Indian activists oppose oil refinery project citing environmental concerns, as protests flare up

Oil Refinery. Patrick Hendry via Unsplash (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In March 2019, following large protests from farmers and environmental activists, the Indian government moved a planned $44 billion ‘green’ oil refinery project out of the ecologically sensitive Nanar region in Ratnagiri on the Konkan coast. Recently, calls from pro-refinery supporters to bring the project back to Ratnagiri have stoked fears among activists and farmers that the project will be reinstated in the area, causing damage to the environment and affecting livelihoods. 

The joint venture between Saudi Arabian oil companies, Aramco and Adnoc, and Indian companies, Indian Oil Corporation, Bharat Petroleum Corporation, and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation was originally relocated following protests from locals and activists who were critical of India's continued investment in fossil fuels. The project was moved to Raigad, 100 kilometers from India's financial capital, Mumbai, as the government announced acquiring 40 villages to kick-start the project.

On 28 July 2019, pro-refinery group Konkan Vikas Samiti (KVS) held a rally demanding that the project be reinstated in Ratnagiri, citing the economic opportunities it would bring to local communities. 

A counter-protest was then held in response by an anti-refinery group to prevent the project. Activists claim India's land acquisition acts were misused to get lands for the project from farmers. For Satyajit Chavan, convenor of Konkan Refinery Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti, the umbrella body leading the protests, reviving the oil refinery project would spell trouble for the region: 

We are being careful and alert to avoid resurrection of the project in Ratnagiri's Nanar as it will destroy farmlands, mango orchards and pose a threat to the wildlife in the region. Investors in the region, who have vested interests are trying to revive the project and have politicized the issue despite the government canceling and relocating it under a gazette notification. This is dangerous.

Ratnagiri's Nanar is known for rocky terrains and creeks that act as a breeding ground for various marine species. The region is also a prominent agricultural area, and thousands of farmers rely on mango orchards and fishing for their survival. Locals fear the region's biodiversity and their livelihoods would be affected by pollution emanating from the refinery project.

Development ruse?

The project is estimated to require around 16,000 acres of land, leaving many local activists to question its claim to be a ‘green’ refinery and a requirement for an emerging economy like India.

“Despite moving the project location from Nanar to Raigad because of environmental impact, would it not create the same problem in Raigad as well?” Social activist Ulka Mahajan asked. 

“The governing party shifted the location but how can they bring it elsewhere and are people of Raigad dispensable? All these issues cannot be questioned in isolation and the government needs to answer if we really need the project and do a cost-benefit analysis.”

While experts say the project, with an estimated output of 1.2 million barrels per day, could offer India steady fuel supplies, others are questioning the pollution it has the potential to generate in Maharashtra's Raigad district. Questions about its impact on fishing hamlets and mango orchids have also been raised.

Prashant Jade, a farmer from Ratnagiri informed Global Voices:

Protests were instigated by groups affiliated with the government to prevent the project from moving out of Nanar. I don’t want this project to come here as Konkan is an eco-sensitive zone with diversity. We don’t follow pollution control norms in India as stringent as in Europe. The project is called green refinery but we know it will be polluting the local environment.

India's land acquisition laws were manipulated, added Ulka Mahajan. India's land acquisition laws mandated consent from at least 70 percent of the affected owners and also required a social impact test. Passed by the parliament in 2013, the law also quadrupled four-fold compensation for rural land, including farmland.

The 2013 central land acquisition faced four ordinances and they could not pass the bill in the parliament. Despite that, they are using the Land Acquisition Act in the name of large scale projects. We don't know who will benefit since the law for the first time had helped weak and voiceless citizens raise their voices regarding their land.

There was some democratic space that gave a platform to voice concerns after social assessment surveys were conducted. This provision has been done away with in an amendment in the state laws. This is against the wishes of farmers and local communities, opines Mahajan. 

India is an oil-dependant economy and over 80 percent of its demands are met from imports from the Middle East,  including Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Analysts say the Iran sanctions and lack of crude from Venezuela have hit the Indian economy, resulting in a slowdown of growth figures.

In 2015, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced a new alliance of nations on a large-scale expansion of solar energy use and said fossil fuels put the planet in peril. While India is trying to diversify and increase its investments into solar and wind energy, projects involving fossil fuels have continued to rise and receive investments unabated. According to Modi: 

Solar technology is evolving, costs are coming down and grid connectivity is improving. The dream of universal access to clean energy is becoming more real. This will be the foundation of the new economy of the new century. 

As India continues to invest locally in dirty fuels, activists and experts are left to question the government's promises to the global community on climate change. 

A local environmental activist who worked with the government, on the condition of anonymity, said the project will put over 50,000 trucks between India's financial capital Mumbai and the Western state of Goa for transport purposes, thereby increasing vehicular pollution and affecting local ecosystems.

For Mahajan, projects like these are short-sighted: 

At the international level, they commit a lot about tackling climate change and focusing on renewables but here, they focus on export-driven trade and GDP and we have environmental losses and loss of livelihood. But will they achieve anything in the near future? 

The sources for the story were interviewed by Vishal M for Global Voices

Vishal is a Climate Tracker South Asia Hub fellow.

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