The Sunday Deep Dive

One hydrocarbon project, many fault lines

Primal fear:  At the core of the protests against the hydrocarbon project in Neduvasal is the villagers’ fear that it would undo decades of progress in boosting agricultural production in what was once a dry district.

Primal fear: At the core of the protests against the hydrocarbon project in Neduvasal is the villagers’ fear that it would undo decades of progress in boosting agricultural production in what was once a dry district.

Sixty-seven-year-old G. Subramanian of Neduvasal is not one to shy away from a fight. Certainly not when somebody tries to deprive him of his fertile land that feeds his joint family of 10.

Mr. Subramanian, who has been fighting to hold on to his lush, eight-acre piece of land and prevent it from being taken on lease, has, in a way, been the man behind the mass protest against the Centre’s hydrocarbon exploration and extraction project at Neduvasal that has been raging for over a fortnight now.

The sprightly farmer, who, as a young man, aspired to join the Army but was not allowed to do so by his parents, is celebrated as a hero by many in the village. But for him, the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) would have already sunk an exploratory well in Neduvasal as it had done in half-a-dozen neighbouring hamlets.

Gaining momentum: The agitations against the hydrocarbon project have entered their third week.

Gaining momentum: The agitations against the hydrocarbon project have entered their third week.

For the past four years, Mr. Subramanian has been stubbornly refusing to part with a portion of his land — about four acres — sought by the ONGC, which had zeroed-in on this exploratory location through seismic surveys conducted over the past several years.

Although some of his neighbours had given their land on lease to the ONGC, much against his advice, Mr. Subramanian has been holding on to his four acres, as if for dear life. Articulate and well-informed, he recounts the attempts to take over his land on lease: “On April 4, 2013, a group of officers, apparently from the ONGC and the Revenue Department, arrived and started taking measurements around my field. I was working in the field and wasn’t bothered initially. But soon, they started fixing boundary stones. Taken aback, I rushed in, asking them what they were doing on my field without my consent. They said they were conducting a survey. I asked them whether they knew who the owner of the land was. Was I dead?”

After a bout of discussion, Mr. Subramanian politely told them to remove the boundary stones as it would be disrespectful to the officials if he himself were to do so.“They complied with my request and left,” narrates Mr. Subramanian.

 P. Kulandai Velar

P. Kulandai Velar.

 

The day marked the beginning of a long fight. “Ever since, it has been a torture as the officials kept coming at frequent intervals, asking us to hand over the land,” says a frail-looking Parvathi, his wife. She underwent a mastectomy a few years ago, and the family spent nearly ₹5 lakh on her cancer treatment by raising loans.

The family has already been through some troubled times. Apart from Parvathi’s poor health, the couple’s elder son’s wife died, leaving two young children in their care and the younger son doesn’t have a steady job. “The land is my only source of income and I raise a range of crops to meet the expenses. As we cannot afford to hire labourers due to high wages, we ourselves toil in the field,” he says.

Though the visiting officials kept changing, their demand remained the same – sign on the dotted lines. “They even called me for ‘peace talks’ with senior officials at Tiruvarur. I went alone, ignoring my wife’s advice. They tried to coerce me into signing the lease document. But I stood my ground,” he recalls.

“They offered to hike the compensation but I said I will not give up the land even if they gave me ₹5 crore. They came calling even about six to seven months back, but I explained my position to them. Let them go to court, I will fight it out. They can take over my land, but only over our dead bodies,” says Mr. Subramanian.

Giving up lands

At neighbouring Karu Nallandarkollai, just two kilometres away, P. Kulandai Velar, aged over 70, sits on a bullock cart outside his tiled house, looking forlorn. He was one of those who had agreed to give their land to the ONGC without a murmur when they came asking for it in 2006.

Poles apart: G. Subramanian (L), who refused to cede his land to ONGC

Poles apart: G. Subramanian (L), who refused to cede his land to ONGC.

 

“I, along with my brother, gave up six acres when they asked for the land, saying they were going to be drilling for kerosene. I didn’t ask any questions then. They started work in 2007. They are still paying me ₹60,000 annually. I used to earn more growing paddy, sugarcane and banana using a borewell,” he says.

A potter by profession, he doesn’t get much income from the trade these days. “Both my wives died, unable to bear the fact that I had given away the land. I have sold many of my cattle,” he claims.

An exploratory well sunk by the ONGC in his field presents a “stark danger” to the villagers even though there has been no activity at the site for the past few years. A square-shaped ground level tank, about 100 metres away from the well, still has a substantial quantity of what looks like crude oil — apparently leakages from the well.

“The land is barren now and I have no hopes of restoring it to take up cultivation again,” says Mr. Kulandai Velar.

Protests gather mass

The tale of the two farmers, and the likes of Mr. Kulandai Velar, who had given up his land for ONGC’s exploratory wells, has stirred what has now grown into a mass protest, almost akin to the recent pro-jallikattu protest in the State. Much like the jallikattu protest, this stir intensified with the support of the youth and celebrities, mobilised through social media.

Drilling distress:  An exploration well sunk by ONGC at Kottaikadu village near Neduvasal.

Drilling distress: An exploration well sunk by ONGC at Kottaikadu village near Neduvasal.

 

On February 15, when news broke that Neduvasal was only one among the 31 contract areas of small fields where exploration of hydrocarbons is to be taken up across the country, many villagers rushed to meet Mr. Subramanian, asking him whether he had signed the lease document. Relieved to hear that he hadn’t, the villagers got into a huddle and launched the protest the very next day.

Ever since, the village square in front of the Nadimuthu Mariamman Temple and the adjacent temple tank have become the setting for the sit-in, which over the past couple of weeks has turned into a strident protest with the support of farmers’ organisations, environmental activists, youth mobilised through social media and political parties. It was not long before villagers of Karu Nallandarkollai and Kottaikadu, where the ONGC has already drilled exploratory wells, went on protests at their respective villages.

Black flags in front of houses and hoardings decrying the hydrocarbon project greet visitors all across the villages. Hundreds of people keep pouring into Neduvasal every day, even as the police keep watch on all visitors. Vehicle numbers and mobile phone numbers are noted down. A section of young agitators have alleged that students are not being allowed to enter the village, but policemen deny the charge.

The villagers are keen on ensuring that the protest does not take a political hue. While politicians are welcome, they are asked to conduct demonstrations near the bus stand, just behind the temple.

Indeed, politicians have been heading to Neduvasal, like bees drawn to honey, or issuing statements in support of the agitation. The protests reached such a crescendo that Union Minister for State for Road Transport and Highways Pon. Radhakrishnan, who hails from Kanniyakumari, made an assurance recently in a speech he made in the delta region: The Centre will not go ahead with anything that would be harmful to the people of the State. Other major political parties joined cause with the farmers, though they had to keep their physical distance from the core protests.

The villagers play eager hosts and are generous in their hospitality. Hundreds of people are fed daily by a community kitchen adjacent to the protest venue. Over 20 people, many of them women, cook the food. Variety rice is served to all, from 1 p.m. till six in the evening. “The villagers contribute rice and vegetables voluntarily. We are happy to feed the people who support us. It is our culture. No one should go hungry. We want to ensure that our village is saved,” says P. Poomalai, who is busy cutting vegetables in the kitchen. About 15-20 bags of rice are cooked every day by a team of men and women who begin work as early as 6 a.m.

On Friday evening, the farmers of Kottaikadu, one of the two villages adjoining Neduvasal, where protests were being held against the hydrocarbon exploration project, called off their stir temporarily. They said the State government had assured them that it would address their two main demands: Complete closure of the well sunk by the ONGC in the village and the restoration of lands to the 11 persons who had given them on lease.

A village transformed

The most striking feature of the landscape for anyone approaching Neduvasal is the almost abrupt change in topography — expanses of dry scrub jungles, cashew and eucalyptus groves en route to the village suddenly give way to refreshingly lush green fields of paddy, groundnut, vegetables and coconut groves. Gardens in front of large houses are full of jackfruit, mango and other trees.

“This is a place where we grow almost everything. Except apples and a few hill-grown vegetables, we grow everything we want,” asserts C. Balakrishnan with pride.

This indeed is the refrain of the farmers who are agitating against the project. “Pudukkottai is normally considered a dry district. But we have toiled over the past 30 years to change it. Using borewells extensively, we have managed to change our landscape. The Cauvery Modernisation Project canal also runs along our village. Today, we raise three crops a year, including paddy, in addition to horticulture and floriculture. You will not find even a single piece of barren land here,” says A.S. Thirugnanam, a member of the Save Neduvasal Campaign Committee.

Villagers claim that no information has been provided to them on the project so far. “They had sought to take some lands on lease a few years ago, saying they were drilling to extract kerosene. How can the ONGC offer our land to a private company without our consent?” a villager wondered.

The villagers are consumed by apprehensions about the exploration plans of the government – from the depletion of water table depriving them of their livelihood, to the contamination of fields and incursion of sea water in the water table. Some claim that the execution of the project would cause earthquakes and even make the local population more vulnerable to certain diseases.

The village’s youth believe that the project also involves extraction of methane and shale gas. “The project is nothing but an attempt to tap methane,” asserts R. Nirmala, a B.Sc. Microbiology student from Karu Nallandarkollai, who had skipped her classes to join the protest. Others see an ulterior motive. “Their (the government’s) ultimate objective is to mine lignite,” claims G. Palanivel (38), who, after finishing a course in catering technology, had worked in Singapore for three years. He had returned recently to help his aged father in agriculture.

“We have already seen the dangers of the project as the site where the well was sunk has turned barren. That’s why we are protesting,” says Sundar Mahesh from Karu Nallandarkollai.

The villagers are not willing to buy the explanations of the ONGC or the government. “They say it will not affect the environment. But how can they guarantee that? Some say we should make sacrifices for the country’s development. But we don’t want to be martyrs. Our land is precious; we will not cede even a cent of land,” maintains Mr. Thirugnanam.


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Printable version | Jun 26, 2022 1:12:26 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/one-hydrocarbon-project-many-fault-lines/article61808511.ece