Refinery prakalp, yei Kokanat ho, kara virodh virodh, kara virodha. (The refinery project that’s arriving in Konkan, let’s oppose, let’s oppose.)

This was the festive chant ringing door-to-door across villages in the Rajapur taluka of Ratnagiri district during the Ganpati festival in September.

Each year, people from the district, working in Mumbai, make their way homeward to Rajapur during the festive season. This year, the celebrations were flavoured with opposition to the proposed oil refinery, set to be the world’s largest single-location refinery complex.

Many of the young people who had come home, together with the local residents, coordinated protests against the refinery. Each hamlet and wadi in the Rajapur taluka stood united, hoisting opposition banners and chanting protest slogans, alongside bhajans (devotional songs) throughout the five-day religious festival.

This year, the Ganpati festival in the Rajapur taluka of the Ratnagiri district was different. Bhajans (devotional songs) were sung, but they were not just about god. A group of villagers sang bhajans specially written to create awareness about the oil refinery and expressing protest. Credit: Abhijeet Gurjar/Mongabay.

What has happened

Speaking at the Energy Technology Meet held at Mumbai on September 15, Union Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas Hardeep Singh Puri mentioned that the stalled oil refinery project in Ratnagiri will be revived, in a bid to make India energy independent. Since 2018, the stalled West Coast refinery project in Maharashtra has hit roadblocks due to land acquisition hurdles.

“We sent out feelers to everyone, and the feedback has been positive so far. The project might be built elsewhere in Maharashtra or any other west coast state, or in a southern state. We are also considering splitting the project into two or more areas, but it would be better if the Rs 3 lakh crore (Rs 3 trillion) project could be completed at a single location,” Puri said at the meeting, adding that neither the state nor investors had made any real proposals to him at that point.

Meanwhile on the ground, the protests have heightened as the people are concerned that after the power shift in Maharashtra, there have been fresh signs to revive the oil refinery project.

Delayed for years

A total of 11 villages are set to be affected by the project. Among these are Barasu, Solgaon, Goval, Devache Gothane, Shivane Khurd, Sogamwadi, Rautwadi and others that are located around the Arjuna river in the Rajarpur taluka.

With a total investment of Rs three lakh crore (Rs three trillion), the refinery complex will be spread across 15,000 acres. Once built, it is projected to process 1.2 million barrels of crude oil per day, translating to around 60 million metric tonnes per annum.

A total of 11 villages are set to be affected by the oil refinery project. Credit: Abhijeet Gurjar/Mongabay.

The Saudi Arabian Oil Company, better known as Saudi Aramco and the UAE-based Abu Dhabi National Oil Company hold 50% stake in the proposed refinery. Apart from this, the promoter Indian Oil Corporation Limited holds 25% with the rest of the 25% stake being held by Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited.

The project was earlier proposed at Nanar village in the Rajapur taluka in 2014. A survey was undertaken, along with soil testing and the submission of a feasibility report and environmental permissions. However, the project came to a standstill because of protests over land acquisition. It was later proposed at Barsu and Solgaon, the other side of Nanar near the Jaitapur Atomic project.

Claims have been made by project proponents that the project will generate over 15,000 direct and 50,000 indirect jobs, with over one lakh (1,00,000) job opportunities during the plant’s construction.

Villagers’ concerns

Coming together under the banner of the Konkan Vinashkari Prakalp Virodhi Samiti, an opposition committee, Rajapur taluka’s residents have raised several concerns over the project, one of which they claim is that this is a highly polluting ‘red category’ project which the government claims is ‘green’.

Apart from health-related issues caused by the project, villagers are concerned that the polluting gases can harm the mango cultivation in the region which witnesses an annual turnover of Rs 2,200 crore (Rs 22 billion) for the district. They also claim that the project will be a threat to the 30,000-year-old prehistoric geoglyphs, which are art or motifs on stones, gravel, earth and other elements of the landscape.

Geoglyphs have been first recorded across the district in 2015 by naturalist Sudhir Risbud and his team from the Ratnagiri-based NGO Nisargyatri Sanstha. Since then, the team has found a cluster of geoglyphs of over 40 at a single site. They continued exploring and preserving these geoglyphs, discovering over 1,000 spread across the region. Over the years, these geoglyphs, some of them measuring over 30-feet tall, attract thousands of tourists from around the world. The art depicts stories, with signs and symbols like eagles, falcons, kites, egret and peafowl, peacock, elephants, monkey, fish and deer.

A geoglyph of a fish. There are several geoglyphs across the district of Ratnagiri. Credit: Abhijeet Gurjar/Mongabay.

Other apprehensions include oil spillages and leakages, waste material discharge in sea that can potentially harm aquatic life and the biodiversity of Konkan, ultimately hampering the source of daily livelihood for the local fisherfolk.

Ratnagiri’s fisheries

A research paper by academician Swapnaja Mohite titled “Status of Fisherwomen Cooperative Societies in Ratnagiri district”, published in January 2008, underscores the significance of Ratnagiri’s abundance in marine wealth and its deep ties with the local fishing community.

With a 167-km coastline, Ratnagiri district has 6,600 sq m of continental shelf area and a potential fishing region up to 40 fathoms translating to 2,910 sq km From about 40 fathoms-100 fathoms, the area available is 3,690 sq km.

There are 118 registered fishery cooperative societies, of which 15 are closed as of now according to fisheries state department reports published in 2021.

Ratnagiri has a thriving fishing industry which is predominantly women-driven. With a 167-km coastline, Ratnagiri district has 6,600 sq m of continental shelf area. Credit: Abhijeet Gurjar/Mongabay.

The thriving industry includes 99 fishing villages spread along the coastal plains. The district has 11 major and 37 minor landing centres. Fishing households in the region number 9,488, with the male population at 13,541 and female population of 14,335 indicating a predominantly woman-driven fisheries industry. The major marine catch comprises mackerel, pomfret, seerfish, ribbonfish, shrimp, lobster, mussle, clams, oysters, etc. Around 44% of the total catch also constitutes low-price species like dhoma, pink perch, siganus among others.

Resolution against refinery

Back at the village, local residents have put forth a resolution opposing the project, registering their protest that they started last year. What amplified the protests this year was unauthorised persons, which the local residents claim are hired by oil refineries, starting land surveys and soil testing. Protesting villagers prevented them from carrying out these exercises.

“The golden sand and rich biodiversity of our villages is our heritage, and we fear to lose it for the oil refinery project,” said Ambolgad resident, Sachin Parkar, active with the Konkan Vinashkari Prakalp Virodhi Samiti.

Voicing his concerns over the project, Parkar said the refinery complex would release hazardous chemicals and gases like nitrates and sulphates, which in turn would contaminate villages nearby. “Pollution caused by the waste released into the sea will affect the fish, adversely impacting our traditional fisheries business.”

A village meeting in Goval, in which the next strategies for the protest were discussed. Credit: Abhijeet Gurjar/Mongabay.

Parkar said the Ambolgad village panchayat passed the resolution to oppose the refinery. “We met many politicians and local leaders regarding this refinery but could not gather their support. We will continue our fight to protect our village and the sea.”

An activist based in Wada Tiware, Nandu Haldankar, said the government was taking a contradictory stand by setting up the refinery in a tourism-dominated area.

Citing Ambolgad’s rich biodiversity, Haldankar said the area is a major mating habitat for fish. “Fishing trawlers from Kerala, Gujarat and other neighbouring states often visit Ambolgad’s waters. The proposed crude oil terminal near Ambolgad will not allow our fisherfolk to sail into the sea. A large chunk of the population from Sakrinatye, Natye, Ambolgad, Wada Tiware, Wada Vyetye and Banchawada villages are predominantly fisherfolk who will be majorly hit by unemployment.”

According to Haldankar, another reason for the area to be preserved is the number of geoglyphs on the laterite plateau, locally called sada and on the tentative lists (an inventory of those properties which each State Party intends to consider for nomination) of Unesco World Heritage Sites. “Historically, this area is valuable to the Konkan region and needs to be preserved.”

A geoglyph of parrots in Ratnagiri. These geoglyphs are tentatively listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Credit: Abhijeet Gurjar/Mongabay.

According to Sakrinatye resident, Majid Abdullatif Govalkar, the village has over 500 fisherfolk. “I have around 50 workers employed on my boat. If the refinery project becomes a reality, we will all be badly hit.”

Elaborating on how they will be affected, Govalkar said, “Heavy steamers docked in the area will block our gateway to the sea. We would either have to take a longer route, adding five hours as against the existing five-minute boat ride. This will trigger a major loss in our business.”

He warned of further protests if the government went ahead with the projects. “This is our daily livelihood, our ‘bread and butter’ which is at stake. There are around 500 of us, and each one of us additionally generates employment for around 50 employees. Adding this up, it comes to thousands who are ultimately affected.”

Safer Fansabdar, a fisherman from Sakrinatye, echoed similar sentiments saying, “This refinery will impose restrictions for our boats to enter and exit into the sea.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.