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Locals feel betrayed as Centre goes ahead with petroleum extraction in TN

S Murari | Updated on: 28 March 2017, 15:51 IST

The Centre has decided to go ahead with a project to extract hydrocarbons from a village in the delta region of Tamil Nadu, despite fierce opposition from locals.

The people of Neduvasal in the Pudukottai district had called off their agitation earlier this month after they were assured by the Tamil Nadu government and state BJP leader and Union Minister Pon Radhakrishnan that the project would not be cleared if found harmful to farmers.

However, the government has gone ahead and awarded the contract to a private firm, ignoring protests that the project would lead to a depletion of groundwater and seepage of sea water into fertile fields.

Similar project, similar protests

Besides Neduvasal, there is a similar project to be implemented in Karaikkal in the neighbouring Union Territory of Puducherry.

ONGC has been carrying out oil exploration at Narimanam in Karaikkal, which is an offshore venture.

The people of Karaikkal are also up in arms against the onshore hydrocarbon exploration. This is because Karaikkal, an enclave in the Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu, is at the tail end of the Cauvery basin, just like Neduvasal, and is dependent more on groundwater than the Cauvery for cultivation.

The projects at these two places will now be onshore.

Contract given to BJP MP's family firm?

Neduvasal is one of the 31 projects for which memoranda of understanding were signed in New Delhi with 22 private firms, in the presence of Union Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, under the Discovered Small Field (DSF) Bid Round 2016.

The contract for Neduvasal has been given to Bengaluru-based Gem Laboratories, which is reportedly owned by the family of BJP MP GM Siddeshwara, the former Union MoS for Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises.

The Karaikkal project has been given to Bharat Petro Resources Ltd, a subsidiary of the state-owned Bharat Petroleum.

Opposition from TN and Puducherry govts

People from both these places feel they have been betrayed by the Centre.

As Karaikkal is in a Union Territory which comes under the control of New Delhi, the BJP government at the Centre can ride roughshod over dissenters, even though Puducherry's Congress Chief Minister V Narayanasamy has insisted he is with the locals.

The Tamil Nadu government, meanwhile, has said it will not give environmental clearance to the project. Reiterating this, Pudukottai district collector Ganesan told reporters on Monday that the state administration has not given approvals.

Besides clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, the Neduvasal project also has to get the nod from the state government's pollution control board. The contractor also has to hold public hearings and assuage the misgivings of the people who will be affected by the project.

Agitators, however, say that such public hearings are an eyewash. Similar hearings were held when the delta farmers opposed the methane extraction project in 2006, and it was then-Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa's firm opposition which led to the Union government dropping the project, they recall.

Official explanation

Petroleum Minister Pradhan has again appealed to the people of Neduvasal to allow the project. He has said it will bring employment to the locals and development to the area. But the people are not ready to buy that. They say what is promised is a mere 500 jobs and compensation of a meagre Rs 1.5 lakh per acre acquired for the project.

The Petroleum Ministry has already said the project will entail the drilling of 700 exploratory wells, and as the hydrocarbons will have to be extracted from below 3,200 ft, ground water will not be affected.

As for the fears of the locals that hydrocarbon includes methane and shale gas also, the ministry has said methane is used as domestic fuel in CNG form.

It has also said similar oil fields in the rest of the country have not affected agriculture. This is the main reason the Centre is going ahead with the project, as Tamil Nadu alone is against it.

First published: 28 March 2017, 15:51 IST