A fight to save lands: How K’taka residents are resisting an oil refinery’s expansion
A fight to save lands: How K’taka residents are resisting an oil refinery’s expansion

A fight to save lands: How K’taka residents are resisting an oil refinery’s expansion

The MRPL refinery’s plans for the fourth phase of its expansion in Mangaluru is at odds with a section of residents in Permude and Kuthethoor villages on the outskirts of the city.

Lawrence D’Cunha quietly paces the muddy trail through his farm in Permude, a lush, idyllic village on the outskirts of Mangaluru in Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka. His face is inscrutable as he surveys the growth of arecanut, coconut and betel leaves around him. He also grows black pepper, bananas, and mangoes among a number of other crops in the 16-acre farm that he inherited.

He fixates on a burst of sunlight coming through the areca leaves that illuminates one end of his farm before eventually saying, “We have been working with one goal in mind over the last two years...To save our people from being displaced by an oil refinery's expansion.”

A part of Lawrence’s land along with surrounding areas in Permude and nearby Kuthethoor villages were notified by the Karnataka government in 2017 as lands that would be acquired by Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Limited (MRPL), an oil refinery based in Mangaluru. MRPL is a subsidiary of Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and it is interested in starting the fourth phase of its expansion in Mangaluru. The oil company has requested the Karnataka Industrial Area Development Board (KIADB) to acquire 1050 acres of land for it.  

Lawrence D'Cunha in his farm in Permude, Dakshina Kannada

“It will be to establish units which will add value to our petro-chemical products. We may also be going for an expansion in our capacity and slightly increase the 15 million metric tonne per year. We are definitely interested to do this but the procedures related to the acquisition of land do not come under our purview. It is being handled by KIADB,” says an official of MRPL. 

‘A right to fresh air and water’

The refinery’s plans to expand in the region is at odds with a section of residents in Permude and Kuthethoor villages. After opposition from residents living in the area, the KIADB, in its final notification, reduced the area to be acquired to 960 acres, of which 811 acres is in Permude and Kuthethoor.

Mangalore Refinery Petrochemicals Limited (MRPL) as seen from Permude, Dakshina Kannada

“In the final notification, KIADB has made the shape of the land irregular by leaving out the lands owned by few of the vocal protestors like me. Only a part of my land will be acquired now but this will still cause problems since it will break up the natural flow of water in the streams around here,” says Lawrence.

Lawrence’s complaints are echoed by William D’Souza, 56, a resident of nearby Kuthethoor, who says, “Our land has not been notified but lands surrounding our house in three sides have been notified. There is already a strong burning smell and our yield has reduced in the last few years,” he says.

William D'Souza in his farm in Kuthethoor village of Dakshina Kannada

Wiliam complains that spots have appeared on the leaves of his coconut trees

Residents and activists have protested against the state government claiming that the expansion of the oil firm will lead to more pollution. “Don’t we have a right to fresh air and water? At what cost is this development? We cannot allow this to happen to our village and to the agricultural lands here,” says Govind Das, 70, who resides in nearby Kuthethoor. 

Govind Das at his residence in Kuthethoor, Dakshina Kannada

‘A promise of jobs and money’

But not everyone in Permude and Kuthethoor is fighting the latest expansion of MRPL in their villages. There is a significant number of residents in favour of giving up their land for the expansion. “Our family does not have people who can work in the agricultural fields here. For instance, we need a person to spray pesticide on our arecanut trees but we are not able to find someone to do this. If we give up the land, we are promised Rs 80 lakh per acre and a job for a person in the family. Those who want to continue their agriculture can do that but we want to sell our land,” says Mark D’Souza, 58, a resident of Permude.

MRPL is yet to confirm how many jobs will be created by the expansion and whether local residents will be preferred. The protesting residents also allege that procedure was not followed in the process of land acquisition. “In the application sent to the Karnataka Udyog Mitra, the lands to be acquired were described as dry or non-agricultural land. But the land in these villages are actually fertile agricultural lands,” alleges Hemalatha Bhat, an activist working in Mangaluru.

Arecanut plantation in Kuthethoor, Dakshina Kannada

When asked about this, a KIADB official explained that ‘dry’ lands were not the same as ‘non-agricultural’ lands. The official further stated that dry lands were classified as cultivable lands, and the accusation was merely technical.  "There is very little non-agricultural lands and they (activists) have mistakenly believed that dry land means it is land where cultivation does not take place...Dry lands are also part of cultivable lands," a KIADB official said.

A variety of crops are currently being grown in these lands by farmers including Lawrence, William and Govind. Even in peak summer, at a time when water scarcity has gripped Mangaluru, streams and rivulets flowing in Permude still contained water.

A stream flowing through Kuthethoor, Dakshina Kannada

‘No public consultation’

This is not the first time MRPL has attempted to acquire lands in Permude and Kuthethoor for expansion. A notification to acquire 2,035 acres of land in the two villages was first issued in 2007 but it was withdrawn by the then Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa of the BJP following protests in 2011.

Many landowners remember the harrowing day when government officials arrived in Kalavaru, a nearby village, and demolished the house of Gregory Patrao, 57, who was resisting the land acquisition process. Gregory was living with six other family members in his residence.

“I remember the day clearly - 28 April, 2010. I never agreed to give away my land but after the High Court ruled against me, officials and police came to my house and took the land away from me overnight,” recalls Gregory, sitting in the living room of his new house and looking over the pictures from the day. Gregory went on a hunger strike outside the Dakshina Kannada Deputy Commissioner office after he was forcibly evicted from his home.

Gregory Patrao at his new residence in Kuthethoor

Gregory Patrao being evicted from his house in Kalavara, Dakshina Kannada in 2010

He gained support from various organisations cutting across political and ideological leanings including the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha, Nagarika Seva Trust, Hindu Jagran Vedike, People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). The seer of the Pejawar mutt in Udupi - Vishwesha Theertha - also joined him in the protest and Patrao became a symbol of the resistance of farmers against big development projects in the region. Many groups fighting the expansion were mobilised under the banner Karavali Karnataka Janabhivriddhi Vedike (KKJV) led by social activists Vidya Dinker and Natesh Ullal.

Gregory Patrao's house and farms in Kalavara, Dakshina Kannada

Seven years later, the expansion project was revived by the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government in 2017. KKJV activists once again questioned the process of acquiring land for the expansion. The Samiti pointed out that the KIADB should use the new Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013 for acquiring the lands. In the acquisition process under the new Act, an environment impact assessment and social impact assessment is mandatory, but both are yet to be conducted by the state government.

"We have not taken up the Environmental Impact Assessment or the Social Impact Assessment since the land acquisition process is being carried out under the old KIADB Act, 1966. Prices for the lands have however been fixed as per the new Act," an official from KIADB confirmed. He further argues that none of the land acquisition processes in the state are being conducted under the new Act. 

Farms in Kuthethoor, Dakshina Kannada

In November 2017, the then Deputy Commissioner of Dakshina Kannada Jagadeesh KG called a meeting with the landowners in the two villages. In his report to the Karnataka Chief Secretary, Jagadeesh noted that among 646 of the total 937 landowners who attended the meeting, 69.75% of landowners were in favour of giving their land for the project while 30.25% landowners opposed it. The landowners who agreed to the acquisition process owned 496.86 acres or 57.41% of the land that the oil company wants to acquire.

The protesting residents, however, alleged that many landowners opposed to the project were not present at the meeting called by the DC and that the actual number of persons opposed to the project was higher than what the then DC’s report claims. “There was no public consultation done,” they alleged.  

Following Jagadeesh’s departure, residents intensified their protests and the new DC Sasikanth Senthil wrote to the Karnataka Chief Secretary in November 2018 stating that the land acquisition was done in a “fraudulent manner”.  

Lancy Quadros at his residence near Permude, Dakshina Kannada

In his letter, the new DC noted, “The consent of the people for the land acquisition was done in a fraudulent manner by the officers of KIADB. The land notified as non-agricultural land is actually that of agriculture in nature. The shape of the land to be acquired is irregular and irrational thereby putting a lot of people in discomfort. There was no public discussion done by the KIADB officials and opinion of various other institutions has not been considered.”

 KIADB officials however told TNM that the irregular shape is based on the request of the oil company. "We undertake the acquisition of lands based on the survey numbers given by MRPL. They have requested the land in a certain way. If there are a lot of houses or if there is a temple, we cannot acquire those lands," stated a KIADB official. There has been no public consultation on the irregular shape of the lands marked for acquiring.

Lawrence D'Cunha examines the water level at the well inside his farm in Permude, Dakshina Kannada

The expansion, particularly the process of acquiring the lands for it, has been contested in court by a number of petitions filed by landowners living in the area. In May 2018, the Karnataka High Court while hearing one such petition filed by Bhoja Shettigar passed an interim stay order halting the land acquisition process. A month later, the High Court allowed the KIADB to fix the price for the land. The last hearing in the case was held on April 8 this year and the stay order imposed by the court is still in place.

The stay order came as a relief to the protesting residents and the opposition for the project was strengthened. In December 2018, members of the Karavali Karnataka Janabhivruddhi Vedike, another organisation opposed to the project with many overlapping members from the Krishi Bhoomo Samrakshana Samiti, held up a banner reading ‘Karavali Utsava Alla, Karavali Ulisi’ (Not Karavali Festival, Save Karavali) across the stage during the inauguration of Karavali Utsava. District-in-charge Minister UT Khader and Deputy Commissioner Sasikanth Senthil were in attendance on stage during the carefully planned surprise protest. The activists also pointed out that political leaders cutting across parties were apathetic to the complaints made by protestors.

Kuthethoor, Dakshina Kannada

MRPL officials, however, are unmoved in the face of the opposition to the expansion project. “There are always going to be certain aggrieved people raising objections when industries try to set up. You could say this is part of the development or growth story of the country. In the third phase of expansion, everyone was provided compensation, alternate land for building houses, and jobs. Even trees which were cut down were identified and compensated separately,” says an official from MRPL.

The deadlock between the protesting residents and the government, which began all the way back in 2007, continues to cloud over the lives of people living in Permude and Kuthethoor. But the residents of the village remain steadfast in their fight and hope that at the end of it, they are able to save their villages from being displaced by the oil company. “There used to be a saying earlier - industrialise or perish. But what we are seeing here is industrialise and perish. We will not allow it to happen,” Govind Das adds.

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