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Land, Lies And Betrayal: Barsu Farmers Battle Against Refinery Project And Alleged Government Scandals

In the quiet village of Barsu, Maharashtra, a relentless battle rages on as determined farmers unite to fight against a proposed petrochemical refinery project. However, this protest is more than just a plea to protect their land and livelihoods; it has unveiled a web of deceit, betrayal, and alleged government scandals.

By Pavitra Utgikar
New Update

Women protest in Barsu, Maharashtra, against the proposed oil refinery project | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement 

“We farmers have been cheated of our lands. Nobody knew about the refinery. People thought that they were giving land to the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC),” says Kashinath Gorle, a farmer from Barsu in Maharashtra. Kashnath Gorle has been protesting against the refinery to be set up at Barsu, a village in the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra. Barsu, like many other villages in the region, is filled with lush green fields and hills, and the prime occupation of people in the region is agriculture. In recent times, the farmers of Barsu have turned the village into a pitch battleground against the refinery project.

“It’s a story of betrayal, of shattered dreams and broken promises. We, the hardworking farmers, have invested our blood, sweat, and tears into cultivating these lands, nurturing them for generations. Our connection to the soil runs deep, and it is our lifeblood, but our lands have been taken away. We have been duped,” rues Gorle.

Gorle is also an active member of the Barsu Solgaon Panchkroshi Refinery Virodhi Sanghatana (BSPRVS). This organisation has been at the forefront of the protest against the refinery project. The project, known as the Ratnagiri Refinery and Petrochemical Ltd (RRPCL), is a joint venture between Saudi Aramco and other partners such as the Indian Oil Corporation Ltd (IOCL), Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd (BPCL), and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd (HPCL). Its objective is to establish the world’s largest petrochemical refinery and petroleum products hub. The project would require 6000 acres of land, affecting six villages and around 15,000 people. However, the Maharashtra government sees the project as a source of employment. 

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The Ratnagiri Refinery and Petrochemical Ltd (RRPCL) was established in 2017, raising local concerns about the potential environmental, social, and economic impacts of such a massive industrial undertaking. The refinery project has led to the acquisition of vast tracts of land, including the lands of farmers like Kashinath Gorle, causing displacement and a loss of livelihoods.

Amol Bole, the President of BSPRVS, says that the protesters were arrested and faced harsh treatment. He recounts his own experience of being picked up by the police while he was on his farm. “The manner in which the police chanted ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai,’ during our arrests gave the impression that the peaceful protesters were anti-nationals and terrorists.”

According to Bole, the protestors were charged under section 353 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which pertains to obstructing a public servant from carrying out their duties. However, he asserts that there was no interference with any government official’s duty. Bole further alleges that the police resorted to lathi charges, deploying tear gas and restraining those at the forefront of the protests. Additionally, media access to the protest site was restricted, with police forcibly removing journalists. 

“The soil testing, a necessary step for the refinery project, was conducted under the presence of a large number of police personnel. Approximately 3,500 to 4,000 police personnel from the Maharashtra police force were deployed for the soil testing operation. Our protests have not ceased, and the completion of soil testing does not signify the readiness of the oil refinery project,” states Bole.

The protestors hold deep concerns regarding the potentially irreversible damage to the pristine environment that has long sustained their livelihoods should the refinery project proceed. The region in question is highly ecologically sensitive, intensifying worries about possible ecological destruction if the project moves forward. In a report sent to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, renowned environmentalist Madhav Gadgil has said that the government itself has said in its Ratnagiri Zonal Atlas for Industries paper that there should not be further projects in the region as it would lead to environmental pollution.

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Amol Bole further highlights a distressing aspect of the land acquisition process, where the farmers were compelled to sell their land to outsiders at significantly reduced prices. Subsequently, these lands were resold at exorbitant rates, exacerbating the sense of exploitation among the affected farmers.

"Numerous individuals with political affiliations have deceitfully acquired land from the locals here. The local community should have been duly informed prior to the initiation of this project. How is it that people from Jammu and Kashmir, Vidarbha, and other regions were aware of this project before the farmers? They purchased the land here at prices ranging from 2.5 to 3 lakh rupees from the farmers and then sold it for a staggering 40 to 50 lakh rupees. What kind of a deal is this? Had they disclosed information about the project beforehand, the farmers would not have sold their lands. The farmers have been deceived," expresses Bole.

It has come to light that many government officials have been privy to the intricate details of the refinery plans and are now facing scrutiny for their involvement in questionable land deals. The allegations suggest that these officials took advantage of their positions to engage in transactions that undervalued the land, resulting in significant financial benefits for themselves or individuals associated with them and loss to the farmers.

Deepak Joshi, a resident of Rajapur and a fellow farmer, reveals that he, too, was approached by certain agents seeking to acquire his land. However, he made the firm decision not to sell his land. Speaking about the utilisation of excessive force by the police, Joshi recounts, "I was one among many individuals who were prohibited from entering the protest site. The police would arrive in the middle of the night, sometimes surrounding my house with their forces. This began in April and persisted until May. They would arrive at any time of the day, conduct phone traces, and inspect our devices. If our mobile phones were ever switched on, our location would be tracked, leading the police to appear at that very same location. The female protestors also encountered numerous challenges. The 111 women present at the protest site were subjected to lathi charges, including on sensitive parts of their bodies."

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Umesh Shivgan, a member of the Bhartiya Loksattak Sanghatana, highlights a significant issue surrounding the land acquisition process. According to Shivgan, the government arrived without prior notice and requested the gram panchayat members to announce a resolution in favour of allocating the land for the oil refinery. However, they failed to provide any guidance or information regarding the nature and functioning of an oil refinery. Realising the lack of knowledge about the refinery, the villagers from Barsu, Solgaon, Devache Gothane, Goval, and Shivane, all falling under the jurisdiction of the Dhopeshwar Gram Panchayat, united and began researching the refinery independently. Through their study, they became aware of the harmful effects associated with the project, prompting them to initiate the protest.

“Once the protest gained momentum, the villagers encountered difficulties from local police officials. Our regular meetings were obstructed. This interference has persisted for a period of two years. Undeterred, the villagers of the five affected villages have introduced resolutions through our gram panchayat, clearly stating that we oppose the project. Around 90 per cent of the population in these villages stand against the project, while the remaining 10 per cent are seen as intermediaries or brokers representing the interests of the companies involved,” notes Shivgan.

The Probe has approached the Chief Executive Officer and the Joint Chief Executive Officer of Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation. This article will be updated as soon as we hear from MIDC.