Site of the Ratnagiri petrochemicals project: Uncertain ground

The livelihoods of several thousand farmers and fishermen hang in the balance as the powers that be decide on the site of what will be India’s largest refinery and the world’s biggest single-location integrated refinery and petrochemicals project.

Published : Aug 07, 2019 07:00 IST

People of Nanar, Ratnagiri district, in no mood to give way to government officers who are measuring land for the refinery project. A file photograph.

People of Nanar, Ratnagiri district, in no mood to give way to government officers who are measuring land for the refinery project. A file photograph.

THE controversy over the location of what was called the Ratnagiri Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd oil refinery project was considered over and done with when the Shiv Sena threw its weight behind the protesters, who said the project would kill their livelihoods. A few days before the Lok Sabha election, the Maharashtra government made a formal declaration that the project site would be changed. And Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis formally announced in the monsoon session of the State legislature that a vast parcel of land was being acquired and developed in Raigad district for the purpose. It was believed that the refinery would shift to that site. However, there are now indications that the refinery may remain at its original site of Nanar in Ratnagiri district.

Leaders of the Konkan Vikas Samiti (KVS), which claims to promote development of the Konkan, held a press conference in Mumbai on July 15 demanding that the project stay in Nanar. Their basic concern is employment. Avinash Mahajan of the KVS said the refinery would provide employment to 1.5 lakh people. He said members of the KVS would march to the Ratnagiri Collector’s office on July 20 to put forward their demands. The Konkan Vinashkari Prakalp Virodhi Samiti, a group against the refinery project, said it would also go to the Collector’s office to present its point of view.

The reason for the sudden change in the scheme of things is not clear. Raigad, about 100 kilometres from Mumbai, would seem to suit the project’s promoters more than the Nanar site. It is within a zone of well-developed infrastructure in an already industrialised region, and the project is unlikely to run into any controversy. Fadnavis had already tasked the State-run City and Industrial Development Corporation with the job of acquiring land from about 40 villages in Raigad for the mega project. More than 13,000 hectares of land will be acquired and clubbed together to be called an integrated industrial cluster. The government said that up to now there had been no opposition to the project or to the proposed land acquisition.

The refinery project is a Rs.3 lakh crore venture. It is India’s largest investment project and, when completed, will be among the six largest refineries in the world. The state-run firms Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd and Indian Oil Corporation Ltd are the project promoters. In April 2018, they signed a memorandum of understanding with the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Saudi Aramco), the world’s largest oil producer, and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), the world’s 12th largest oil producer.

The refinery is projected to produce 1.2 million barrels of oil a day and, along with the petrochemical plants associated with it at the same location, will also produce 18 million tonnes of petrochemicals a year. When completed, it will be India’s largest refinery and the world’s biggest single-location integrated refinery and petrochemicals project. It is expected to bring some stability to the oil industry in the region. Essentially, this means that Saudi Aramco and ADNOC will have regular buyers for their oil, and India will hopefully have a steady supply of fuel.

However, none of these grandiose plans has mollifed the people of Nanar. When Nanar was announced as the initial location of the project and land acquisition began, the local people rose in a well-organised protest. They refused the high rates the government was willing to give for their land, saying they wanted their traditional livelihoods of farming and fishing to be protected. Apart from State-owned land the project would have affected more than 6,000 hectares of privately owned land, most of which is agricultural. It would have meant the destruction of at least 14 lakh mango trees, seven lakh cashew trees and more than 500 acres (one acre = 0.4 hectare) of paddy. This would have annihilated the livelihoods of approximately 22,000 farmers and 5,000 fishermen.

Political games

Interestingly, when the plan to use the Nanar site was scrapped, it could not be considered a victory for the protesters. If the State government had decided that Nanar was to be the project location, very little would have stopped the refinery from coming up there. Instead, the villagers can thank the games that are now so firmly a part of Maharashtra’s politics. In the run-up to the Lok Sabha election, the Shiv Sena took up the cause of the villagers and assured them that the refinery would be shifted and their livelihood and lifestyle would be safe. The Sena was resolute about not allowing the project at this location. The Bharatiya Janata Party was equally resolute in pushing it through. The party was so determined in fact that Fadnavis at one point even referred to it as a zero-polluting project. It seemed to be a standoff. The breakthrough apparently came when negotiations were on between the BJP and the Sena over continuing their partnership and fighting the 2019 Lok Sabha election as an alliance. An agreement that the refinery project would be scrapped in Nanar and built elsewheres was part of the negotiations to persuade the Sena to continue with the partnership.

The Konkan is a Sena bastion. In fact, Vinayak Raut, the sitting Sena MP from the Sindhudurg-Ratnagiri seat (which represents Nanar), retained his seat in the recent Lok Sabha election because of the stand his party took against the refinery project. Raut is very clear about this himself, unabashedly attributing his win to the Sena’s opposition to the project.

Alphonso mango orchards

Shifting the project site from Nanar meant that the famed Alphonso mango and cashew orchards would remain and that the livelihoods of the local people, so intrinsically linked to horticulture and the sea for generations, would be safeguarded. But perhaps most of all, the larger environment in the region could have breathed a sigh of relief. The Western Ghats, which border the area, are decimated in some sectors and under threat in others. Stopping this gigantic refinery project was seen as a definite plus point from all points of view. But there has clearly been a change of heart for some in the period between the Lok Sabha election and the soon to be held Assembly elections.

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