"Will not permit if it affects even in a small way farmers of the ‘rice bowl’ of Tamil Nadu"

In a relief to agitating farmers of Thanjavur and Tiruvarur districts, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa on Wednesday called for suspension of the proposed coal bed methane (CBM) exploration and production project in the two districts. She also announced the constitution of a multi-disciplinary experts’ committee to study adverse impact of the project.

In a statement, she said she asked officials to ensure that the Great Eastern Energy Corporation Ltd (GEECL), which obtained petroleum exploration licence (PEL) from the previous Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government and entered into a memorandum of understanding with the government in January 2011, was not allowed to carry out any work till her government took a decision on the basis of report to be submitted by the panel of experts in three months.

The team, consisting of experts from the Anna University, Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, would include officials from the Departments of Public Works and Agriculture besides Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) and Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corporation.

The GEECL had got the PEL to cover an area of 691 sq km in Tiruvarur and Thanjavur districts of the State. Even though it received environmental clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests in September 2012, the TNPCB was the agency to grant nod for exploratory work and the Board had not yet granted permission for drilling of test wells.

Referring to the concerns of the farmers, Ms Jayalalithaa said that the farmers had been voicing their apprehensions that the project would not only affect their farmlands but also pose problems to the health of the people in the region.

Explaining the need for the committee, the Chief Minister said if the project were to affect even marginally the Cauvery delta, regarded as Tamil Nadu’s rice bowl, and the farmers, her government would not allow it to be executed.

Hailing the decision, S. Ranganathan, general secretary of the Cauvery Delta Farmers’ Welfare Association, thanked the Chief Minister. Mr. Ranganathan, who himself is a geologist and part of the anti-project campaign, says that the technology used for CBM extraction is relatively recent and even in the US, only in areas not associated with agriculture, the technology has been used. But, Thanjavur and Tiruvarur districts are famous for paddy production. This is why the opposition to the project, Mr. Ranganathan explains.