Tamil Nadu’s defiant Cauvery delta vetoes drilling

With the Centre doing away with the need for environment impact assessment as a precondition to exploratory drilling operations, the waters in the delta region have been muddied, once again. Farmers who fear contamination of precious land and water resources are planning a series of protests.

Updated - January 26, 2020 01:41 am IST

Published - January 26, 2020 01:17 am IST - TIRUCHI

PUDUKOTTAI, TAMIL NADU, 03/03/2017: A view of exploratory well sunk by ONGC at Kottaikadu Village near Neduvasal in Pudukottai District.
Photo: M. Moorthy

PUDUKOTTAI, TAMIL NADU, 03/03/2017: A view of exploratory well sunk by ONGC at Kottaikadu Village near Neduvasal in Pudukottai District. Photo: M. Moorthy

The Centre’s recent notification exempting oil and gas companies from having to seek environmental clearance for exploratory drilling has reignited tension in the Cauvery delta, the rice bowl of the State, where farmers have just begun to reap a bountiful harvest.

The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) gazette notification, doing away with the need for environment impact assessment (EIA) for onshore and offshore drilling exploration, is likely to trigger a fresh wave of protests in the delta.

The region had witnessed sporadic protests ever since the then UPA government granted permission to the Great Eastern Energy Corporation Limited (GEECL) for coal bed methane exploration in Thanjavur and Tiruvarur districts in 2010 and the subsequent signing of a memorandum of understanding with the GEECL by the State government under the DMK regime in 2011.

However, following stiff opposition from various sections, former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, in July 2013, asked GEECL officials to suspend operations until the government took a final call, based on the views of an expert group constituted to study the pros and cons of the project. In December 2014, GEECL made a quiet exit, winding up its office in Thanjavur.

More recently, sustained mass protests, lasting several months, at Neduvasal in Pudukottai and Kadiramangalam in Thanjavur district, sent strong signals of the mood among the farmers in the delta. The award of contracts to Vedanta and Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd (ONGC) under the Open Acreage Licensing Programme (OALP) Bid Round-I for hydrocarbon exploration in a few offshore and onshore blocks in the Cauvery basin had stoked discontent and set off a fresh string of protests.

Bolt from the blue

Farmers of the delta reacted with anger and disbelief over the January 16 notification, coming as it does after a period of lull, when farmers were busy raising samba and thaladi crops in a near perfect irrigation season. The MoEFCC has made amendments to the EIA Notification 2006 following requests received by the Ministry “seeking exemption from the requirement of prior environmental clearance under the EIA Notification for onshore and offshore exploratory drilling for oil and gas”.

Until then, even exploratory surveys required the highest level of environmental scrutiny and were classified as category ‘A’, requiring an EIA plan, which would be scrutinised by a committee of experts and subject to a public hearing at the proposed project site. The amendment categorises all offshore and onshore oil and gas exploration as ‘B2’ projects, which will not require an EIA.

Most farmers in the delta view hydrocarbon exploration as a threat to their livelihood and feel aggrieved over the relaxation of norms. “It upsets the entire farming community. The country’s food security depends on the eastern coast, where the deltas of almost all the rivers flowing from the west to the east were situated. While tapping oil and natural gas may not harm agriculture, extraction of coal bed methane and shale gas will be dangerous,” said Mannargudi S. Ranganathan, general secretary, Cauvery Delta Farmers Welfare Association.

Some were taken by surprise over the persistence of the Centre on hydrocarbon exploration. “I am at a loss to understand why the Centre is seeking to discredit itself repeatedly in Tamil Nadu. When the future is said to be in renewable energy, why should the Centre go for hydrocarbons, affecting scarce natural resources,” asked Arupathi P. Kalyanam, general secretary, Federation of Farmers' Associations of Delta Districts.

“It is nothing but an attempt to stifle the voice of the farmers. They will not get even an inch of land from us – we are willing to even sacrifice our lives,” fumed P.R. Pandian of Tamizhaga Cauvery Vivasayigal Sangam, a strident voice from the delta.

Opposition builds

Opposition parties too were quick to pounce on the Centre and State governments. DMK president M.K. Stalin called upon the State government to take a policy decision against implementing hydrocarbon projects. Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami shot off letters to the Prime Minister and Union Minister for Environment seeking status quo ante. He contended that it was “essential to take the people and all stakeholders along while implementing these projects, so that their cooperation and involvement is ensured”.

But environmentalists such as T. Jayaraman, Chief Coordinator of the Anti-Methane Project Federation, who was arrested for his protests at Kadiramangalam, find the State government stand ambiguous. “Does the Chief Minister believe that the project can be implemented with the consent of stakeholders? Don’t we know how farcical the public hearings are? We can live by importing oil, but not water. Where will we go for food after destroying the delta? That’s why we have been insisting since 2014 that Cauvery delta should be declared a protected agricultural zone. But the State government is still not prepared to do so,” said Mr. Jayaraman.

Lashing out at the Union government too, he said that the Centre does not seem to care about people’s sentiments. It doesn’t take the State government seriously either. The draft amendment was not even circulated to the State, Mr. Jayaraman pointed out.

The larger picture

Mr. Jayaraman claimed that the amendment had come in the wake of the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons announcing the opening of international bidding for 11 oil and gas blocks under the OALP for the fifth round. This includes a 4,064 sq. km offshore block in the Cauvery basin, spread over Puducherry, Karaikal, Cuddalore and Nagapattinam.

“This will bring hundreds of wells offshore. The wells will completely destroy fishing, as no vessel can go anywhere near a well. Besides, marine life will also be badly affected and so will agriculture,” Mr. Jayaraman said, pointing out that already Vedanta and ONGC have got permission to drill 341 onshore and offshore wells under the first round of auction.

“There was some restraint at least when the EIA was mandatory. Now they can drill thousands of exploratory wells without any restriction,” Mr. Jayaraman said.

Most farmers are not convinced by the clarifications that oil companies and government officials have come up with in the past. In March 2017, senior ONGC officials held a media conference in Tiruchi to allay the fears of the delta farmers in the wake of the Neduvasal protest. ONGC followed international benchmarks relating to safety and environment protection, the officials maintained. “It is true that delta areas are fertile, but they are also prolific producers of oil and gas. There has been no impact on agriculture due to our activity. There has been no depletion of groundwater or pollution,” a senior official asserted.

The officials claimed that no harmful chemicals were used in conventional drilling for oil and natural gas and there was no chance of pollution as the wells were cased at multiple levels. Rejecting ONGC’s claims that its wells had not affected agriculture or the groundwater, Mr. Jayaraman claimed that the ground water in Kadiramangalam had clearly been polluted.

Interestingly, the ONGC officials also affirmed then that the company was not carrying out exploration of shale gas or coal bed methane in Cauvery basin and did not have any such plan to do so. But Mr. Jayaraman observed that oil firms, with a blanket permission secured in the name of hydrocarbons, could tap any kind of resource now. “We are clear that we don’t want any kind of exploration — either offshore or onshore. We will continue to resist them and will take to the streets after January 27,” he asserted.

More protests

Various other organisations are also planning to launch public campaigns in other forms.

The Kadaimadai Area Integrated Farmers’ Association (KAIFA), which spearheads a youth movement to renovate irrigation tanks in Thanjavur and Pudukottai districts, has planned to request villagers to adopt resolutions against hydrocarbon exploration at the Grama Sabha meetings. It also plans to mobilise youth to protest against the “anti-democratic” amendment, R. Ramkumar, one of the coordinators of the Neduvasal protest and president of KAIFA, said.

The Tamil Nadu Nilam Neer Padukappu Iyyakkam also plans to mobilise public opinion against the Centre’s notification, according to its organiser K.M. Iraniyan. The Left parties have already launched demonstrations in some parts of the delta. The agitations are expected to gather steam once the harvest is over.

With the Tamizhaga Cauvery Vivasayigal Sangam declaring its intent to move the Supreme Court seeking the quashing of the Centre’s amended notification and a ban on implementing hydrocarbon projects in the Cauvery delta, clearly the last word has not yet been said on the issue.


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