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 chant that can be heard from door to door across villages in Ratnagiri district’s Rajapur taluka, and yet, have not reached the ears of the current Maharashtra government. On April 22, activists Satyajit Chavan and Mangesh Chavan, who have been actively involved in the movement against the Barsu-Solgaon refinery project in villages in Ratnagiri district’s Rajapur taluka, were detained by Ratnagiri police. The above-mentioned activists were placed in preventive detention, according to Ratnagiri Police Station In-Charge Surve, a female officer who preferred to not divulge her first name, as the administration was set to begin a survey of the proposed area for the refinery in the Barsu-Solgaon surroundings, something that the villagers have been opposing vehemently for the past two years.
According to the Indie Journal, Surve also stated that the two activists have long been involved in protests in the districts, and were also involved in Jaitapur protests. Due to this, they have been placed in preventive detention in order to avoid any untoward incidents. When asked if they would be held until the survey was completed, she stated that it was up to the court.
Referring to the aforementioned detention, Deepak Joshi, an activist and Goval resident, told the Indie Journal that they learned late Saturday night that Satyajit and Mangesh had been detained. They had been at the police station since the morning and have been trying to find out more, but have not been able to get any information.
Prior to this imposition of section 144, a few says ago, many activists, including Satyajit, had called on Konkan residents to come to Rajapur and protest the survey in solidarity with the residents of Barsu-Solgaon as the survey discussion had begun in the region at the time.
He had spoken to Indie Journal at the time, and had said that “In order to get approvals to start the project, the government needs to submit a pre-feasibility report to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF & CC). They came to the villages to try and conduct the survey multiple times in June and August last year, but the people did not let them. It seems that the government is under pressure to take things ahead now, and hence they are trying to conduct the survey using the police force.”
Activist under attack for exercising their right to protest
This is not Satyajit’s first legal stumbling block since the movement began, he had already been fighting an externment notice from the district, along with a few other activists. Satyajit Chavan has been extensively working in the villages surrounding Barsu-Solgaon, where the Saudi-Aramco-backed fossil fuel petrochemical project was relocated after it was withdrawn from the original Nanar site, which was only 50 kilometers away, due to strong local opposition. He has been an active participant in regional environmental and human rights movements, beginning with the district’s opposition to the Jaitapur nuclear power project.
Kamlakar Gurav, another activist who resides in Devache Gothane and is a part of the Barsu-Solgaon Panchakroshi, provided that even though Mangesh was not as actively involved in the protest against the refinery project as Satyajit this time, he was more active at the time of Jaitapur, he has still been detained by the authorities.
Additionally, the police have also targeted Amol Bole, a Shivane resident and the President of the Barsu Solgaon Refinery Virodhi Sanghatana. The Tehsil administration and the Rajapur Magistrate’s Office issued an order stating that ‘Drilling work is to begin at the proposed site, and Amol Ramesh Bole is prohibited from entering or moving around Rajapur Taluka,’ as provided by the Indie Journal.
It is essential to note that the Tehsil administration has prohibited public movement and gathering within a one-kilometer radius of the drilling site at Barsu Sada, Barsu, Panhale Tarfe Rajapur, Dhopeshwar, Goval, and Khalchi Wadi Goval from April 22 to May 1, invoking Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code.
In February 2023, following the use of intimidation tactics against protesters opposing the said project, journalist Shashikant Varishe, who had been actively reporting the issue, was murdered after being run over by an influential refinery supporter, hours after the journalist published a news report against the latter. Amberkar, who was driving his vehicle Mahindra Thar, reportedly ran over Varishe, who was standing by his two-wheeler vehicle Activa near the Mangal Gas Agency Indian Oil Petrol Pump in Rajapur.
Varishe had published a report in the local newspaper Dainik Mahanagari Times the same day he was attacked, referring to Amberkar as an “accused in serious offences.” as provided by his report, Amberkar has previously been arrested for intimidating and assaulting people opposing the Nanar refinery project, and now the Barsu-Solgaon refinery project. He had also placed banners in the nearby Angnewadi village expressing his support for the refinery. His photograph was displayed alongside that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chief Minister Eknath Shinde, and Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis on banners. Varishe had questioned in his report how the government is associated with someone accused of such serious crimes.
According to the Indie Journal, the Gram Panchayats in the Barsu-Solgaon region had also passed resolutions stating that the surveys will not be conducted in the region, and had submitted the same to the Ratnagiri District Collector Office. As a result, the District Collector, Devender Singh, had organized a meeting with protesters and refinery supporters in Rajapur on April 22. However, because the protestors were only informed 30 minutes before the meeting time, many people who wanted to attend could not get to Rajapur on such short notice, and only four protesters arrived. Meanwhile, supporters of the refinery were out in force.
According to one activist, as reported by the Indie Journal, unsurprisingly, the Collector devoted more time to listen to supporters and barely listened to protestors, indicating that the administration was adamant about conducting the survey here no matter what.
The activists believe that detaining activists is a strategy to keep them away from both the protesters and the movement if the survey is conducted. “We are going to ensure that the survey will not take place. We will continue to oppose the project peacefully,” the activists said, according to the Indie Journal.
Background of the refinery
The Ratnagiri Refinery and Petrochemical Project, proposed in 2014 by the Modi government and the Maharashtra BJP-Shiv Sena government, has been endorsed as Asia’s largest oil refinery. It was supposed to be a joint venture between three Indian PSUs – Indian Oil, HPCL, and BPCL – and Saudi Arabia’s Aramco and the National Oil Company of the United Arab Emirates.
The project was proposed to be located in Nanar over a 200-square-kilometer area. While land-grabbers, speculators, and BJP leaders eager to expand the party’s presence in the Konkan region embraced the project concept, locals and activists led protests against the proposed project, citing concerns that the Konkan area has already been overloaded and overcrowded with several major plants, which has already resulted in the environment taking a heavy toll.
It is important to note that, since the Tarapur nuclear power plant was built in 1969, a slew of projects have sprung up along the coast, polluting the air and discharging hazardous effluents into the creeks without treatment. Locals and activists have highlighted time and again that all of these projects have wreaked havoc on the environment, resulting in massive water and air pollution, the destruction of local livelihood chains, and massive displacement and dispossession of people. As a result, each project has been the subject of lengthy protests since its inception, with an increasing number of people feeling the adverse effects.
It is also worth noting that previously, in the face of growing public opposition, the Shiv Sena had insisted on the project’s cancellation, and the BJP had been forced to accept the demands of the Shiv Sena and cancel the project. However, with the BJP regaining power by splitting the Shiv Sena, the Shinde-Fadnavis government had announced its intention to restart the project. Previously, the Uddhav Thackeray government proposed downsizing the project and relocating it north of the old site, adjacent to the Jaitapur project, in the Barsu-Solgaon-Devache Ghotane area. Despite the outrage and criticism, the Shinde government had revived the original project idea last year.
A few months ago, in November 2022, the government sent armed police personnel of the Rapid Action Force (RAF) and the Riot Control Police to carry out a route march in Rajapur and the surrounding villages where the refinery is planned. Along with Rajapur police, 60 RAF personnel and 29 Riot Control personnel were part of this march.