A media blackout, a ban on television crew, externment notices and a massive police force – the Maharashtra government has unleashed all these and more, in its arsenal to break the staunch resistance of villagers to a refinery project in the Konkan . Though shaken by the killing of journalist Shashikant Warishe in February this year, the villagers are steadfast.
Prajakta Joshi brings us this special report.
Preventive detentions, alleged manhandling of protesters and banishing people from their very homes… This is all that the Maharashtra State Government is reportedly resorting to in its bid to conduct a survey at the proposed site of a petrochemical refinery project in the Barsu-Solgaon region in Ratnagiri district. As the protest against the Saudi-Aramco-backed refinery has intensified in the region, the state is making use of detentions and externment orders to censor people’s voices and suppress any news of their opposition to the refinery.
As the people’s sit-in protest on the sada areas (laterite plateaus) in Barsu reaches its third day today, two of those detained have finally been released from judicial custody. However, they face externment from Ratnagiri district for the next 15 days.
The drilling at one of the sites in Barsu has begun. The people’s protest continues despite the state’s attempts at subduing it. While no detentions have taken place on Wednesday as yet, people continue to stand their ground in scorching heat to prevent the project from taking over their lands and lives.
On day 2, several women and men were picked up by the police from the protest sites and taken to several police stations, to be released late at night. Several activists, whose homes are in these very villages, remain banished not just from their villages, but the entire Rajapur taluka!
On Tuesday, several women protesters slept across the roads leading to the project sites blocking the police and government vehicles trying to reach there. The locals say that these women were manhandled and taken to police stations in Ratnagiri, Purnagad, Pavas, etc. They were produced before the Court late on Tuesday night, which then ordered them to be released. They were released in Rajapur, in the middle of the night, activists say.
At the moment, local activists have reported the presence of 2 Additional Superintendent of Police, 5 Deputy Superintendents, 125 Police Officers, 1,800 police personnel (amaldars) and 3 reserved forces in Rajapur taluka. Right from day 1 of the protest, the villagers reported that 50-60 police vehicles were making rounds of villages like Barsu, Dhopeshwar, Shivane, Goval, Panhale, Devache Gothane and others across the Barsu-Solgaon region. Notices of externment and those of section 144 being invoked in the taluka were slammed on the doors of several homes in these villages.
How did the current protests begin?
Last week, the activists and locals in and around Rajapur taluka received information that the state is getting ready to begin the survey of the proposed refinery project site in Barsu-Solgaon on Monday, April 24, 2023. Since June last year, the villagers have been thwarting the State’s attempts to conduct the survey, which would mainly consist of drilling bores for soil and water testing. This is seen as the first step, crucial for approvals and assessments, towards the land acquisitions for the refinery.
However, this time, days before the survey was to begin, the State began by bringing in a large police force into Rajapur district . Many activists reported that they can see an increased presence of police in the entire taluka, with around 2,000 police expected to reach the region by Monday. Activist and movement leader Satyajit Chavan, along with other activists, gave a call to all the Kokanvaseey (the people of Konkan) to come to Rajapur and stand in solidarity with the people of Barsu-Solgaon.
On Saturday, April 22, Satyajit Chavan and Mangesh Chavan, another local activist associated with the anti-refinery movement, were detained by the Ratnagiri police. Satyajit is a renowned leader of the movement in Barsu-Solgaon, who has worked extensively with the local farmers, fishermen, pastoralists and others, mobilising the movement. Mangesh, on the other hand, was not very actively involved in the anti-refinery movement. However, activists say that he was still detained for his involvement in past people’s movements like the protest against Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project in the same district.
The latest reports say that Satyajit Chavan and Mangesh Chavan have since been released from preventive detention with externment from the district for 15 days. However, Satyajit Chavan has been taken to Rajapur police station for completing a bail procedure in an older case, wherein he is facing separate charges which include unlawful assembly, rioting, disobedience among others.
With these detentions, it became clear to the villagers that the state was trying hard to get the survey done this time. To add to it, last Saturday ( April 22, 2023) evening, the District Collector called a meeting of the refinery supporters and protesters. However, the refinery protesters have alleged that they were given the notice about the meeting barely 30 minutes before it was scheduled to begin. Very few could make it to Rajapur city to attend the meeting at such short notice. They claimed that known supporters of the project seemed to have been given notices on time, enabling them to remain present in large numbers.
It was on Saturday itself, that notices of externment and section 144 began to be drawn by Rajapur’s tehsil office and Magistrate Office.
Externment Notices: An attack on people’s fundamental rights
All the actions coming from the government to contain the protest reeks of an impediment to people’s right to freedom of expression, to their right to protest and indeed, their very right to life and livelihood.
Until now, at least four activists associated with the movement against the refinery have been detained by the police, only to be released on the condition that they will not enter the district. Moreover, over 100 protesters, local women and men from the villages affected were picked up by the police from the sites of the protests on the second day.
At least six activists associated with the protests have received externment notices, barring them from entering and moving around Rajapur taluka. All of them have their homes and livelihoods in the taluka itself. Yet they have been barred from entering the taluka till May 31. Section 144 has been imposed within 1 km radius of the drilling site at Barsu Sada, Barsu, Panhale Tarfe Rajapur, Dhopeshwar, Goval, Khalchi Wadi Goval, from April 22 to May 31.
Apart from Satyajit and Mangesh, three other activists who had come to Barsu from Mumbai were picked up by the police on Monday. While one of them was released immediately, two were detained and then produced before Lanja Court. According to local activists, they were produced in Lanja Court because of the lack of lawyers there. The two were then released and externed from the district.
Even earlier, for the past several months, Satyajit Chavan and five others actively leading the movement, were fighting externment notices issued to them for being involved in the anti-refinery protests. They were being threatened with exile from the Ratnagiri district itself, which the activists said would lead to restrictions on their access to two neighbouring districts of Sindhudurg and Raigad as well. Again to mention that all these activists have their homes in the Ratnagiri district.
Press freedom in shackles
Around two months ago, the anti-refinery movement and the suppression of the people associated with it gained national attention after the murder of local journalist Shashikant Warishe. Warishe worked with the local Marathi newspaper Dainik Mahanagari Times and extensively covered the protest against the refinery. He was run over and killed in broad daylight by a refinery supporter with known ties to politicians, Pandharinath Amberkar, hours after Warishe’s report against the latter was published. In the report, Warishe referred to Amberkar as an “accused in serious offences” and questioned why the state government was associated with him.
Warishe’s murder drew condemnation from across the nation and the State formed a Special Investigation Team to probe into it. However, activists say that while Amberkar continues to remain in jail, nothing much has happened as far as the probe into the case is concerned. In fact, an activist shared that Satyajit had been asked to come for a probe in connection with Amberkar by the Ratnagiri police, the day before he was detained. He had not appeared the same day.
Moreover, representatives of several media houses, especially Marathi TV news channels, who went to Barsu to cover the anti-refinery protests over the last two days, were barred from going near the protest or survey sites by the police. Most of the detentions, alleged manhandling of protesters by the police and alleged use of force were reported at the time when the media personnel were not allowed to cover the protest.
The political leaders in power have been seen making statements that the locals are being provoked by outsiders. Some of them are also saying that the villagers are protesting for compensation for the land and not against the refinery itself. But statements, videos of the locals coming directly from the field say otherwise.
The local protesters look at it as a tactic of intimidation by the state. “But the people are not going to fall for it, the protest will continue,” they say.
Prajakta Joshi, Chief Reporter of Indie Journal, has been covering the protests in Barsu.
See video of the protest of villagers of the Konkan :