• Communities concerned about the potentially devastating impact of a new refinery on their livelihoods and the local ecosystem complain of being oppressed by the authorities, a new Global Witness investigation reveals
  • Community members report being kept in the dark about the refinery plans and say landowners were “fooled” into disadvantageous land deals worth millions, while locals and activists report being spied on and forced into hiding for campaigning against the project
  • Evidence uncovered in an investigation by Forbidden Stories and the Indian Express published simultaneously today links RRPCL, the local refinery company, to the person accused of killing a local journalist
  • If the project goes ahead, the Ratnagiri-based refinery could destroy local farming and fishing industry, activists say – and the refinery’s annual oil production could release up to 177 million tonnes of CO2 per year, equivalent to the Netherlands’ annual emissions

7th February 2024, London – An Indian oil refinery project backed by Saudi Aramco and the UAE’s state oil firm Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) is giving rise to government oppression of local communities in Maharashtra, India, according to a new investigation by Global Witness.

The investigation uncovers evidence of oppressive tactics being used by authorities and the state-controlled refinery company to shut down community opposition to the project. Locals and activists allege that they were initially kept in the dark about the refinery, with landowners falling victim to unfair land deals that left them short-changed and robbed of their autonomy.

Campaigners against the project reported to Global Witness that they have been criminalised, spied on, forced into hiding, had curfews imposed on them, and banned from certain areas. Many say they have also been slapped with controversial legal orders and forced to bear the financial burden of court costs. 

The extent of the community oppression is highlighted in one case from April 2023, when survey work was due to begin at a testing site. Ahead of testing taking place, two local activists were arrested and held without charge for four days, following police surveillance. Hundreds of villagers still went to the site to stop the testing, leading to a clash with police, who threw teargas and hit people with batons. Several women were allegedly left injured by their excessive force, with one female protester reporting that she saw police grabbing women and dragging them across the hard ground.

Over five days, 313 were people arrested and charged with criminal offenses. Campaigners believe that this criminalisation is being used as a way of harassing community members, subjecting them to financial strain and putting their employment at risk.

Rachel Cox, Land and Environmental Defenders Campaign Strategy Lead at Global Witness said:

“The Ratnagiri refinery project shows the complete disregard with which the Indian government hold the rights of people and planet. Hundreds of peaceful protestors silenced, a journalist murdered, and communities who report being robbed of their land and environmental rights – all to fuel the unsustainable profits of those who preach climate action while bankrolling climate destruction.”

By developing the plans without the apparent knowledge of the local community and without consulting them, the report suggests that the refinery company – Ratnagiri Refinery and Petrochemicals Limited (RRPCL) – is likely to have violated international standards on business practice.

Activists also allege that the unfair land deals affecting former owners of land near the refinery site area were part of a broader effort by project supporters to neutralize local opposition and facilitate subsequent sales to the project owners. 

At least 37 of the land transactions (worth around $340,000 USD) between 2021 to 2022 involved a local businessman Pandharinath Amberkar and his relative Akshay Amberkar, uncovered by Forbidden Stories and the Indian Express as part of another investigation, published simultaneously. They also uncovered evidence of payments from RRPCL to Pandharinath – directly linking him to the refinery company for the first time.

Pandharinath appears to be responsible for multiple attempts to silence those against the project, including allegedly running over an activist in 2020, leaving him hospitalised. Two years later he was accused of attempting to smash open the head of another anti-refinery activist.

A year ago today, Pandharinath allegedly ran over local journalist Shashikant Warishe with his jeep, after Shashikant published articles on his involvement in the land deals and on the refinery’s potential impacts on local livelihoods. Shashikant died from his injuries the following day. Pandharinath was later charged with his murder, but is yet to stand trial.

There is no evidence that RRPCL or its backers were involved in Shashikant’s killing or the land deals that appear intended to disadvantage local landowners. Neither RRPCL nor Pandharinath Amberkar responded to Global Witness’s request for comment.

Phineas Rueckert, journalist at Forbidden Stories said:

“Shashikant Warishe's work on land predation and community repression was brutally silenced, depriving locals of public interest information. Continuing Warishe's work, we were able to uncover additional details about the nexus of land agents and economic interests in this region whose aim is to push through the refinery project without dissent -- vital reporting that Warishe's detractors did not want to see published.” 

The investigation also highlights further controversy and a conflict of interest relating to Al Jaber, President of climate conference COP28 - which the host country, UAE, planned to use to make oil deals. If the project, in which Al Jaber’s ADNOC has a 25% stake, goes ahead as planned, the Ratnagiri Refinery would be capable of processing up to 1.2 million barrels of oil a day. Consumption of the refinery’s annual output could release an estimated 177 million tonnes of CO2 a year - equivalent to the annual emissions of the Netherlands or Argentina.

A 2023 Global Witness investigation found that ADNOC is aiming to produce 1.25 billion barrels of oil equivalent in 2030 - a 42 percent increase on current levels. With Ratnagiri Refinery capable of handling around a quarter this planned production capacity, the project neatly aligns with ADNOC’s broader plans to massively ramp up its fossil fuel production – with Al Jaber set to lose billions of dollars if it doesn’t go ahead.

A project such as Ratnagiri Refinery therefore puts Al Jaber, ADNOC, and the UAE at odds with the need to reduce global emissions by 42 percent by 2030 to limit temperature rises to 1.5C – a “top priority” of COP28, according to Al Jaber.

Patrick Galey, Senior Fossil Fuels Investigator at Global Witness, said:

"Building an enormous oil refinery while claiming to lead the fight against climate change is the height of hypocrisy. The Ratnagiri project would spew millions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, sabotaging our efforts to limit global warming, while lining the pockets of those who stand to benefit most from inaction. Al Jaber and ADNOC's involvement in this project is a clear conflict of interest and a betrayal of the global fight for a sustainable future."

ADNOC did not reply to Global Witness’s request for comment. In a response to Forbidden Stories, ADNOC said: “In 2018, ADNOC signed a Framework Agreement to explore a potential strategic partnership in the Ratnagiri refinery project, India. ADNOC has not been actively involved in the proposed project to-date.”

Just last week, Global Witness analysis revealed that by 2050, Saudi Aramco – another 25% project stakeholder - and ADNOC alone are projected to produce products that would emit 64.7 billion tonnes of CO2 – more than a quarter of the world’s remaining 1.5°C carbon budget.