Nanar fallout: Sena may lose its muscle, BJP its face; Congress, NCP sense opportunity
As Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray held a rally on the rocky plateau outside her village, Sagve Katradevi, in Ratnagiri district, promising locals support in their protest against Nanar oil refinery project in their backyard, 56-year-old Shubhangi Rane stayed away.
At the rally held 413km from Mumbai on April 23, Thackeray promised locals the mega oil refinery would not come up in Konkan. Sena minister Subhash Desai at the time unilaterally announced the industries department notification that declared 15,000 acres in Rajapur and Devgad taluka as part of an industrial area would be cancelled.
Rane was among hundreds from her village, who had boycotted the rally, to register their anger against the party that a majority of villagers have supported for decades. Sagve village in Rajapur taluka of Ratnagiri district is one of the 16 villages that will lose its fields and orchards to the US $50 billion oil refinery and petro-chemicals complex.
“My family has always voted for Shiv Sena, but we are disappointed with the party’s approach. Thackeray promises us support, but it was his minister, who first issued a notification giving our land to the refinery. After Desai announced the notification was cancelled, the CM said he doesn’t have the power to do so. How long will these politicians fool us,” asked Rane, who will lose 350 of her family’s alphonso trees, the mainstay of their income, to the project.
“Where was the Sena when the local police and revenue administration clamped down on us during the joint land survey, taking even women in police vans? Even if we hold a meeting here, the local administration issues a notice to ban it as unlawful assembly. Our youngsters have cases against them, but where is our Sena MP or MLA,” asked ND Kulkarni, whose family owns 300 acres.
For the past three years since the Sena joined the Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government, it has played the role of the opposition, even as it stayed in power. However, the Nanar refinery issue is likely to be its undoing in its bastion in the Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg belt of Konkan.
The Sena holds the Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg Lok Sabha seat as well as five of the six assembly seats within this Lok Sabha seat. What happens in Nanar could have an impact on adjoining constituencies in Konkan belt and also in Mumbai as a significant number of Konkan families have migrated to Mumbai and form part of the Sena’s support base.
An indication of the strong support that Sena enjoys in this region is a running joke among locals in Rajapur taluka, of which 14 villages fall in this project, that people will vote for even a rock as long as Sena founder Bal Thackeray terms him his candidate.
But, now this unwavering loyalty is under a cloud.
Those protesting against the refinery are loosely organized under two groups – the Konkan Refinery Virodhi Sangharsh Sanghatana, including Mumbai residents who will lose their land, led by Ashok Walam and the locals’ Konkan Refinery Shetkari Machimaar Samiti led by Bhai Samant.
“The Sena support base is the Konkani manus. What the party does over this project will be watched with keen interest in Konkan, including Raigad, Palghar, Thane and Mumbai. Our MP and MLAs are from Sena, but until we organized ourselves and undertook nine protests, these leaders did not support our agitation. Thackeray landed only in April, nearly seven months after we started our agitation,’’ said Walam, who had close links with the Sena earlier through the guardian minister Ravindra Waikar.
At his home in Kumbhavde, an eco-sensitive village that will not lose land but will surrounded by the refinery, Bhai Samant said, “People are angry because instead of supporting our agitations, various methods were used to break it. If the Congress or NCP support us, we will support them. The Sena has until July, the monsoon session of the state legislature, to make its stand clear.”
Sensing an opportunity ahead of the 2019 polls, the Opposition rallied against the project. On Wednesday, state party chief of Congress Ashok Chavan held a rally at Katradevi, the same plateau where Thackeray held his rally ten days ago.
The rally was held days after a delegation led by Walam met Congress president Rahul Gandhi, asking him to intervene in the issue. Gandhi has supposedly promised the delegation he would visit Nanar and also take up a legal fight against the project. Chavan’s rally and petitioning Gandhi in the issue is an indication of changing winds in this area.
“A certain image had been created about Gandhi ahead of the 2014 polls. But he is more level-headed than he is made out to be. The BJP has forced the project on us through unfair means. Instead of using the Land Acquisition Law of 2013, the MIDC Act was used. The Land Acquisition Law calls for consent of 70% of locals and bars acquisition of horticulture and fertile lands. In an underhand fashion, the party has tried to grab land through Gujarati and Marwari investors,” said Omkar Desai, a farmer from Nanar. “Why shouldn’t we support Congress or Gandhi, if they support us?”
Both the Congress and NCP had base in Konkan and the Ratnagiri belt earlier. At least two of sitting Sena legislators from this belt including, minister Deepak Kesarkar and Uday Samant, were with the NCP earlier. “For us, this is an opportunity to win back lost ground. The refinery project, just like the bullet train or Mumbai-Nagpur highway, is being thrust on locals to grab land. This anti-farmer narrative will help us in 2019 polls,” said a senior Congress leader and former minister.
After the farmers’ strike in 2017, the long march by tribal cultivators and protests against land acquisition for the Mumbai-Nagpur highway and the bullet train project, the Nanar refinery is the latest trouble for chief minister Devendra Fadnavis.
Despite its victory run in 2014, the BJP has no base in Konkan. Recently, senior Congress leader Narayan Rane was roped in as an ally to help increase the party base. With the Nanar controversy, however, the BJP has waded into more trouble and added to its anti-farmer image.
The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed between three oil majors with Saudi Arabian Oil company (Aramco) on April 11 to set up the integrated oil refinery and petrochemical complex in Ratnagiri led to loss of face for CM among the locals. Less than a month ago, on March 14, Fadnavis had promised a delegation of locals that their dissent would be conveyed to the Centre and no decision would be taken without their support.
Across the 16 villages in Konkan, there are several posters calling Fadnavis a “liar”. “Our farmers don’t commit suicide. We haven’t asked the government for jobs. Instead we have created jobs for at least a lakh of labourers and workers in our mango orchards. After all this, the BJP wants to grab our lands. If BJP leaders come here, they are in the danger of getting beaten up,’’ said Pramod Kelkar, a mango cultivator and farmer from Rameshwar village, who is a member of the samiti.
A senior BJP leader said the decision to announce the MOU had come as a surprise even for the CM, but given the scale of the project, it would be `naïve’ to oppose it. “I think one of our big mistakes with this project was that we didn’t publicise it enough before issuing the notification. The Sena local leaders also thought they could handle the agitation, but it got out of hands as the estimates of the government about the terrain of the land and mango orchards here and the reality are very different. The government records are not updated and could be 60-80% off the mark,” said a senior BJP leader.
He said the attempt to use Maharashtra Industrial Development Act instead of the Land Acquisition Law of 2013 may also backfire on the government legally.
As HT has reported while the government estimates are that only 60,720-odd alphonso trees could be impacted by the project, cultivators claim 12.30 lakh alphonso mango trees and a lakh cashewnut trees could be impacted.