Scenic Konkan is allergic to big ‘development’ projects

A Konkan Railway train passes through the Ratnagiri district. PTI

The coastal Konkan belt of Maharashtra is perhaps one of the most scenic locations in India. Known for its food, culture, tourism, forts, folklore, history, heritage and what is often described as the “money order economy”, the region needs development.

Too many chimneys and too many pipelines are one thing that the people here are opposed to, but they are ready to welcome IT and IT-enabled services and the service industry in general. Besides, they want the government to invest more in the tourism sector and provide basic infrastructure.

The Konkan region comprises of seven districts — Mumbai city, Mumbai suburban, Palghar, Thane, Raigad, Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg.

The Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project (JNPP) at Madban and the West Coast Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd (WCRP) at Nanar — both in Rajapur taluk of Ratnagiri district — are facing stiff opposition from the locals and political parties.

With a picturesque seacoast that touches the Arabian Sea on one side and surrounded by the Western Ghats mountain ranges of Sahyadri on the other, the vast Konkan region is an important tourism destination in Maharashtra. It’s also the place where the Alphonso mangoes come from, apart from cashew, both of which have a high demand throughout the country. These districts are very rich for a good number of a variety of fish like prawns, sharks, skates, rays, mackerels, sardines, tuna, surmai, pomfret, karel, catfish, crabs, Bombay duck and so on.

The Ganpati festival is the biggest festival of Konkan and people from Konkan who work in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) and urban centres like Pune and Nashik go to their native places for a fortnight to celebrate it. Those who live in Konkan depend on farming or fishing.

Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts have always seen opposition to large projects. The coastal length of Ratnagiri is 167 km, while Sindhudurg stretches 121 km, and that these maritime districts need development is acknowledged. The Dabhol Power Company (now called Ratnagiri Gas and Power Private Limited or RGPPL) in Guhaghar taluk saw enough opposition and politics around it. Now, the fates of the Jaitapur and Nanar projects — which if executed would be the largest, globally, in nuclear power plant and refinery projects respectively – are now hanging in the balance.

Konkan Vinashkari Prakalp Virodhi Samiti’s Satyajit Chavan said any project that affects the environment of the region would not be allowed to come up. “We are not opposed to development. But development needs to have a human face and it should suit the needs of the people and the environment...anything that pollutes the air and destroys agriculture and anything that increases heat and destroys fishing is not welcome,” said Chavan, who has been part of anti-Jaitapur and anti-Nanar campaigns.

Looking back at the Dabhol Power Company (DPC) experience could offer useful lessons. The DPC was formed in 1992 — when a Congress government was in power. It was a combined project of three US giants — Enron, General Electric and Bechtel. General Electric (GE) provided the generating turbines, Bechtel built the physical plant and Enron was to manage the project through its international arm. The project ran into rough weather right from the start in 1992 until 2001, when the Enron scandal came to light in the US, leading to the company going bankrupt.

It may be recalled that the late BJP leader Gopinath Munde, who was then leader of the opposition vowed to “throw the Enron project into the Arabian Sea”.

However, in 1995, when the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance came to power and Munde became deputy chief minister, things changed. Rebecca Mark, the former head of Enron International, a subsidiary of Enron, met Shiv Sena supremo, the late Bal Thackeray.

As Mark famously remarked, the company spent $50 million “educating” Indian politicians about the project. It didn’t help because Enron itself collapsed under its massive fraud.

In 2005, DPC was taken over and revived by converting it into RGPPL, a joint venture of National Thermal Power Corporation Ltd, public sector gas company GAIL and the Government of Maharashtra. Its three power blocks supply a combined 1,967 MW of electricity to the Western Grid.

The Jaitapur nuclear power plant was an ambitious plan of the UPA government of Manmohan Singh, part of the complex nuclear bargain he struck with the world. The project aimed to install six units of 1,650 MW power capacity each for a total plant capacity of 9,900 MW, which would make it the largest nuclear power complex in the world. French company Areva, now part of Electricite De France, was to supply its European Pressurised Reactor for the project, worth Rs 1 lakh crore. The Narendra Modi government continues to pursue it. It, too, is up against opposition by locals and political parties, including Shiv Sena. In April 2011, a youth died in police firing during protests in Madban-Jaitapur.

The Nanar project involves an Indian consortium consisting of Indian Oil Corporation (IOC), Bharat Petroleum (BPCL) and Hindustan Petroleum (HPCL), which signed an MoU with Saudi Aramco to set up India’s largest refinery and petroleum complex. When completed the Rs 3 lakh crore refinery would also be the largest single-location refinery complex in the world, with a capacity of 60 million tonnes. This project, too, faces the maximum opposition from the Shiv Sena. For Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, though, it is important that both these projects kick off.

On the Nanar refinery, politically, it is the BJP vs Congress-NCP-Shiv Sena-MNS. On Jaitapur, Congress is not in a position to oppose it, since it was the UPA that initiated the project.

Incidentally, senior Konkan politician Narayan Rane, a Shiv Sainik-turned-Congress-turned-NDA supporter, too, had taken an early stand. During the Congress regime, he had assured the party that he would ensure that the Jaitapur project took off, but on Nanar, he is siding with the locals.

While the projects are still in the doldrums, the rumour in the Konkan belt is that several big investors have bought up vast stretches of land, waiting for the land acquisition for the projects to start, when they can make a killing.

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