Mumbai: When 40-year-old mango and cashew farmer Avinash Mahajan boarded a train to Panipat to visit Indian Oil Corp.’s Panipat refinery, he was protesting against a proposed refinery near his farm in Ratnagiri that is believed will hurt farming prospects in the region.
He had every reason to be resentful. Mango farming had suffered in the region due to changing environmental conditions. Produce of Alphonso mangoes, cashew from Mahajan’s 30-acre farm in Ratnagiri, where he also grows bamboo, has been impacted as the fruit-bearing season for mangoes in Ratnagiri has changed from February to May, when the season for mangoes is at its peak. Mahajan says this impacts the supply. Importantly, youth from the region were migrating to bigger cities in search of jobs that offer small income.
Worse, had the project by Ratnagiri Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd (RRPCL) received a green signal for land acquisition, Mahajan would have to sell one-third of his ancestral land to the company that is seeking 15,000 acres in the Konkan region of Maharashtra to build a 60-million tonne per annum refinery-cum-petrochemical complex at an estimated cost of ₹3 trillion. A significant part of the proposed land bank for the refinery will have to be bought from at least 850 families in the region which mostly depend upon farming and fishing for livelihood and are currently protesting against the proposed refinery. But Mahajan’s viewpoint, along with that of his his fellow villagers, seems to have changed now, especially after a trip like the one to Panipat. Some of them are now willing to sell their land to RRPCL, paving the way for the refinery to come up.
"I was amazed," Mahajan said after he reached the Panipat refinery along with 23 fellow villagers on a four-day familiarization trip organized by RRPCL in a bid to persuade villagers to understand benefits of such large industrial projects. The group included local village leaders, housewives and farmers.
"The Panipat refinery was nothing like what we had imagined. It is not coal-fired. It does not pollute water. The green belt was impressive, irrigated with treated water. We saw the rehabilitation of the locals and spoke to seven sarpanch (village heads) and learned how their living and economic conditions have improved. We want this kind of development for our Konkan region," Mahajan said. He is now convinced about giving up his land for the refinery, he told Mint.
The RRPCL refinery project, which was announced in December 2015, was to be commissioned by 2022, but land acquisition delays have pushed the deadline to 2025. RRPCL is a joint venture among the three state-run oil marketing companies -- Indian Oil Corp (IOCL), Hindustan Petroleum Corporation (HPCL) and Bharat Petroleum Corporation (BPCL). Saudi Aramco and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) will jointly own 50% of RRPCL, with the remaining 50% owned by the oil marketing companies.
Like Mahajan, Nilesh Patankar, a 44-year-old chartered accountant from Ratnagiri, too, decided to give all of his 64 acres for the refinery after he visited Panipat.
"Our concerns are only with regard to environment protection, good rehabilitation and local job opportunities. At Panipat, most of the concerns were addressed and we have decided to support the project," Patankar said.
Moreover, their support for the project is also to ensure better job opportunities for locals, and improved living conditions and education for children. Like most of India, youth from the Ratnagiri region also migrate to bigger cities like Mumbai and Pune for jobs; a big project will help stem that migration.
"Our children are unable to complete their education. Many have to migrate to Pune and Mumbai for jobs for a meager Rs10,000 per month. We want them to be here with better job opportunities available locally," Mahajan said.
Like Mahajan and Patankar, at least 40% of the villagers in the region have handed over consent letters to the company for land acquisition. The company is hoping that the land acquisition process will end by 2019 and work on the project will begin from early 2020.
RRPCL now plans to take another batch of villagers to IOCL’s Paradip refinery in Odisha. They are all fisherman who were protesting in fear that the refinery will disturb the ecological balance, and hence fishing.
"We understand the project and associated challenges. So we decided to allay the fears of the locals by taking them to our refineries. We have addressed their apprehensions. People have understood our viewpoint and we believe we are on the right track," said B. Ashok, chief executive officer, RRPCL.
Another official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the idea is to make the Ratnagiri fishermen meet their counterparts in Odisha to get their views on whether the Paradip refinery has threatened fishing or local jobs.
“So if anything, the Ratnagiri refinery will only bring big economic opportunities for the locals," the official quoted above said.
If not, then the Ratnagiri farmers such as Mahajan will harbor a grudge and rightly so because land is their biggest asset, like any other farmer in the world.