Makarand Gadgil, Business Standard, July 30, 2008
Battle lines are drawn here in village Vasuli Shinde on the banks of river Sudha, near Chakan — the new automobile hub in Maharashtra’s Pune district.
The villagers and the people of the Varkari sect are on one side, while the state government and Dow Chemicals on the another. The bone of contention is the future of Dow Chemicals’ $100-million R&D project, for which 100 acres of land was allotted in the village near the Sudha, held sacred by the followers of a Bhakti cult called Varkaris.
The government is firm that the centre sees the light of the day, while villagers, social activists and the Varkari sect have vowed to ensure that the project doesn’t come up at the proposed site.
Last Friday, some activists of the Varkari sect and a few villagers ransacked the Dow Chemicals premises and burned and hammered down some temporary sheds. Chakan Police have arrested 16 persons in this connection so far.
On Monday, Banda Tatya Maharajah Karadkar, a prominent figure from the Varkari sect, dared the police to arrest by claiming responsibility for the attack.
However, police have so far not arrested Banda Tatya. “We cannot arrest someone just because he or she is involved in the act. We have to ascertain that person’s role in the crime before taking action,” said Inspector Vijay Ghadge, who is in charge of Chakan police station.
Karadkar’s act of defiance has given a new turn to the agitation by local villagers, which has been going on for the last six months under the aegis of the Jan Shashan Andolan. The grounds for the agitation were slightly different from what has prompted the Varkari attack.
The Varkaris, a powerful sect in Maharashtra with followers across party lines, oppose the Dow project on the ground that the land was sacred to saint Tukaram, a leader of the Bhakti Movement.
However, it seems the state government is ready to take on the might of the Varkari sect, supported as it is by a ruling of the Bombay High Court giving the go-ahead for the Dow project. When contacted, industry secretary Aziz Khan said: “We want to promote Maharashtra as an R&D hub and there is no change in our policy.”
“We have provided for police protection at the Dow premises and we will take all the steps to facilitate the setting up of the R&D facility at the site,” he added.
As for environmental concerns, a committee was appointed under the chairmanship of the environment secretary and the project has been given go-ahead only after the committee gave a green signal, he pointed out.
Says Kailas Panmand, a villager from Vasuli-Shinde: “We are against the project as it is going to pollute the Sudha, which flows from the area, and our livelihoods depend on it. The farmers in this area are quite prosperous, reaping three crops a year and if our water source gets polluted, our farms would be destroyed.”
When contacted, a Dow Chemicals spokesman refuted the charges that the R&D facility would pollute the river.
“Villagers wanted to know why we are digging bores at the site. They suspect that chemicals might be discharged through these bores. We have already clarified to them that this is an R&D facility and not a production unit and whatever chemicals we use for research purposes would be in small quantities. And even this will be disposed at a designated facility approved by the state government and not in the village itself.”
“As we are responsible not only to the local community, but also to the global community, we need to publish what is the level of arsenic or other chemicals in the ground before we start work at any facility. And to do that, we need to conduct soil testing. The bores were dug for that,” he added.
Speaking to Business Standard, Vilas Sonawane, the working president of Lok Shashan, asked: “In that case, why is the state government refusing to give details of the project report submitted by the company under right to information.”
Besides this, we also have reservations on the manner in which land was transferred to Dow. The 100 acres of land allotted to Dow is a common grazing land which belongs to the entire village. And before allotment, the state government didn’t feel the need to seek formal resolution by the gram sabha or gram panchayat, he claimed.
Varkaris admit that they have not spoken to Dow directly. “We conveyed our objection to the facility through the Andolan. When the company ignored the request, we razed the place,” says Varkari leader Sachin Sambaji Shinde.
“This is a place where Tukaram wrote the Gatha, which is a collection of Abhangs. Moreover, it is just 5 km away from Dehu, the birthplace of Tukaram Maharaj and is also near Alandi (the place of saint Dhyaneshwar, one of the earlier writers of Marathi language). This entire region is revered by the Varkaris who visit this region every year in large numbers.”