Battleground Barsu: Ecology versus economy conflict continues in Maharashtra

Protests against a refinery in Barsu have pitted the industrial complex against activists and villagers, putting the State government in a tangle.

Published : May 18, 2023 11:00 IST - 14 MINS READ

Women from Solgaon village protest against the refinery project in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district.

Women from Solgaon village protest against the refinery project in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district. | Photo Credit: Emmanual Yogini

Kashinath Gorle (60) became the face of the local struggle against a refinery to be set up at Barsu in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district, when television cameras caught him valiantly protesting against the project in peak summer heat in front of the Superintendent of Police. The images of Gorle made him a local hero and drew public attention to the issue.

“Till the last breath in this body, I will fight against refinery,” Gorle said. “You will have to see me dead to get the control of the land.” Gorle is a member of the Barsu Solgaon Panchkroshi Refinery Virodhi Sanghatana (BSPRVS), an anti-refinery forum established by residents of villages in the area. This forum opposes the setting up of what is touted as the world’s largest petrochemical refinery and petroleum products hub.

The proposed refinery is targeting an investment of Rs.2 lakh crore and will need 6,000 acres of land. That will directly affect six villages and around 15,000 people. The State government believes that the project will increase direct and indirect employment by creating at least 70,000 jobs. At the same time, environmentalists see it as a major threat to the ecosystem of the ecologically sensitive Konkan region, the site of the refinery. Frontline visited the place and met the protesters as well as officers of Maharashtra’s Industries Department to get an idea about the situation.

What’s the plan?

The refinery project is a joint venture of Indian Oil Corporation Ltd, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd, and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd. These companies set up the Ratnagiri Refinery and Petrochemical Ltd (RRPCL) as a special purpose vehicle in September 2017 to accomplish the project. Also, Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s government-owned entity, and the United Arab Emirates’ Abu Dhabi National Oil Company have expressed interest in partnerships. RRPCL is set to have a 20 million metric tonne per annum (MMTPA) capacity, which could possibly be increased to 60 MMTPA over time.

RRPCL requested the Maharashtra government for land acquisition in mid-2018. The request was forwarded to the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC), which is the authority tasked with acquiring land and handing it over to the concerned entity. Industries Minister Uday Samant, who is also a guardian Minister of Ratnagiri, told Frontline, “Land acquisition will be done by MIDC, and we will hand it over to RRPCL. This is the normal procedure. If the State is getting such a huge investment of Rs.2 lakh crore, it is the job of MIDC to find the suitable land.”

The project will require about 6,000 acres of land, including 1,000 acres for the crude oil terminal, and the western coast is ideal for the smooth transportation of crude from Saudi Arabia to the project site.

To finalise the project site, RRPCL needs a land feasibility report fromEngineers India Ltd (EIL), which will include soil testing. On April 25, EIL engineers began drilling at the site, which villagers and social activists opposed. “Drilling will take place in 76 locations,” said Vandana Kharmale, Regional Officer of MIDC Ratnagiri division. “Out of these, 46 landowners have given consent for the drilling.” The feasibility report is expected to be ready within three months. If the data are positive, the procedure for land acquisition will begin.

Land is likely to be acquired in six villages: Dhopeshwar-Barsu, Solgaon, Gowal, Devache Gothane, Sogamwadi, and Shivane Khurd. On March 6, 2019, the State government issued notice of its intention to set up an industry on 936 hectares (2,313 acres) in these villages; the notice did not mention that it was for a refinery. According to Kharmale, the first project meeting with villagers was held in February 2021. She said that more than 75 per cent of the villagers had given NOCs for the project. Asked why these large number of NOCs had not been made public, Kharmale said, “Right now, we are not doing it because the people protesting are aggressive. So, those who have given permission have requested us to keep it away from the public domain till some time.”

Drilling work is carried out for soil testing as part of the refinery project on Barsu Plateau in Rajapur of Ratnagiri district.

Drilling work is carried out for soil testing as part of the refinery project on Barsu Plateau in Rajapur of Ratnagiri district. | Photo Credit: Emmanual Yogini

The protesters, however, called this MIDC claim “a white lie”. Amol Bole, BSPRVS chairman, said, “The local people who have been toiling on this land for generations have not given a single consent letter. Some people from outside who have bought land here have given consent, but they are not more than 10 per cent.”

Why they say no

The protesters cite three main reasons for opposing the refinery. The first is the threat to the environment. Rajendra Fatarpekar, an environmentalist with the Konkan Vinashkari Prakalpa Virodhi Samiti (KVPVS), presented concerns about possible ecological destruction during a meeting with experts. “This region is highly sensitive ecologically,” Fatarpekar said. “The Madhav Gadgil committee report has already shown that any project which would be disastrous for the environment should not be set up in the Western Ghat zone. This project is in the periphery of the Western Ghats.”

Barsu and the other villages that are part of the project plans are settled in and around the iconic Rajapur Laterite Plateau, which is known for its ecological diversity. More than 140 species of flowers, 55 species of grass, and 40 species of trees are found on the plateau. Of these, a majority of the species are endemic to the plateau.

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Satyajit Chavan, a KVPVS leader, was arrested before the soil testing was done at the site. He said, “The government’s contention that it is barren land is malicious. Orchards with more than five lakh mango trees are there in and around the plateau. They provide livelihood for more than 20,000 people in the area. Then, why does the government want to bulldoze the ecology as well as traditional employment by setting up the refinery here?”

This is the second reason for the opposition. Alphonso mangoes are an iconic product of the Konkan belt, particularly Ratnagiri and adjoining Sindhudurga districts. The villages that would lose land to the project are engaged in Alphonso and cashew cultivation.

As part of Maharashtra’s horticulture policy introduced in 1989 the Konkan belt has seen a substantial rise in farms, with the coastal tehsils of Ratnagiri and Sindhudurga districts focussed on Alphonso cultivation. As per the Horticulture Department, more than 15 lakh Alphonso trees have been planted in these districts in the last 30 years. Many villagers in these areas have been directly or indirectly dependent on the Alphonso economy for the last 20 years.

Alphonso mangoes are an iconic product of the Konkan belt, particularly Ratnagiri and adjoining Sindhudurga districts.

Alphonso mangoes are an iconic product of the Konkan belt, particularly Ratnagiri and adjoining Sindhudurga districts. | Photo Credit: Paul Noronha

Frontline met about 20 owners of mango orchards who have between 40 and 1,000 trees in the six target villages. Prakash Gurav of Solgaon, said, “Today, I earn Rs.2 lakh every year via mango production. Why should I lose this and earn some lakh rupees for one time? How are my sons going to survive if I sell land for the project?” Krishna Arekar has two acres in Shivane Khurd in his father’s name. “I have 40 mango trees, which gives my Rs.2 to 3 lakh a year. I am satisfied with it. Why should I sell it to refinery to become watchman or guard at their gates?” Vasant Taral of Solgaon has 60 cashew and 20 Alphonso trees. He said, “This plantation is from my father’s time. I am happily surviving on it and my next generation will also be happy to work in their own land and earn. We do not need a refinery here to alter our generations-old lifestyle.”

Historical treasures

The third reason is unique to Barsu as well as India. Barsu and the other villages are located in and around the Rajapur Laterite Plateau, which has historical sites of human settlements dating back to the Stone Age.

Around 10 years ago, electrical engineer Sudhir Risbud and his friends Dhananjay Marathe and Surendra Thakurdesai found land carvings, called geoglyphs, in Kasheli village of Rajapur tehsil, which is on the Rajapur Laterite Plateau. A search of the vast areas of the plateau revealed similar prehistoric carvings across the Konkan region. Activists have now found more than 2,000 such geoglyphs, which are in 140 sites of 90 villages across Ratnagiri and Sindhudurga districts. A heavy concentration of these is in Barsu plateau; in the six target villages 180 geoglyphs were found. (A geoglyph is carved on a horizontal surface, like those found in Barsu, and a petroglyph is a carving on a vertical surface like the wall of a cave.)

A geoglyph in Barsu depicts either a man playing with or fearlessly stopping two tigers.

A geoglyph in Barsu depicts either a man playing with or fearlessly stopping two tigers. | Photo Credit: Nisargayatri

Rutwij Apte, an archaeologist who has worked in the area, suggested that the geoglyphs must be 6,000 to 10,000 years old. “The geoglyphs are unique in terms of style and the size. So, the site has been proposed for serial nomination of UNESCO World Heritage. It was proposed in 2021 and is under consideration of UNESCO,” he said.

The largest-known geoglyph in the entire Konkan region is in Barsu. It is 57 feet wide by 17 feet high. These geoglyphs consist of animals that no longer roam the region, like the one-horned rhino, the tiger, and the elephant. Risbud, who found the first geoglyph, said, “These are the proof of human settlement in this area in the Mesolithic Age. Also, it shows which animals we used to see in this area, which perished over time. So these geoglyphs are unique for cultural, historical, and anthropological study of humans.”

Researchers and archaeologists are concerned over bringing a refinery to the area. Satish Lalit, who wrote a book about the region’s geoglyphs, said, “Any damage to these geoglyphs will be damage to human history. There are many sites in India where this project can be taken. All over the world, such unique sites are protected and promoted for tourism. So, why we are pushing a project that could damage this historical treasure?”

What about support?

The refinery does have some supporters, however. Frontline met some people with land in the area who defended the project. Jayant Tukaram Kadam, a villager from Barsu with five acres, is likely to be one of the project-affected persons. He said, “The income from cashew and mango is becoming lesser and lesser. Our next generation can’t survive unless it has supportive income. The refinery could be a good option where a number of opportunities will open up for locals.”

Siddhesh Marathe of Devache Gothane, who has 50 acres, said, “All this fancy picture of environment and traditional employment is false. The Konkani people need new ways of earning. We need jobs. Every time our youths can’t go to Mumbai in search of jobs. We need diversified opportunities here at the local level. Only big industry, like a refinery, can give us that.”

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Hanif Musa Kazi, former Mayor of Rajapur city, has 15 acres in Barsu with about 800 Alphonso trees. He said, “Now, there is no big income from Alphonso like earlier. So, if we do not want to go to Mumbai for work, then we must support big projects. Not just employment, but refinery will create services like schools, hospitals and all. Why should we push it away when there is no hope of development in the present condition?”

The refinery project is expected to provide employment to 70,000 people, and most of them will be skilled at the skill development institution that the RRPCL will set up for local people. The refinery, according to the MIDC, is expected to bring prosperity to the area as multiple projects take shape around the site.

The RRPCL said the project would be a “green refinery”. Plans include sewage water recycling for use within the refinery itself, an online system to control air pollution, and lesser carbon emissions from the oil. The refinery will also develop 33 per cent of its total land as a green zone. The transportation of 80 per cent of the oil will be through underground pipelines.

  • A proposed refinery in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district has triggered protests due to its potential impact on the ecosystem of the ecologically sensitive Konkan region.
  • The refinery project aims to be the world’s largest petrochemical refinery and petroleum products hub and requires 6,000 acres of land, which will affect six villages and around 15,000 people.
  • While the State government sees the project as a source of employment, researchers, archaeologists, and environmentalists are concerned about the impact on historical sites and the ecosystem. The issue has also become a political battleground.

Project politics

Politics over projects in the Konkan region has a long history. Every major project in the last 40 years has faced strong opposition from the local population. The people have also seen politicians flip-flopping over various projects.

The refinery project story goes back to 2016, before Barsu was even selected. The project was originally supposed to be in Nanar, a border village in south Ratnagiri. The project capacity was then declared to be 60 MMTPA. The total land required was almost 14,500 acres. The MIDC identified the site across 17 villages around Nanar. The Konkan region is a traditional Shiv Sena bastion and when the Nanar land was identified, the Shiv Sena’s Subhash Desai was Industries Minister under the Devendra Fadnavis government from 2014-2019.

As soon as protests against the Nanar project started, Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray extended support to the protesters. In January 2018, Thackeray announced that the party would fight solo in future elections. By the end of 2018, however, the BJP desperately needed a Shiv Sena alliance to contest the 2019 Lok Sabha election in the State. So, Nanar became a face-saver for Thackeray to forge a pre-poll alliance with the BJP. The MIDC cancelled the refinery notification in Nanar and Thackeray proclaimed victory. By March 2019, the MIDC announced its intention to proceed with land acquisition in Barsu. Subhash Desai was the Industries Minister then.

Former Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray meets protesters from Solgaon village in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra.

Former Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray meets protesters from Solgaon village in Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra. | Photo Credit: Emmanual Yogini

After the 2019 Maharashtra Assembly election in October, Thackeray switched sides and joined the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party to become the Chief Minister. Subhash Desai became the Industries Minister again. In January 2022, Thackeray sent a letter to the Central government on proposal for land acquisition at Barsu for the refinery project. The gram sabha of the Dhopeshwar-Barsu gram panchayat group passed a resolution against building a refinery in March 2022. The Thackeray government was still in power then and his close confident Anil Parab was Ratnagiri district’s guardian Minister. However, the Thackeray government did not cancel the letter of intention given to the Central government for the land at Barsu.

The Thackeray government fell in June 2022 and Eknath Shinde became the Chief Minister with BJP support. Uday Samant took over as Industries Minister as well as Ratnagiri’s guardian Minister. As protests over the project kicked up again, Thackeray changed his stance again and began to support the protesters. Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis pointed to what he claimed were Thackeray’s double standards and said, “They [Thackerays] are anti-development leaders. People have got to know how they change colours as soon as their position changes.” Asked about the change in his position on the refinery from the one that he took when he was Chief Minister, Thackeray said, “I was misled by the people that the land is barren, and pollution will be less hazardous here.”

This is becoming yet another battle of Thackeray versus Shinde’s Shiv Sena and the BJP. As the Lok Sabha and local body elections are set to be announced soon, both sides are likely to double down on their positions.

Ecology versus economy

The key concern for the Konkan region remains the threat to its ecologically sensitive areas. Veteran environmentalist Madhav Gadgil recently said that the Central Pollution Control Board had hidden the “Zoning Atlas for Sitting of Industries”, which showed that Ratnagiri district had no further capacity to accommodate a polluting industry. The scientific alert regarding the situation was already with the government, he said.

The opposing consideration is the need for industrial development. The Konkan region has only two industries; horticulture and tourism. The region requires more industries to provide opportunities for its youth, which will reduce the continuous migration of local youth to Mumbai or Pune.

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In such a situation, the State government-t needs to navigate the issue carefully and explore options for environment-friendly industries in the region.

Members of the public have reacted strongly to videos of police lathi-charging protesters and of elderly women protesting under the scorching sun. The long history of the struggles of the Konkani Manoos, as people of the region are famously known, tells us that they are stubborn, do not fear the police, and will not be swayed by political pressures. They are ready to take on anyone to fight for their survival.

There is a geoglyph of a man standing with hands outspread in Barsu. There are two tigers near him. The image depicts either a man playing with or fearlessly stopping the tigers. Today, the Konkani Manoos once again stand as courageously against the challenges of the day as their ancestors did thousands of years ago.

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