FAZAL ABBAS Solkar (55), a fisherman from Ingelwadi village in Nanar is up in arms against the West Coast Oil Refinery. Almost 2,900 villagers, who are into fishing like their ancestors, are neither losing their land nor homes to the proposed greenfield oil refinery at Nanar in Ratnagiri district in the Konkan region. Yet, they are in the forefront leading the anti-refinery agitation fearing the oil refinery effluent would lead to sea pollution, robbing them of their livelihood.
Solkar, who has mastered the fishing trade over the last three decades, earns Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000 daily. The fisherman, who attended the Urdu Nanar School till Class VII, believes that the refinery would be detrimental to fishing along the coastal creek. The project, he says would force them to venture deep sea, which would make their earnings uncertain. Across Nanar, fishermen to farmers have joined hands to protest the project. Even a single voice in support of the refinery is immediately silenced or invites a social boycott. The Centre and the Maharashtra government had approved the proposal to build the refinery in December 2015.
The refinery is being promoted by three state-owned companies — Indian Oil Corporation Limited, Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL) and Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL). It is estimated to bring investments worth Rs 3 lakh crore and generate one lakh jobs. However, the government’s pitch of development has failed to strike a chord with the villagers. Salman Solkar, who owns a big fishing boat, employing eight persons, warns: “There is no question of allowing any pro-refinery sentiment. Anybody trying to debate invites even physical attack, as people fear big projects would destabilise their trade.”
The signs of social acrimony is evident as villager Pandharnath Ambellkar’s support to the refinery at a village get-together had proved costly. Ambellkar (25) from Kumbhavade had tried to reason how mega projects would boost Konkan’s welfare. Following this, the villagers had decided not to travel in his luxury buses plying daily between Ratnagiri to Mumbai. He has also been asked not to use the well for cleaning buses.
Another farmer, Ramesh Raghunath Kirkire of Nanar, who cultivates mangoes on 10 acres, had given the nod for a survey on his land that was shortlisted for acquisition. The villagers cut off all communication and stopped inviting him for meetings. His uncle, a doctor in the neighbourhood, also faced their wrath for a few weeks, as people sought out doctors in the neighbouring village.
Harishchandra Ganpat Shinde (29), a marginal farmer in Dattawadi village, has taken an oath in the presence of ‘gram devta’ (village temple diety) not to part with an inch of land. Apart from his own land, he labours on his cousin’s land. Living in the comforts of a sprawling home, Shinde believes parting with his ancestral home and land was unwise even if it promises him crores.
The majority of the 17 villages across Rajapur taluka in Ratnagiri are fiercely but silently waging a battle against the government’s decision to acquire land. Huddled in village temples, a handful of decision-makers ensure that villagers take an oath in the presence of the ‘gram devta’ not to part with their land and homes. It follows with strict unwritten guidelines that anybody who violates the rules would face consequences. The rules transcend beyond villages and applies to their kith and kin, who have migrated to Mumbai for jobs.
Shinde justifies the decision. “We have taken the oath collectively. All villages that would be impacted by the refinery have come together to form a mandal (committee) that regularly meets and takes decision. At present, we get at least a decent meal to survive on homegrown paddy, some vegetables and fruits. Once we lose our land and home, who will feed us… In any case, we don’t want a job.”
At present, the land acquisition process has come to a standstill. In all, 17 villages have been identified for the project. They are Nanar, Sagwe, Taral, Karsinghewadi, Vadapalle, Villye, Dattawadi, Padekarwadi, Katradevi, Karvine, Chowke, Upade, Padwe, Sakhar, Gothiware, Girye and Rameshwar. The total land required for the project from these 17 villages is 14,675 acres (5,870 hectares). Out of this, the government land, which would be acquired, is only 126 acres (52 hectares). The entire stretch dotted with the 17 villages is not entirely founded on hard rock. It has huge parcels of green flora and fauna. The hard rocks that are used for laterite stone mining is dotted with green mango orchids and cluster of cashew plantation is difficult to skip.
What has troubled the villagers is the uncertainty that stems from relocation. Almost each of 42,000 villagers who has been served notice for land acquisition owns an ancestral house, which has been in existence for almost 50 to 100 years. A young chartered account, Nilesh Patenkar, who has been affected by the project, says: “The villagers’ protest is an outcome of unexplained fear, which has been instilled in their minds unscientifically… I am going to lose 64 acres of ancestral land and a farm house. Now, this is rock hard land where mango plantation has to be done using the blasting technique, which was economically unviable.”
More than 60 per cent of the land stretched across Nanar to Padwe village has hard rock, which is non-fertile. This has resulted in higher investments and low returns. “People are not against development. Majority are in a dilemma, as they have not been appraised properly about their rehabilitation or remuneration for the land and house acquired,” Patenkar says.
Though Vidhyadar Rane of Katradevi village has taken an anti-refinery stand, he admits: “Mango farming is economically not feasible. Earlier, we could look after a family of five with just five mango plants. Today, even a big farmer like me faces financial constrains because of higher investment costs.” Bhalchandra Haldankar, sarpanch of Taral village, says: “We have to redefine what is development. What are we going to do when we have no land or home. How long will Rs 1 crore last? Here nobody sleeps hungry. We don’t have to beg for food.”
While admitting that any pro-refinery tone invited hostility, Ananth Prabhu Desai, another resident of Taral, wonders how a village gram panchayat can enforce a ban on people willing to sell their land. “During the last 10 years, I have been trying to sell my land and the price quoted was only Rs 68,000 per acre. The project talks helped boost the price to Rs 14 to 17 lakh per acre. Now, why should we complain if my land acquired for project fetches up to Rs 40 lakh per acre,” asks Desai.
Refinery Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti chief Bhai Samant warns, “The refinery will lead to increase in temperature by 5 to 6 degrees Celsius, which is detrimental for mangoes. The environment hazards will be disastrous for entire Konkan.” However, Kailash Goankar, president of Green Refinery Petrol Chemical Samanvay Samiti, dismisses the concerns.
“Land acquisition will not impact more than a couple of lakh mango trees grown on hard rock, which is expensive farming. Secondly, we are fighting for better rehabilitation and higher compensation that would help villagers. The project will bring new allied businesses and infrastructure in the region.”