In Chivarwadi in Nanar, one of the 14 villages in Ratnagiri district that would have been affected by the multi-crore Nanar Oil Refinery project, which has since been scrapped by the state government, the agitation against the project may have abated but restlessness lingers among villagers set to cast their vote for the Lok Sabha polls on April 23.
On the wall of a house facing the narrow road of the village on a slope, are words painted in white ‘Konkan bachao, refinery hatao’. For over two years, 40-45 families of Chivarwadi have been among several others who agitated against the refinery in Mumbai, about 450 km from their village, and in Nagpur, about 970 km away, while the state legislative assembly was in session in July 2018.
“We took everyone, our women, little children and travelled. We have been against the project right from the beginning and we opposed it with all our might. If the project is ever proposed again, we will oppose it relentlessly like we did in the past,” said Dattaram Sakharkar.
The oil refinery project was the bone of contention between the erstwhile feuding allies, the BJP and the Shiv Sena. While the Shiv Sena had minced no words in attacking the BJP for mooting the “poisonous” project for the Konkan region allegedly against the wishes of the local people, its scrapping is been construed as a political victory for the Sena after the Devendra Fadnavis-led government axed the project in March, just ahead of the announcement of the saffron alliance to contest the Lok Sabha in a 25-23 seat-sharing arrangement.
The Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg Lok Sabha constituency, in which the villages affected by the proposed refinery project fall, is a seat contested by the Shiv Sena with its incumbent MP Vinayak Raut looking to retain his place in the Lok Sabha. The seat is, however, being watched closely as Raut faces Nilesh Rane, son of Maharashtra Swabhimaan Paksh leader and Konkan strongman Narayan Rane, a BJP MP in the Rajya Sabha. The seat is as much a prestige battle for the Shiv Sena as it is for the Ranes.
While many say that with the project scrapped, the Sena expects its backing for the locals to now translate into votes, not all villagers agree. Click here for more election news
Bhai Samant, of Kumbhavade village, was at the forefront of the protest against the refinery proposed in Nanar. Helming the Refinery Virodhi Shetkari-Machchimar Sangathana, in the last two years, Samant has had meetings with both Fadnavis and Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray.
“We had decided at the outset that whichever political party backs us and helps us get the project canceled, we will support them in the election. The Shiv Sena supported us and Raut supported us.” He said that scrapping of the project has come as a relief but it has not come easy. “Now that the project has been cancelled, we have not won a lottery. It has happened because of our struggle,” said Samant.
The project-affected 14 villages in Ratnagiri district are governed by eight gram panchayats of which seven are under the Shiv Sena and that in Nanar has a Congress sarpanch Omkar Desai.
His mother Radha Desai said, “The way the project was canceled just ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, it has created a doubt in our mind that it may still return at a later stage. It is possible that if the BJP returns to power, the project may also return. We don’t know why Fadnavis was so keen on this project. And when the project was proposed wasn’t it a Shiv Sena industries minister who had agreed to go ahead with it?”
The villagers have never fallen for the employment generation pitch that the BJP-led government in Maharashtra had made. “Every mango farmer who owns land that would have been project-affected, does very well for himself. Most mango farmers own hundreds of trees and they, in fact, employ several people from other states to work in their orchards. Nobody who lives here is in the need of employment,” said Samant.
“Don’t go by the way they dress. Each of these mango orchard owners makes about Rs 2 lakh to Rs 5 lakh in two months,” said Prabhakar Pujare from Chivarwadi.
The villagers say that their movement was never against development. Their peeve was mainly the ‘destruction of the environment’ allegedly under the garb of employment generation. “If you are going to destroy our trees, what is the meaning of calling it a green refinery? Why can’t you do that in industries allied to farming and fishing in this region?”said Radha Desai.
The concern over rise in temperatures in the vicinity of an oil refinery and its effect on mango production also had the villagers worried.
As the aroma of freshly plucked mangoes being packed into boxes for sale filled his home, Samant explained, “Mangoes are very sensitive to temperature. Anything above 35 degree Celsius, and the fruit quality will start taking a hit.”
Sakharkhar sums it up. “We are satisfied that the project has been canceled but we are still alert. We are watching the movements in government offices and if we have to fight again, we are fully prepared for it.”
Samant, however, feels that it is time to close this chapter. “After our next meeting, we will dissolve the Refinery Virodhi Shetkari-Machchimar Sangathana.”
The axed project
The Centre and the Maharashtra government had approved the proposal to build the refinery in December 2015. The project was expected to attract long-term investments worth Rs 3 lakh crore and generate one lakh jobs. On June 25, 2018 an Indian consortium of Indian Oil Corporation, Bharat Petroleum Corporation and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation signed an MoU with Saudi Aramco — a Saudi Arabian petroleum and natural gas company — to jointly develop and build an integrated refinery and petro-chemical complex, Ratnagiri Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd, in Maharashtra.
Fourteen villages in Ratnagiri and two in Sindhudurg had been identified for the project. They included Nanar, Sagwe, Taral, Karsinghewadi, Vadapalle, Villye, Palekarwadi, Katradevi, Karvine, Chowke, Upade, Padwe, Sakhar, Gothiware, Girye and Rameshwar. The total land required for the project from these 17 villages was 14,675 acres (5,870 hectares). Out of this, the government land, which would be acquired, is only 126 acres (52 hectares).