion for cultivating mangoes. Personally, my family is not losing anything in the project. But, I am with our people and 95 per cent of Nanar gram panchayat members have given letters rejecting the project.”

Ashok Walam, one of the main organisers of the agitation, said, “A force of 900 policemen was camping here. Our gram sabhas have voted against the project. On March 14, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis told us he will not let the project come up if there was so much opposition to it. But, on April 11, a memorandum of understanding was signed in New Delhi. As this is a Central government project, we had to seek help from another national party. So, we went and met [Congress president] Rahul Gandhi. He spoke to us for 35 minutes and asked state Congress leaders to support us in our struggle. Anyone who helps us is welcome.”

The opposition to land acquisition aside, Walam pointed out an interesting development in the region. Apparently, just before the project was announced in May 2017, a lot of businesspeople from outside the region, especially from Gujarat, started buying land in the area where the project would come up. Now, these “overnight farmers”, said Walam, have already written to revenue authorities, saying that they would give up their land for the project if they got Rs 1 crore as compensation. Walam shared two such consent letters with THE WEEK. These letters, submitted by Subhash Kedia and Prachi Tripathi, say that their land falls in the region where land acquisition has begun.

These “farmers” have typical Gujarati surnames, such as Modi, Gandhi, Jain, Shah and Doshi. And, all of them have apparently submitted consent letters to revenue authorities. The question, however, is—did they know about the project beforehand? Reportedly, they had bought the land for about Rs 3 lakh a hectare and will now get 01 crore a hectare. This has raised doubts about a possible nexus between government officials, politicians and the land mafia.

Local Congress MLA Husnabanoo Khalife said that 12 lakh mango trees, 6 lakh cashew trees, 63 temples and many mosques would be affected by the project. “This is not just a refinery, it brings along a thermal power plant that has a capacity of 2,500MW,” she said. “The ash generated will be dumped in the sea, which is bound to affect fishing activity.”

Said Kulkarni: “The government has used the Industries Development Act of 1951 to issue land acquisition notices. Why hasn’t it used the Land Acquisition Act of 2013? The reason is simple. It is because the 2013 act requires consent of more than 70 per cent of the people.”

Desai has also referred to the 2013 act while cancelling the project. He knows the importance of pleasing his party chief and the people of his native Ratnagiri, which has been one of Shiv Sena’s strongest bastions. Even when former chief minister Narayan Rane quit the Shiv Sena and destroyed its network in Sindhudurg district, the neighbouring Ratnagiri firmly backed the party.

The Shiv Sena cannot afford to go against the people’s wishes in the region. That is why Uddhav was the first prominent leader to hold a meeting of affected villagers in the last week of April. Rane, who has now joined the BJP, has also opposed the project. So have Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party.

Soon after Desai’s announcement that he was cancelling the project, Fadnavis said the industries minister did not have the authority to do so. That power, he said, was with a high-level committee that would have to submit a proposal to the state cabinet. Desai, however, has written a letter to his department to initiate the process of cancelling the project.

With all this conflict, the spokespersons of RRPCL, Anil Nagwekar and Ajit Morye, have a tough job at hand. Recently, MNS workers attacked their Mumbai office. “RRPCL will follow all pollution control norms,” said Nagwekar. “There will be 100 per cent compliance. The project is spread over 15,000 acres and the government has told us that 80 per cent of the land is barren. This means just 3,000 acres is under cultivation. As per our norms, we have to [turn] 30 per cent of the total land acquired [into] a green belt. So, in addition to the existing 3,000 acres, we will have to add green cover of 1,500 acres. All of this will be mango and cashew plantation.”

According to them, about 3,600 villagers will be affected by the project. “In all, 896 families will be affected across 14 villages,” they said. “Close to 45,000 people were issued land acquisition notices, many of them absentee landlords. Of them, only 14 per cent have registered their opposition. The resolutions passed by gram sabhas are all politically motivated, depending on the which party the sarpanch belongs to. But, we do not want to bulldoze our way through. RRPCL will solve every issue and complaint amicably.”

Brushing aside allegations of pollution, they said that the majority of crude processing happens in coastal refineries, and fishing activity had not been affected elsewhere. “We haven’t heard complaints of fishermen from Kochi, where there is a refinery,” they said. “Similarly, flamingoes still visit Sewri creek area in Mumbai, where we have two refineries. If pollution has not affected the birds there, why will it affect them here?”

Nagwekar also said that though the project would require 2,500MW, it “does not mean there will be a thermal power plant” for that. “If a power plant comes up, it could be LNG based,” he said. “I assure you that it will not be coal based.” He added that the state would benefit a lot from the project. “At present, Gujarat processes 37 per cent of crude oil and Maharashtra 8 per cent,” he said. “When RRPCL becomes operational, Maharashtra’s share will go up to 38 per cent. The national gross domestic product (GDP) could go up by almost 2 per cent, while state GDP will be up by 10 to 12 per cent.”

With such claims and counter-claims flying thick and fast, Nanar is sure to see a pitched battle. Especially as the country and state go to the polls in 2019. What remains to be seen is whether Ratnagiri will become another Singur.