Konkan region

Resisting a refinery

Print edition :

In March 2018 at Azad Maidan in Mumbai, a protest by the Konkan Refinery Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti against the proposed refinery at Ratnagiri. Photo: Emmanual Yogini

Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan (right) with UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and Saudi Aramco CEO and president Amin H. Nasser during the signing of the memorandum of understanding between Saudi Aramco and ADNOC to invest in the proposed Ratnagiri Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd, in New Delhi on June 25. Photo: Kamal Narang

Opposition mounts against a proposed gigantic refinery that threatens to affect the lives of thousands of families of farmers and fishermen in 17 villages in the Konkan region of Maharashtra.

The rain beating down on the Konkan coastline makes it difficult to see anything much. Through sheets of rain on the landward side you get glimpses of entire orchards swaying wildly in the wind, of fields and red-tiled roofs in the hamlets. On the seaward side boats are pulled way up on to the beaches that wear the forlorn look of a rain-swept landscape. The waves sweep in with the tide with all the force of the open sea behind them. This is rural Ratnagiri. But, if the government has its way, all these picture-postcard images will be a thing of the past and the fields and orchards will be torn up to make way for a mega petrochemicals project.

Largest, biggest, mega—the newly formed Ratnagiri Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd (RRPCL) is described only in superlatives. It would be among the six largest refineries in the world. The world’s biggest oil producer, Saudi Arabian Oil Company, or Saudi Aramco, is a partner in its development. Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), the other partner, is the twelfth largest producer in world rankings. The project itself, with its proposed capacity of more than 1.2 million barrels of oil a day and 18 million tonnes of petrochemicals a year, falls in the category of a mega project. It is touted as India’s largest refinery project; when completed, it will be the world’s biggest single-location integrated refinery and petrochemicals project.

On April 13, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between Saudi Aramco and a consortium of the state-owned Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd and Indian Oil Corporation. On June 25, Saudi Aramco and ADNOC signed an agreement that makes the two now jointly own 50 per cent of RRPCL. The remaining 50 per cent of the $44 billion (Rs.3 lakh crore) project is held by the consortium of the three Indian companies.

Affecting 17 villages

The project is slated to be ready in approximately five years, but there is already opposition to it. It is likely to affect as many as 17 villages in Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts of the Konkan region in Maharashtra. They are Nanar, Taral, Karsinghewadi, Katradevi, Sagwe, Dattawadi, Palekarwadi, Vadapale, Vilye, Gothiware, Karvine, Chowke, Rameshwar, Upade, Padwe, Sakhar and Girye.

The project is estimated to cover close to 6,000 hectares, most of which is agricultural land that is privately owned and will need to be acquired. This means an estimated 14 lakh mango trees, seven lakh cashew trees and more than 200 ha of paddy will face destruction. In the Konkan, where livelihoods are dependent totally on farming and fishing, this is equivalent to beggaring the approximately 22,000 farmers and 5,000 fishermen who live in the project-designated area.

The promise of employment for more than one lakh people in the refinery holds no attraction for the local people who say that they will be given menial jobs since they have no technical skills.

Surabhi Khare’s family has lived off the land for generations. She is offended that the government wants to buy their land and turn them into labourers. “We work hard from November onwards for the aaphus [alphonso] season and it rewards us with good returns. Why should we change our way of life when we are content? Tell [Chief Minister Devendra] Fadnavis to take industry to his native place. He needs it more. Farmers there are killing themselves. No one has killed themselves here for lack of food.” Her husband, Ashok, says that on an average the alphonso mango gets farmers above Rs.6 lakh in a season from about four hectares. Additionally, families cultivate paddy and lentils.

Farming in the Konkan has always been a profitable venture because of the high-yielding soil and guaranteed rainfall. There is no agricultural distress here and the younger generation willingly continues farming unlike other regions of the State where scanty rainfall and poor irrigation make farming unprofitable.

This is why the local people say that large projects such as RRPCL should be shifted to the more arid zones in the State like Marathwada and Vidarbha. That is wishful thinking because developers of large projects are interested only in coastal locations, which offer logistical conveniences and the financial advantages of sea transport; half of India’s 23 refineries are on the coast.

Gram panchayats’ protest

Gram panchayats have passed resolutions to oppose the project. In May, they came together to hold a protest under the banner of the Konkan Refinery Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti (action committee against the refinery). The group has no blueprint except to prevent the land from being measured and to lend support to each other whenever required. They are worried that some local people have sold barren land to “outsiders”. It dawned on them that a “game plan” was being played out when these outsiders readily agreed to sell land to the government.

Members of the organisation are vociferous in rejecting government interference in their lives. “What help have they given us to build our lives that now they think they can take away our land? If they want to step in then let them help us with marketing our produce,” said farmer Vinay Tare. Farmers who face the threat of losing their land can at least hope for compensation. But for the Kolis and Konkani or Muslim fishing families there is the double danger of losing their fishing territories and access to the beach and going without compensation because most of them are not landowners. Apart from the skills of farming and fishing, the local populace has no other means of earning.

Ketan Bhatkar has a small orchard of about 100 mango trees. The annual earnings are “reasonable”, but he has a large family so he supplements his income with some fishing on the side. “I don’t go out far,” he says, “because my boat is small, but part of whatever I catch is sold in the daily market and part goes home for my family’s meals.” He asserts that “the refinery must not come up”.

But Daya Tandel, who comes from a fishing family, will not have the option to fall back on orchards if the refinery is built.

The region is also rich in biodiversity. In 2011, a panel set up by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and headed by Professor Madhav Gadgil brought out a report on the ecology of the Western Ghats. The report clearly stated that the region was ecologically very sensitive, that it had already taken a beating from polluting industries, and that it was vital to implement conservation measures.

The report took a blanket approach to sector-wise activities that made no concessions to industries or sectors that would further erode the eco-sensitive zone. This strict approach to sector-wise activities did not go down well with the government, which had no doubt hoped for a more “balanced” report that would have allowed exceptions to the rule. Another committee, headed by Dr K. Kasturirangan, was formed to study the Gadgil Commission report. While the Kasturirangan report did not upturn the Gadgil Commission’s recommendations, it did water down certain sections.

The extent to which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government supports the refinery project is evident in Fadnavis’ statement about it being a “zero pollution” project. Not only is this an impossibility in the petrochemical industry, but Fadnavis has no basis for stating this since no comprehensive environmental impact assessment studies have been done. What has been done is the issuance of a notification for land acquisition.

This has enraged the Shiv Sena. Calling the notification a betrayal of the people, Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray has promised that it will be scrapped. The Sena has traditionally had a hold over the Konkan and is even now politically stronger in the region than the BJP. The Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party support the people’s movement against the refinery.

The people of the Konkan are not novices when it comes to protests. As far back as 1992 they had organised themselves against the Enron power project. In the same year, Vedanta’s Sterlite Industries attempted to set up a 60,000-tonne-a-year copper smelting plant on 200 hectares in Ratnagiri but finally had to move to Tamil Nadu. The 9,900-megawatt nuclear power plant at Jaitapur, a joint Indo-French venture,was started in 2009. It is held up only because of issues of cost of electricity from the plant.

Big players

While these movements have been largely successful, people may be up against their most formidable opponent yet. Not only are the partners involved in the refinery project big players but they have the government on their side. Dharmendra Pradhan, Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas, expressed his stand when he said the refinery was very crucial to India’s “growth story”.

The proposed refinery spotlights the new importance of the Indian oil and gas segment. The interest shown by Saudi Aramco and ADNOC in the refinery is an indication of the global allure for India’s oil and gas industry. In a press release, Saudi Aramco said:

“H.E. Dr Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, UAE Minister of State and ADNOC Group CEO, commented: ‘By investing in this project, we will both secure off-take of our crude to a key market for ADNOC, as well as strengthen access in one of the world’s largest and fastest growing refining and petrochemical markets. It underlines our expanded approach to energy partnerships by joining hands with both Saudi Aramco, and our Indian colleagues… to meet India’s projected energy demand growth….’

“Amin H. Nasser, Saudi Aramco president and CEO, emphasised the JV’s long-range focus [saying], ‘World energy demand is expected to grow exponentially by 2050, driven in large part by India…. Saudi Aramco is proud to partner with ADNOC and RRPCL to help ensure that the world’s fastest-growing economy has secure, reliable energy feedstocks for its long-term prosperity. The Ratnagiri project will meet India’s rising demand for fuels and chemical products while serving the strategic objectives of the partners. I am pleased that Saudi Aramco will deepen its engagement in India’s fast-growing oil and gas sector through this project that also positions us for future collaboration here as a key element of our company’s global downstream strategy.’”

The government lends further support to the project by downplaying the business aspect and calling it essential to the national interest because it will support India’s growing energy requirements. What is not said openly is that the refinery will determine India’s reputation with foreign investors. With 2019 being an election year for both the Centre and Maharashtra, there is no doubt that the Ratnagiri refinery will be strongly backed by the government.

Clearly, a David and Goliath battle is in the offing.

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