Barmer: It has been more than two decades since the discovery of oil and gas in Rajasthan’s dusty Barmer. A decade has also passed since the state signed an MoU with the central government to develop a 9 million metric tonne crude oil refinery.
But the ambitious Barmer Pachpadra oil refinery, a project of chief minister Ashok Gehlot, is still a work in progress and a major issue for both the Congress and the BJP as they campaign for the Rajasthan assembly elections this year.
While the project has missed several of its deadlines, and has faced dozens of local controversies, and has been a battleground for political battles in the two assembly elections so far, it is still seen as an important undertaking. Which will redefine Rajasthan its economic profile and identity at the national level.
When ThePrint visited Pachpadra in the last week of April, project officials said 24,000 workers and a battalion of engineers were working day and night to meet the latest deadline.
Union Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas spokesperson Rajeev Jain said, “The new deadline is March 2024. One of the units will definitely be functional. Around 61 per cent work has been completed.” There are a total of 13 units in the oil refinery spread over 900 acres of land.
The state is also hopeful. Barmer District Magistrate Lok Bandhu said, “Covid delayed the process. Now the construction is in full swing.
While Barmer is not exactly the “next Dubai or Abu Dhabi” that newspapers predicted when the then chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance government, Sonia Gandhi, laid the foundation stone in September 2013, it will return, but at a grassroots level. Change is starting to appear. ,
Where the area was once a vast stretch of undeveloped arid land, it is now home to a cluster of upscale hotels and restaurants and malls that cater to the engineers working at the refinery sites.
Meanwhile, the political battle of grabbing credit and assigning blame continues with an eye on the upcoming elections.
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state vs center tussle
The greenfield refinery and petrochemical complex at Barmer was officially commissioned on 18 September 2013, when the Rajasthan government entered into a joint venture with the central government-owned Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL) with respective equity stakes of 26 percent and 74 percent. Entered.
This joint venture was incorporated as HPCL Rajasthan Refinery Limited (HRRL).
At that time Gehlot was at the helm of the previous Congress government in Rajasthan and the UPA was in power at the Centre.
Over the next few years, the project was delayed several times due to political factors, according to officials involved in the project.
Finally, in 2017, the Raje government, which came to power in December 2013, signed a new MoU with HPCL in April 2017 for Rs 43,129 crore (with equity stake remaining) and in January 2018, once Then Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for the refinery.
At the event, Modi took a dig at the Congress: “We cannot mislead people by pelting stones,” adding that the project would be completed by 2022. Due to restrictions related to the pandemic and other factors, the work on the scheduled limit could not be completed.
Meanwhile, there has been a political heat between the Modi government, now in its second term, and the latest Gehlot government, which came to power in 2018.
The latest controversy happened in February this year, when Union Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas Hardeep Singh Puri visited Barmer to inspect the site.
On 21 February, Puri told reporters in Pachpadra that the estimated project cost had increased from Rs 43,000 crore in 2018 to Rs 72,000 now. He also claimed that the Rajasthan government was asked to bear the additional cost, but did not seem “ready” to do so.
As a result, Puri said, the central government was prepared to bear the additional cost, but the state government’s equity would be reduced by 10 per cent – from 26 per cent to 16 per cent.
In the election year, this matter has taken political colour. For instance, last month, Gehlot blamed the BJP for the delay and cost overrun in the project.
He alleged, “The work of the refinery is in progress. It has been postponed by the BJP for five years. We inaugurated the project in 2013 with the target of completion in 2017. But the BJP government did not take interest in this project for five years of its tenure.”
Responding to a question from ThePrint, the Chief Minister’s Office claimed that the Rajasthan government has cleared all its dues for the project.
The CMO release said, “The state has so far paid the entire demand for its contribution of Rs 2,538.91 crore against 26 per cent equity share in HRRL. No payment of the state’s share is pending.”
Sources in the government said that when the Union ministry sent the revised cost proposal to the state, a committee was formed and Mecon Limited, a public sector undertaking (PSU), was appointed as a consultant.
A source in the Rajasthan government said, “Based on the recommendation report submitted by MECON, the committee recommended the government to consider the proposal. The government considered the proposal and informed the Centre.”
Asked about the CMO’s contention that the Rajasthan government has cleared its dues, Petroleum Ministry spokesperson Jain did not deny it. He claimed that Minister Puri had held a press conference to ensure that the state clears its dues.
Jain said, “The minister just wanted to speed up the process. At the ministry level, there is no issue of pending payments from the state side.”
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a decade late
The Barmer oil refinery project has been a bone of contention between the Congress and the BJP in Rajasthan since its inception.
Even in 2013, when the Gehlot government signed an MoU with HPCL and accepted the 26:74 agreement, the opposition BJP accused it of not bargaining for a better deal.
In the 2013 assembly elections, Vasundhara came to power and she reviewed the project and eventually renegotiated certain conditions in 2017.
Meanwhile, Gehlot held meetings across Rajasthan, accusing Raje of stalling the biggest state project. One of the results was a movement under the aegis of an organization called Refinery Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, which was formed to “save the refinery”.
Congress leader Madan Prajapat, the convenor of this movement, organized a 100-km march from Pachpadra to Jodhpur in 2014 – an event in which many leaders from the Marwar region participated.
Prajapat won the assembly elections in 2008 and again in 2018 from the Pachpadra constituency.
MLA Prajapat told ThePrint, “The movement soon gained public support. Thousands of villagers joined us as we moved towards Jodhpur. He said that before voting back in 2018, he had lost the 2013 election from Pachpadra because of the Modi wave.
He said, “It is an emotional issue for the people of Barmer. At least 17 constituencies are affected by this.”
So far two assembly elections in the state have been fought over starting the construction work of the Barmer refinery and although the work has started, it is still a relevant election issue.
From barren land to hotel, restaurant
Before the discovery of oil and gas, Pachpadra and its surrounding areas were best known for salt mining, which was the primary occupation of the OBC Kharwal community (OBC) of the region.
Vivek Vyas, sub-divisional magistrate of nearby Balotra, said the area was once desolate and mainly owned by the government.
Vyas said, “There was nothing here. Everything was barren here. The government owned most of the land. Only 10 bighas of land belonging to one Rajput family, which came in the middle of 11,000 bighas, was acquired. The family was resettled elsewhere.” ,
Vyas told ThePrint that after the allocation of land by the government for the refinery, there was a flood of applications from individuals seeking to convert their agricultural land into commercial plots, expressing hope that prosperity and modernity would soon sweep the region. Will come
Some of these schemes have been completed.
Pachpadra-Balotra is no longer a backward block of the desert district of Barmer. With the setting up of small concrete units and construction of hotels within only five years, the city is growing rapidly. The cost of one bigha land has increased. The rent of the house is no longer at quarter to quarter prices.
All over the city, “To Let” boards dominate the billboards, indicating the rising demand for rental properties.
Savitri, whose son is a laborer at the refinery site, lives on the outskirts of Pachpadra. He expressed surprise at the facilities now available here.
He said, “I had never seen a restaurant before. But now I have been to the restaurant three times.”
a dark side?
SDM Vyas said that while the development of the refinery has succeeded in preventing unskilled migrants from leaving the district, most of the engineers working in the industry come from outside the district.
He said, “Most of the engineers are from outside. The district supplies around 5,000 workers who are semi skilled and unskilled. Along with this, there are hundreds of small units which supply concrete material for construction.
However, some locals claim that the development has brought with it some disturbing new trends, including a rise in crimes.
Barmer-based Ashok Shera, who runs a popular YouTube channel, told ThePrint that unemployed youths are resorting to activities like snatching and highway robbery. Besides, conflicts between contractors are a regular occurrence.
“It is routine news for us now,” he said.
Shera also claimed that young women are being “forced” into sex work due to the growing demand from “outsiders”.
Shera claimed, “We believe that the girls are doing sex work in the name of running a spa centre.”
When asked about the increase in crime in Pachpadra, Barmar Superintendent of Police (SP) Digant Anand said that the figures show an increase in crime.
Anand said, “Crime is increasing. Talking about Pachpadra police station itself, we registered 211 cases in 2018, which increased to 242 in 2019, 312 in 2020, 363 in 2021 and 364 in 2022. He said that there is no evidence that there has been any spread in illegal sex work.
He said, “We have not come across such a trend so far.”
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(Editing: Pooja Mehrotra)
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