Man Accused of Killing Journalist in Maharashtra Received Payment from Refinery: Investigation
One year ago, journalist Shashikant Warishe was killed in a village in western India. Forbidden Stories and The Indian Express pursued his work on suspicious land dealings. We obtained documents connecting Warishe’s accused killer, Pandharinath Amberkar, to an oil refinery project, and revealed land speculation involving Indian politicians and bureaucrats.
By Phineas Rueckert
Reading time: 10m
STOLEN LANDS | February 7, 2024
Shevanti Warishe and her grandson, Yash, live in a modest, two-room structure in Rajapur, a rural district in India’s western Maharashtra state, among dense, tropical forests. Only one addition has been made to their home in the past year: a small altar in the entryway. On it sits a photo of a man with cropped hair, graying at the temples, who wears a serious demeanor and gazes at the camera. A garland is draped over the photo in memory of its subject: 48-year-old journalist Shashikant Warishe, who was killed kilometers away. Still, Shevanti, Warishe’s mother, expects him to come home for dinner every night. “We have lost everything,” she said.
Warishe, a native of the Konkan region, a coastal area in Maharashtra, worked as a local reporter at Mahanagari Times, and colleagues remember him for his grit and fearlessness. He cut his teeth reporting on resistance movements against development projects in the area, including a $44 billion refinery and petrochemicals plant called the Ratnagiri Refinery And Petrochemicals Limited (RRPCL). RRPCL was proposed in 2017 as a joint partnership between three Indian state oil companies. Saudi Aramco and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) have signed MOUs expressing their intent to partner on the project. The project has met fierce opposition from local activists, who say the refinery will cause environmental damage and displace farmers.
Warishe was committed to highlighting “issues of local communities against these projects,” activist Mangesh Chavan said. “He was an absolute standout when it came to that, and he wouldn’t be cowed down, no matter how powerful these corporations are.”
On the morning of February 6, 2023, Warishe published a story about Pandharinath Amberkar, a local land dealer. Warishe reported that Amberkar, who previously ran for office as an independent, pro-refinery candidate in India’s 2019 parliamentary elections, had taken out public banners in which he appeared with two Maharashtrian politicians and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The article was meant to highlight Amberkar’s criminal record and caution the public.
Later that day, Warishe stopped at a gas station to fuel his motorcycle when he was rammed by the driver of an SUV, allegedly Amberkar, and dragged for 80 meters along a dirt road before the driver fled the scene. Early the next day, Warishe was pronounced dead at the hospital.
In a May 2023 chargesheet, police investigators concluded Amberkar had become angry over Warishe’s writing and ran him over. Investigators found a phone recording of the accused in which he explicitly states in Marathi that he will finish off Warishe for publishing a news article against him. “I have to finish off someone. I will do it today,” he said. Searching Amberkar’s home, police officers also found a pen drive containing Mahanagari Times articles, suggesting the murder was premeditated. (In a bail application, Amberkar claimed the collision was a “pure accident” and blamed his automatic car, which had “gone out of his control as he jumbled between the accelerator and [the] break.” Amberkar is currently imprisoned in Maharashtra, where he has been denied bail. A court date has not yet been set.)
One year after Warishe’s death, Forbidden Stories—whose mission is to pursue the work of journalists who are killed, imprisoned or threatened—partnered with The Indian Express to continue Warishe’s work, investigating Amberkar, the accused, and the land speculation rig on which Warishe had been reporting. We obtained bank records showing a payment from RRPCL to a company owned by Amberkar, Sai Krupa Travels. This transfer, through India’s National Electronic Funds Transfer system, or NEFT, was worth 444,000 Indian Rupees ($5,346 USD) and dates to December 2022, roughly two months before Amberkar allegedly killed Warishe, rebuking the refinery’s claims that they had no association with Amberkar.
The joint investigation also uncovers significant land speculation in the area earmarked for the refinery. The value of this land–most of which has been purchased at rates lower than market value–is expected to skyrocket once the land required to build the refinery is officially “notified,” or requested by the state of Maharashtra. Between 2021 and 2023, Amberkar and a relative, Akshay Amberkar, were involved in at least 34 land transactions in villages located within the project area, worth 28.3 million Indian rupees (about $340,000 USD), documents obtained by Forbidden Stories and The Indian Express show. Amberkar—who has at least four criminal cases pending against him for attacking anti-refinery activists—actively promoted the refinery project, including providing vehicle services to RRPCL officials and liaising with the refinery’s public relations officer Amit Nagwekar, which demonstrates a cozy relationship between Amberkar and refinery higher-ups.
These findings are supported by a Global Witness report, whose research into the repression of activists opposing the refinery in Ratnagiri, the capital of the Konkan region, is being published alongside our reporting.
(RRPCL and Amberkar did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Nor did Saudi Aramco. In a statement shared with Forbidden Stories, ADNOC said that it had signed a framework agreement “to explore a potential strategic partnership,” but that it “has not been actively involved in the proposed project to-date.”)
The resource curse
In the small world of Maharashtrian environmental activism, Warishe was a common sight at protests, and he and Mangesh Chavan, a 54-year-old activist, regularly crossed paths. Chavan, who sports buzzed hair and a close-cropped beard, has lived for over 30 years in the Konkan region. The horticulturalist and former Maharashtra agriculture department employee lives on Juve, an estuarial island four kilometers south of Ratnagiri. There, the corridor of rich, densely forested lands is accented by red-clay laterite plateaus. In the rainy season, water pools below the hills and reveals rare forms of wildlife, including geckos and purple freshwater crabs indigenous to this zone. But this natural wealth comes with a curse, Chavan explained.
Chavan has watched as successive governments have attempted to convert the lands into industry. “They have raised war with one another for the control of these regions,” Chavan said. But, he added, “the people have stood up in opposition to these projects for the conservation and protection of not just their livelihoods, but also the environment on which they are actively dependent for their survival.”
In India, 17 percent of the world’s population lives on just 2.4 percent of the world’s land mass, according to Kumar Sambhav, founder of Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers studying land conflicts in India. Consequently, land is in high demand, and some individuals will go to extreme lengths to obtain it. “The laws and policies that are meant to protect the weaker sections are often manipulated through legit and illegit means to benefit the powerful,” he said. (Land Conflict Watch has documented 44 land conflicts in Maharashtra involving industrial, infrastructure, power and mining sectors, many of which involved violations of prior informed consent of local populations.)
As is characteristic at sites of land conflicts across Maharashtra, when the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) proposed the 60-million-ton-per-annum refinery in 2015, activists prepared for a fight. Proponents of the refinery promised “large-scale employment generation…and economic development of the region.” In 2017, the RRPCL was formed between three public-sector Indian oil companies. The following year, Saudi Aramco and ADNOC signed a framework agreement to jointly “build, own and operate the [mega refinery and petrochemicals] complex.” The project was planned for Nanar village, where the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation, a state-owned investment company, conducted a pre-feasibility study. That’s when villagers started agitating against the project, Chavan remembers. The government eventually withdrew the proposal in 2019.
But two years later, the Maharashtra government announced a new project site just thirty-some kilometers away, in Barsu, where most villages rejected the refinery and locals say no one was consulted. “We do not want a project that would pollute the village,” Naresh Sood, deputy head of Dhopeshwar, one of the towns potentially affected by the project, told Forbidden Stories’s partner The Indian Express. “The government should cancel the project and bring projects that will not pollute our land.”
Dilip Thotam, the head of neighboring town Solgaon, said villagers wanted economic opportunities, not polluting industries. Instead, government projects “should be based on the cultivation of mangoes, cashews or other fruits,” he said.
But for local land brokers, like Amberkar, the accused in Warishe’s murder case, the project’s move to Barsu presented an economic opportunity. Such brokers could purchase land at lower-than-market rates and sell it to the government at exponentially higher rates when the land notification cleared.
Forbidden Stories and The Indian Express reviewed five years of land transactions in villages within the proposed project area. We found a 200 percent rise in land transactions between 2018 and 2022, an analysis supported by documents obtained by local activists and shared with Global Witness. Activists estimate that between 2019 and 2022, more than 150 individuals from outside Maharashtra purchased land within the administrative bounds of the villages potentially impacted by the project in deals worth more than £3 million, according to the Global Witness report.
“They harassed poor people to grab their land and start the refinery project,” Kamlakar Maruti Gurav, a former council leader at Devache Gothane, one of the villages in the proposed refinery area, told Global Witness. “Farmers were being fooled to sell their land cheaply, they were told it would only be used for farming.”
“The watchman of the Konkan”
Two camps emerged at the Barsu site: a group of activists protested the project, while others, including Amberkar, fiercely supported it for their personal gain. Amberkar quickly positioned himself to the community as the RRPCL’s muscle and tried to cozy up to local politicians. Photos show Amberkar at public meetings with local politicians, including State Industry Minister Uday Samant, who has previously shown support for the project.
In 2019, Amberkar ran for office on a pro-refinery platform when the project was slated for its first location in Nanar. His slogan was unambiguous: Me Kokancha Chowkidar (“I am the watchman of Konkan.”) Despite losing the campaign, Amberkar successfully built a back channel to the refinery’s Public Relations Officer (PRO), Amit Nagwekar, according to the chargesheet. Nagwekar admitted to police during questioning on the Warishe case that he had communicated with Amberkar since 2018. According to the deposition, Amberkar, who owned a travel company, provided vehicle services to refinery officials “at times, as per the demands of company officials.” “Apart from this, Pandharinath Amberkar has no relation with RRPCL company or officers,” Nagwekar told police. (Nagwekar did not respond to a detailed set of questions sent by Forbidden Stories and The Indian Express.)
Through his lawyer, Samant said Amberkar “has photographed himself with many leading politicians” and denied having “any personal or professional” connections to Amberkar. “It’s crucial to clarify that public figures often find themselves in various situations where they may encounter individuals from different backgrounds. I don’t have control over who is present at public events, and when photograph (sic) was taken,” Samant said, adding: “He was never office bearer of my political party.”
Activists say Amberkar used bullying and manipulation tactics to obtain land and repress protests and often resorted to violence and intimidation. In 2020, for instance, Amberkar was accused of running local activist Manoj Mayekar over with his SUV. Amberkar “is a well-known goonda (goon) and land mafia,” Vinayak Raut, a member of the Shiv Sena Party, which opposes the ruling BJP, told Forbidden Stories through a translator.
Several other criminal cases have been filed against Amberkar, including for intimidation, unlawful assembly, and voluntarily causing harm. In a bail application submitted by Amberkar following his arrest for Warishe’s murder, the investigating officer argued that Amberkar represented a threat to society and might try to influence the case if released on bail. “The applicant is [a] habitual offender. There is terror of [the] applicant in the nearby area. If the applicant is released on bail he may pressurize to (sic) the relatives of [the] deceased and witnesses.” (Amberkar’s first bail application was denied; another is currently pending in the Bombay High Court.)
In September 2022, activists for and against the project sparred in Goval, a small village in the area, leading one activist to register a police complaint against Amberkar.
Warishe covered the incident in Mahanagari Times. “They are just land grabbers scaring the poor people of Rajapur and rural areas,” he wrote of Amberkar and other refinery supporters. Warishe was walking a dangerous line; less than six months later, he, too, was in Amberkar’s crosshairs.
In early 2023, as tensions over the project mounted, Warishe began looking into the proliferation of land sales in the region. Warishe started by identifying proxies–local real-estate agents who bought land at reduced prices and sold it to outsiders who agreed to approve government acquisition.
This network of local agents included Amberkar and Akshay, a relative who worked closely with him. The land registration documents obtained by Forbidden Stories and The Indian Express show Amberkar either purchased, sold or acted as an agent in at least 15 land transactions, totaling 6.33 hectares of land worth 8.06 million Indian Rupees (just under $100,000 USD). In the span of three years, Akshay was involved in at least 19 deals of parcels measuring over eight hectares, worth 19.9 million Indian Rupees (roughly $240,000 USD).
Buyers included politicians and bureaucrats. Kiran Vasant Achrekar, Deputy Municipal Commissioner at the Municipal Corporation Of Greater Mumbai, purchased five land parcels for 17.2 million Indian Rupees (roughly $200,000 USD). Akshay served as power of attorney in all of those transactions. Ashish Ranjeet Deshmukh, a former MLA with the BJP, bought two plots of land for 5.6 million Rupees ($57,000 USD). Anil Kumar Gaikwad, of the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation, bought four land parcels in Barsu worth 5 million Rupees ($60,000 USD). (Achrekar and Gaikwad did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Deshmukh said that he had purchased the land for farming and had no idea whether the land would be used for the refinery or not. Akshay Amberkar did not respond to requests for comment.)
Activists and opponents of the refinery claim many farmers who sold their land were unaware it would be earmarked for the refinery and worry they will be left landless and jobless.
“Our livelihood is totally dependent upon the land on which we cultivate. Where would we go after giving away the land?” asked Vanita Narayan Gurav, a resident of Dhopeshwar village who refused to sell her plot. “They forcibly did the soil testing on our land. They did not even ask for permission, and when we opposed and protested, they arrested us.”
Land brokers typically look for signs of weakness in local communities and target vulnerable individuals first, activists said. They have also allegedly targeted local journalists to reduce negative coverage. In Barsu, Amberkar sold land to at least two local journalists in exchange for their silence, according to press reports. Warishe was offered land by Amberkar but refused, his former colleague, Amol Mhatre, said. According to the more than 1,000-page chargesheet, Amberkar allegedly threatened Warishe for writing negatively about him.
Reporters who do take on land interests are often threatened, according to Kunal Majumder, India representative at the Committee to Protect Journalists, who has detailed roughly one such case every six months over the past five years. In 2020, journalist Shubham Tripathi was killed in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, a north Indian state that’s a BJP stronghold. Others have been violently attacked.
“There are many non-state actors, including big corporations, local mafia and others who are hand-in-glove with the different [state] actors and who are coming after journalists,” Majumder said. “At the end of the day, the motive [for] targeting journalists is not just merely a big issue of controlling power, but it is also an issue of controlling resources.”
Protecting the heavens
As the fight over the refinery intensified in early 2023, Mhatre tried to warn Warishe about the risks. “Take care of yourself,” he told Warishe. “I will not compromise for this refinery,” he remembered Warishe responding. Warishe also tried to assuage his mother’s concerns during conversations on his reporting. “He would say he is not doing anything wrong,” Shevanti remembered. “He was working for the people’s good, and no one will harm him for that,” he told her.
Then, in February, Warishe’s untimely death became a flashpoint in the battle over the refinery’s future. Hundreds of protesters—mostly women—soon took to the streets to contest soil testing on the project site, which they allege was illegal. Protesters lay on the ground to physically block refinery vehicles from passing through to the soil testing site, which must be completed before the project can be approved by the government. “They hit us with batons, they grabbed women and dragged them across the hard ground, they threw teargas,” Mansi Amol Bole, a female protester, told Global Witness. More than 300 activists were arrested. Global Witness called this part of a “broader repressive context” that includes the criminalization of climate activists in India and the killings of dozens of land defenders since 2012, when the NGO began collecting data.
No pre-feasibility studies have been conducted since the project was moved to Barsu, according to Swathi Seshadri, the Programs and Team Lead on Oil and Gas at the Center for Financial Accountability (CFA) in Mumbai. “There’s a phrase we often use in India, jungle raj [rule of the forest], which actually seems nice compared to what they are doing,” Seshadri said. “There is no accountability.”
Responding to queries on the status of the RRPCL’s land acquisition plan, the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) said that the RRPCL had conducted a “techno-feasibility survey” between August 2022 and May 2023 and had obtained the written consent of 46 landowners for land acquisition. “However, MIDC has not [yet] received the report from RRPCL,” nor have they “submitted a formal proposal for the land acquisition,” a spokesperson for the corporation said.
Seshadri worried that if the project were to move forward, the impacts on coastal ecosystems in the Konkan could be drastic. “You can imagine village after village being contaminated by toxic effluents,” she said. “You will see that there will be oil slicks in the sea where the ports will come up.” Mangesh Chavan, the activist from Juve echoed this sentiment: “We live in a heaven, and the heavens have to be protected at all costs.”
Fighting the next battle, Chavan said, would be arduous without Warishe’s hard-nosed reporting. “I believe that the refinery and its proponents were bang-on in trying to eliminate him through one of these land sharks,” he said. “He was our only voice,” Chavan said.
Additional reporting from Mumbai and Ratnagiri by Vallabh Ozarkar.