Bhikaji Shantaram Asolkar (60) of Chouke village in Ratnagiri district is among hundreds of villagers living on the money order that unfailingly arrives from Mumbai each month. His wife, Jayshree, works as a peon in a school in Mumbai. His four children also work there. Asolkar himself was employed in Modern Mill in Mahalaxmi, Mumbai, till the 1980s. Since the mill workers’ strike rendered him jobless as the mill shut down, he has rooted himself in the ancestral home in Asolkarwadi. He cultivates paddy and jackfruit on his family land.
The elderly couple is among the hundreds of villagers voicing their reservations on the Rs 3 lakh crore investments in Konkan through the proposed West Coast oil refinery. Rows of houses across 17 villages have been shortlisted for land acquisition for what is believed to be the country’s biggest oil refinery. Across 238 villages in the Rajapur taluka of Ratnagiri, majority of the houses have at least one family member living in Mumbai to earn a decent living.
There are hundreds of houses, where only elderly couples live to look after the ancestral land and property. Residents say the refinery project may uproot them from their ancestral land and fear losing the local connect. “Yes, we have to work in Mumbai to earn. As we don’t get jobs in villages,” says Jayshree. “Handing over land for the oil refinery will amount to uprooting us from our origins. Every village has its own kuldevta (god to worship). How will the government give us back what we have now?” she says.
At the moment, villagers appeared reconciled to life and family divided between Mumbai and Konkan. They seem to be unwilling to believe that the advent of mega projects can bring development and open new doors of employment in their own villages. Walking with the freshly plucked jackfruit, Asolkar settles down in his two-room house, which was recently extended, with additional top floor to accommodate his children, who live and work in Mumbai. Asolkar says, “We live in ghettos with our extended cousins in village. Our entire family, with married daughters and grandchildren, live in Mumbai. They visit the village three to four times in a year.”
Another resident, Sulochana Keshav Asolkar, took to the streets in protest for five days. “How can I allow the demolition of my newly-built house on the ancestral land?” she asks. “It is priceless,” she adds. In 1992, Ramchandra Yashwant Mandavkar (73), then working in Vidhan Bhawan in Mumbai, took voluntary retirement to return to Chouke. Mandavkar says he completed his ninth standard from Shirolkar High School at Parel in Mumbai. His job at Vidhan Bhawan was to cyclostyle papers which were circulated to the elected members in the state Assembly. He earned a salary of Rs 7,000 per month. “I have seen late chief ministers Vasantdada Patil, Vasantrao Naik, Sudhakarrao Naik,” he recalls.
While guarding his 3.75 acres of land with cashew plantation and a lone mango tree, he points to a distant patch of land, where he cultivates paddy. “My son Kuldeep is working in Vidhan Bhawan as a peon in Mumbai. He gets a good salary.” “In village, the home-grown paddy is enough for my survival,” he adds. Pointing to the little kitchen, Jayshree says, “Even in the worst of time when we have no money, we can still rely on the handful of paddy. We can still survive on rice porridge (rice boiled in water and peppered with salt),” she says. “Every month, I money-order Rs 1,000 to my husband. The rest I require for my self living at Golibar at Kharsubway in Mumbai,” Jayshree adds.