- Big projects announced in the past five years in the name of development, are expected to do irreversible damage to the environment, villagers, and farmers.
- Activists forced to contest elections to highlight the damage these projects are expected to do.
- Major political parties are turning a blind eye to environmental concerns and problems faced by locals.
Nanar, a small village in the Rajapur tehsil of the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra shot to fame after the central government in 2015 announced the setting up of a refinery and a petrochemicals complex in this village. It was touted that this refinery would be the largest in the world.
The project, estimated to be worth a whopping Rs. three trillion, is a joint venture between the Indian Oil Corporation, Hindustan Petroleum Corporation, Bharat Petroleum Corporation and the Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company. A total of 14,000 acres of land in 14 villages of Ratnagiri and 1,000 acres in two villages of adjoining Sindhudurg district were earmarked for the project. In May 2017, the Maharashtra government announced a notification for land acquisition which was likely to affect 22,000 farmers and 4,500 fishermen in the area.
“This is a battle between life and lifestyle. We tend to run after lifestyle and not living a life. Global warming is the most serious issue before mankind and no government or industry should overlook in the name of development,” said environmentalist and advocate Girish Raut.
Raut is among the few people who are responsible for sensitising the local villagers about the Nanar refinery project’s impending adverse impacts on the people in the region and flora and fauna of the coastal region.
Though the plans to set up the refinery in Nanar are in cold storage (as of now) because of immense opposition from local residents and villagers, they fear that the project is so huge that the government is just buying time and won’t shelve it altogether. They suspect that the government won’t let it go to any other state and once the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and the subsequent assembly elections scheduled in October 2019 are over, the process of land acquisition for the project will gain steam.
Though social activists like Rajendra Phatarpekar and advocate Raut convinced the villagers about the ill-effects the refinery is likely to have on them, their lands and the environment, it was the social fabric of the villages which garnered support against the mega project.
The Nanar proposal lacks clarity
Farm labourers have been cultivating most of the farmlands for generations and they pay a certain share of the farm yield to the original owner of the land.
“The government’s proposal lacked clarity. There was no clear information about how much compensation a farm labourer would get after land acquisition. Also, there have been several examples in the past where the government has acquired the land for a project, and proper compensation has not been paid to the landowner or the farmer,” said a village sarpanch. He requested that his name be withheld citing the sensitivity of the situation. He claims that he was ostracised by his own villagers for initially supporting the project.
To create awareness, Raut took villagers from Nanar to the Mahul area in Mumbai, where a refinery is operational for many years. He highlighted how the refinery has polluted air around the area and how the nearby residents have been suffering from several respiratory and other ailments that are directly connected to the pollution spread by the refinery in Mahul.
Later, a press conference was organised to highlight the plight of residents of Mahul who are suffering from cancer. The move proved highly effective as the villagers started talking about the side effects of the refinery and not about the compensation they would get from the government.
However, another section from the village supports the project and feels it is a lifeline for the Konkan area of Maharashtra. It would bring jobs in the area, they believe and that the Konkan belt will progress economically.
Pandhari Amberkar, an activist, has decided to contest the Lok Sabha elections on the issue of supporting the Nanar Project. His election symbol is the cooking gas cylinder. He believes that to eradicate poverty and unemployment, a project like Nanar refinery will be a boon for the region.
“Every household has at least one unemployed youth. There are no health care facilities in these two districts. There is just one private hospital at Rajapur, which is not enough to provide critical care. More than half the village families have at least one person who is working in Mumbai because they cannot find employment locally. A project like this (Nanar refinery) will not only provide employment, but it will also boost infrastructure in the region,” said Amberkar.
Maharashtra has many more mega-projects in the offing
Maharashtra is considered one of the industrial states in the country and thus has always struggled to strike a balance between environment and development.
In May 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was voted to power at the centre on the agenda of development. The same agenda was repeated a few months later and the BJP came to power in Maharashtra as well. However, in the five years since then, the BJP-led state government has pursued several massive projects in the state that activists consider are potentially environmentally hazardous.
Another such project is the Jaitapur nuclear project in Ratnagiri district, which is being developed in collaboration with a French firm, Areva.
In the past few years, Jaitapur has witnessed several violent protests against the nuclear plant. The project is located at Madban, but it is called the Jaitapur Nuclear Power Plant as Jaitapur is a bigger village. The government has already completed the land acquisition of over 950 hectares of land and currently, the digging work is on. A small building is already constructed as its office at the site. Six reactors, each of 1,650 megawatt, totalling to 9,900 MW are scheduled to be built there.
Amjad Borkar, a staunch opponent of the project, said that the project would prove disastrous for the aquatic and marine life as processed water will be released in the sea which will increase the temperature of sea water.
The plant will require a large quantity of water every day to cool the nuclear radioactive material. Moreover, the plant will use chlorine to clean the pipeline and that chlorine will be released into the water, which will further destroy the marine life of the sea. Around 15,000 fishermen are likely to be affected by the project, informed Borkar, who is a fisherman who is leading the fishermen community.
“Government has acquired land from landowners and declared them as a project affected people. Now, those who have lost their land are getting benefits of government’s policies, but what about fishermen who will lose their livelihood due to the project?” Borkar questioned.
Navi Mumbai airport continues to face opposition
Another mega-project in Maharashtra that is under scrutiny is the Navi Mumbai airport project which is likely to have a massive impact on the ecologically sensitive area of the Sahyadri ranges in the Western Ghats of Maharashtra.
Rajaram Patil, a farmer from Panvel Tehsil, is fighting a lone battle against the mainstream political parties. Patil has filed his nomination papers from Prakash Ambedkar’s political party ‘Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi’ and is contesting the Lok Sabha elections to make a statement.
“I am contesting the election as all the major political parties have failed to protect the interests of the common man and the farmers,” said Patil.
Patil, with a handful of supporters, is trying to convince villagers of the problems with the project. “Land acquisition was carried out by earmarking land using Google Maps. How can anyone determine (using Google Maps) who is cultivating how much land,” Patil wondered.
He said, the state government proposed a 22.5 percent package for landowners, but ignored those who have been cultivating the land for several generations.
“Worst affected are the fishermen. Government is flouting its own norms by dumping tonnes of debris into the sea and destroying the mangroves. CRZ norms are being violated by the government itself,” alleged Patil.
“Over 15,000 fishermen will be jobless if the sensitive aquatic and marine life is destroyed. Unfortunately, fishermen don’t own the sea … hence they cannot claim compensation as project-affected people,” lamented Patil.
Politicians and parties conspicuous by their absence
While smaller parties and activists have thrown their hat in the ring to highlight the dangers of pursuing the mega-projects without taking into account the environmental concerns, surprisingly, none of the mainstream political parties have even mentioned a word about their stand or how do they plan to take these projects forward without harming the environment and taking care of the project affected people.
Recently, the Congress unit of Maharashtra came out with a manifesto exclusively for the environment for the 2019 elections.
“We are of the opinion that development should not be at the cost of the environment. We opposed Jaitapur and Nanar as people’s sentiments were against such projects. Issues of fishermen are very serious, and we will protect their interest once we come into power. Even in our manifesto, we have suggested some changes in the Coastal Regulation Zone Act,” said Sachin Sawant, who is the spokesperson for Congress’s Maharashtra unit.
Banner image: Activists in Maharashtra are fighting the 2019 Lok Sabha elections to highlight the dangers of mega projects in the state. Photo courtesy of Rajan Lad.