What will the world’s largest refinery planned in Konkan do to local livelihoods and the environment?

Destroying 12.000-year-old prehistoric petroglyphs for an oil refinery that will best (or worst) case scenario run for the next 50 years – this is what the Maharashtra government plans by erecting the world’s largest refinery in the Konkan region. However, locals are enraged.

We arrive in Konkan to meet Saili Palande-Datar, an expert in ecology, archeology and history. We come to talk with Saili after we hear about her on our way down the coast of Maharashtra. She documents the biological and cultural heritage of the Central Konkan region, which is the place where India’s and the world’s largest oil refinery is to be built. When on the same day we meet her in the village of Nate, we find out that she is not alone. Accompanied by Neha Rane, expert in urban and coastal policy, as well as Prerana Chandak, human doctor by profession and Masters student in wildlife biology, the team spends 10 days of every month here to do their multifaceted research that aims to save a unique but overlooked area.

But they have to be quick. The rock plateaus of Central Konkan have been in the focus of several investors in the last year, who have been buying up land from locals for the construction of the multi-billion dollar Ratnagiri Refinery and Petrochemicals Limited (RRPCL) project which is promoted as the world’s largest single location refinery.

The rocky plateaus of Central Konkan

That’s not what the people want

The project is a joint venture. Saudi Aramco and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company hold 50% of the stakes, while the remaining 50% is divided between Indian Oil Corporation Limited, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited. Besides refining crude oil that will be brought on ships from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the project also plans to develop various other petrochemicals for the Indian market.

When the project started in 2015, the government of Maharashtra designated a construction site close to the village Nanar. However, this plan faced intense and long-standing protests from locals, which stalled the project, and in the following years it hit roadblocks due to land acquisition hurdles. Eventually, the state decided to choose a new location near Barsu village. When this decision was made, locals around Barsu didn’t know what’s about to come. There was suddenly an outside interest in acquiring information about their properties on the plateau, which has been categorised as wasteland by the government, due to the fact that its rocky surface is difficult to use as agricultural land. However, for locals the porous rock of the plateaus is a source of water for their springs, and they graze with their livestock, forage for berries and grow rice, cashew nuts and mangoes there.

Eventually this April, the Maharashtra government started soil testing, to find out if the site is suitable for the multi-billion dollar refinery. Hundreds of police officials were deployed to the area to close it down, but they were met with angry protests. Thousands of villagers, led by local women, laid on the roads throughout intense summer temperatures to prevent officials from entering the site. Many locals shaved their heads and went on a hunger strike. 

When the police realised that villagers won’t stop, they imposed a curfew on their movement and even used teargas to disperse the protests. Several local protesters and activists were detained, some for several days. 

Eventually the government could complete soil sampling, but discontent spread across the region over the authorities’ tactics to silence the local population and bring a gigantic industrial project into a region which strongly opposed it for many years. Locals understand the risks. At least 11 villages would be affected by the project, and the community fears that the oil refinery will lead to the loss of livelihoods and displacement, alongside massive environmental degradation and pollution.

Prehistoric petroglyphs will be impacted

Saili, Neha and Prerana have started working in this region in the beginning of 2023. Their project aims to document the so far unrecorded natural and cultural richness of the rocky plateaus of Konkan. Within one year, they interview locals, document their traditional knowledge and practices and understand their cultural and ecological connections to these landscapes. Moreover, they also aim to expose the false “wasteland” narrative by the state and assess the present and future livelihood potential of this ecosystem for local communities. 

We head out together to visit some of these rocky plateaus we heard so much about. “We’re going to show you a proper mystery,” Saili intrigues us as we make our way up. 

As we start walking on the plateau, we start noticing some fascinating patterns in the rock. Petroglyphs! Saili, who is also trained in archeology, tells us that these rock carvings are only a few of the about 1,000 that are spread across the region. Some of them measuring almost 10 metres are prehistoric proofs of humans living in Konkan. “Before these petroglyphs were found, historians thought that the first civilisation in Konkan dates back to the 1-2nd century AD. But now we know based on these carvings and the tools found, that humans were already here ten thousand years back in the Mesolithic period.

We are blown away by the rock art we find. It depicts stories with symbols like tigers, fish, rays and other marine life, and, often as a central element, there is the human. We also recognise signs that resemble various bird species, elephants and deer, and even find carvings of swords. But there is still not enough information known about the origin of these prehistoric petroglyphs. 

We even visit another petroglyph – a carving of a full-size human – which has a very unique magnetism, spinning the magnetic pin of our compass into all directions. How did those prehistoric people living here tens of thousands of years ago, who carved the human figure, recognise that this place has magnetic rock? A mystery no one has managed to resolve until now. Due to their origin, a number of these petroglyphs are on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

While Saili, Neha and Prerana take measurements, we try to recognise the shape of smaller carvings. Saili explains that they could not even enter these plateaus for three months while the soil testing was going on. Many of these petroglyphs, together with other, yet to be discovered archeological findings in the area, would be impacted or even destroyed if the refinery is built. 

Unexplored biodiversity and medicinal plant knowledge 

Saili, Neha and Prerana also document the biological diversity and ethnobotanical knowledge of locals. Their work proves that the rocky plateaus of Konkan are in fact anything but wasteland. These plateaus have a hot tropical microclimate with rock rich in iron and aluminium providing a unique habitat for various plant communities, many of which are used by locals. Prerana, a human doctor by education, focuses on the medicinal plant knowledge of local communities. After finishing her studies in medicine, Prerana decided to get a degree in nature conservation. That’s why for her Master thesis, she is interviewing local village doctors (so-called ‘barefoot doctors’, locals who practise traditional, plant-based medicine) and people involved in foraging and using plants for medicinal purposes. 

We can only protect what we know, and the biodiversity of the rocky plateaus of Konkan get possibly their last chance through the work of Saili, Prerana and Neha to be recognised for their value. As researchers, their role is to document and archive the biological diversity, culture and traditional practices of this region, and it is quite possible that their findings might have a crucial role in fighting the legal battle against the refinery. 

Is it worth destroying local livelihoods to burn more fossil fuel?

Although it is clear that an oil refinery – the biggest ever – cannot be constructed without major damage to the environment, many politicians and the government claim the opposite. “This is a non-polluting green refinery. As the industries minister, it is my job to clear the misunderstandings of people who are being misled by external forces,” told Uday Samant, a state minister, in his interview with the BBC

What is even a non-polluting green oil refinery? The Barsu Nate Refinery project has no positive environmental impacts whatsoever. Quite the contrary. Apart from health-related issues caused by the project, it will have a major negative impact on the livelihoods of locals. The polluting gases can harm the cultivation of the famous Alphonso mangoes in the region, which creates an annual turnover of Rs 2.200 crore (around 250 mil. €) for the district. The thriving, predominantly women-driven fishery industry along the coast involves almost 10.000 fishing households, which would undoubtedly be impacted by the oil shipments. Not to mention the destruction to the tens of thousands of years old prehistoric petroglyphs, which would be diminished, all for a single refinery that best (or worst) case scenario will be open for the next 50 years.

The UN and the International Energy Agency have warned that we can have no new oil and gas expansion if we want to limit warming to 1.5C – the safest level still possible. Sadly, governments are ignoring climate science and their own climate targets when sanctioning new fossil fuel projects including refineries, like the Barsu Nate Refinery project. 

Nevertheless, rich countries like Saudi Arabia keep pushing away responsibility for their contribution to the climate crisis, and continue to profit from climate-wrecking oil and gas. And instead of repeating the mistakes of the past in hope of development, governments like India’s need to urgently be investing in real solutions to the energy and climate crisis, such as the much cheaper and sustainable renewable energy.