Maharashtra halts work on Dow unit after protests

Maharashtra halts work on Dow unit after protests

Mumbai: After followers of the Warkari sect in Maharashtra intensified their agitation against Dow Chemical demanding closure of its proposed unit near Pune, Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh has ordered a month’s stay on the project work.

Deshmukh, currently on a week-long official visit to Europe, has taken the decision keeping in mind the sentiments of the Warkaris (members of the sect), sources close to him said here.

The government has also decided to appoint a committee headed by a former High Court judge to study the objections to the multi-crore R&D project, the sources said, adding the panel is expected to submit a report within a month.

The US chemical multinational is the owner of Union Carbide, responsible for the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy in which several thousand people were killed due to the release of 40 tonnes of deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas.

Dow is trying to build a chemical experimentation facility in Vasuli Shinde village, near Pune, and the project is facing stiff opposition on ground of pollution.

In January, angry villagers dug up the road leading to the plant and stopped construction. In July, when the company attempted to restart construction with police protection, Warkaris entered and demolished the construction site.

They also staged protests in Chakan, Alandi and Khed regions of Pune district. The Warkaris, known for their peace-loving nature and devotion to Maharashtra’s reigning deity Lord Vithoba of Pandharpur, are up in arms against the project over fears of pollution.

Deshmukh’s decision comes a day after Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief and Union Minister Sharad Pawar came out in support of the project and refuted allegations he was connected with the plant. NCP is a key ally in Deshmukh’s Democratic Front Government.

“We do not want the polluting unit here and will not rest till it is wound up," said former Bombay High Court Judge B.G. Kolse Patil, who is president of Lok Shashan, the organization at the forefront of the agitation.

“We welcome the state government’s decision to stay the construction work and appoint a committee. This is the first victory in our long-drawn battle against Dow."

Pawar’s ‘pro-Dow’ comments “hurt the sentiments of Warkaris and forced the government to take the decision," he added.

Senior BJP leader Gopinath Munde has flayed the arrest of Warkari leader Banda Maharaj Karadkar over the protests. BJP ally Shiv Sena has also supported the stir.

Dow Chemical is investing $100 million (Rs460 crore) to develop the research and development centre spread over 100 acres of land near the village.