A natural gas pipeline project has raised safety fears and concerns over restrictions on property rights of those in its path

Two days before Kerala “emerged” in a blaze of publicity, a “parliament” was convened under a shamiana outside the Palakkad District Collectorate, bringing environmentalists together with members of the GAIL Gas Pipeline Victims’ Forum. The pipeline, to be laid by the Gas Authority of India Ltd. (GAIL), is routed through 18 panchayats and two municipalities in Palakkad district. The “victims” at the parliament on September 11, 2012, were landowners who had yielded right of use to the government.

The landowners object to two aspects of the project: lack of safety assurances and the way GAIL acquired right of use over their land.

The 900-km pipeline will pipe imported natural gas through Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. It will bring Kerala into the national gas grid, according to K.P. Ramesh, Deputy General Manager-Construction, who is in charge of pipeline construction in the three States. The stated cost is Rs.3,240 crore. Eventually, tenders will be floated for distribution of gas for cooking.

Tanker explosion

Ramesh says GAIL has sought exemption from the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act 2008 on the grounds that the pipeline is a public utility. Over the past few years, local and State governments have given permission for the pipeline to cut through rivers and roads. But some private landowners were caught unawares when they received notice to state their objections to the right of use within 21 days. The sudden appearance of lorries unloading pipes in Ongallur, Palakkad district, riled many landowners, especially since it coincided with the August 27 explosion of an LPG gas tanker in Chala, near Kannur. The explosion burned vegetation, houses and people up to half a kilometre away. It killed 20.

Following the explosion, residents along the pipeline route became fixated on its dangers. An explosion can cause 100 per cent fatalities up to a distance of 680 m, according to a study of the Jamnagar-Bhopal gas pipeline by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (a Government of India body). On the other hand, natural gas pipelines have been delivering cooking gas for years in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and other crowded cities. Ramesh says accidents have to be understood in proportion, as with plane crashes and road accidents.

The project, he says, is regulated by the Oil Industry Safety Directorate (under the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas), which will conduct pre-commissioning inspections and audits. It will also be audited for safety by the Chief Controller of Explosives and third parties such as the British Safety Council, apart from the internal auditor.

In Kerala the pipeline runs through farms, villages and towns in seven districts. The GAIL Gas Pipeline Victims’ Forum was formed in January 2012, as affected landowners began to receive notices. Says Narayanan Nambeesan, Chairman of the Forum, “Data is still being collected on how much land will be lost, the number of houses, the residents affected, the schools, churches, temples, hospitals in the route of the pipeline.”

Protest often looks like Kerala’s most active industry, but these landowners are not speaking in rehearsed phrases. Mangalam from Mannur, Palakkad district, voiced her fears at the parliament. “We have five cents of land [just over 2,000 square feet] and an ordinary house,” she said. “We haven’t plastered it. It’s just my husband and me and our two girls.” Her voice became wobbly. “We don’t want money. We are just frightened something will happen to what we have built with such hardship.”

Hearings

For the right of use to lay a pipeline, the landowner is paid compensation at 10 per cent of the government-declared fair price. He continues to pay taxes on the land, and after the pipeline is in place he can cultivate only bananas, vegetables and paddy. He cannot plant trees or dig a well. He cannot erect a fence, compound wall or building. He may sell it, provided he can find a buyer under those conditions.

The first set of hearings, during which landowners can state their objections and grievances, is over, says Ramesh. However, V. Subramanian, Convener of the Forum for Palakkad district, insists hearings were not held in all the affected areas. He also says that most landowners at the hearing he attended felt the officials were there to persuade them to cooperate, not hear them out. Indeed, K.V. Vasudevan, Additional District Magistrate, described them as “conciliation meetings.” Subramanian has a copy of a Malayalam flyer that GAIL distributed to residents of Pappadi village. It assures them the pipes will be thick enough to resist rupture, that if houses are demolished owners will be compensated, and that GAIL is not acquiring their land, only exerting right of use. It also promises them cheaper cooking gas.

Safety can indeed be ensured in populated areas by increasing the pipe thickness and by burying it 2 m deep rather than 1.2 m, according to a senior executive of a company who agreed to be identified only as “an expert in the subject of gas pipelines.” But the supply to rural consumers is not commercially viable, he says. “They [GAIL] are not in the business of charity.”

Farmers will, therefore, lose paddy land and residential land so that gas can be supplied to urban consumers. For Lakshmi Ammal, 78, that’s an old story. She and her husband shifted to Akathethara 40 years ago after they lost their four acres in Malampuzha panchayat to the Fisheries Department. Their land, now divided among three sons and three daughters, is planted thick with paddy, coconut, banana, ginger and cheera (greens). The pipeline will leave unusable strips in all their portions, her youngest son says. “We’ve wandered from place to place and now I’m old,” says Lakshmi Ammal. “Can’t I have a quiet place to drink my kanji?”

At an anti-GAIL march on October 3 in Malappuram, close to Kozhikode, the rhetoric was more explosive than in Palakkad three weeks earlier. On and off stage, people spoke of blocking roads and stopping lorries from unloading pipes. They spoke of Bhagat Singh and “over my dead body.”

Deadlines

K.P. Ramesh says the Government of Kerala has given the project “blanket permission for clearances,” but the Environment Ministry at the Centre has not cleared the Kerala stretch, according to official central government sources who spoke anonymously because of the “sensitivity” of the subject in view of looming deadlines. The pipeline was to be commissioned in March 2013. The Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulatory Board has turned up the heat, warning that it will scrap the Kerala venture if it does not take off by this December.

The next few weeks will be crucial. If the Prime Minister succeeds in establishing the National Investment Board to speed through infrastructure projects, overruling the ministries that were designed to regulate them, the GAIL gas pipeline may well find a bypass route to completion.

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