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Neduvasal's protesting farmers set to derail energy project in Tamil Nadu

S Murari | Updated on: 3 March 2017, 18:42 IST

Last month, after the Centre announced the award of contract for the extraction of hydrocarbons from 44 contract areas across India, the farmers of Neduvasal village in the Cauvery delta region in Pudukottai district of southern Tamil Nadu came out in arms, fearing such a process would damage agrarian land.

But the protests have come to a stall now that Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palanisami has announced that a license to commercially extract natural gas in the area will not be given to the private company that had been awarded the contract by the Union Petroleum Ministry last month - Karnataka-based Gem Laboratories.

Started by late BJP Member of Parliament, G Mallikarjunappa, the company is based out of Davangere.

Palanisami, who spoke to representatives of those protesting, which included college students and scientists, said he has taken up the issue with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The fears

Neduvasal is located in an area rich in groundwater and blessed with the fertile soil of the delta.

The agitators, who fear the proposed project will lead to not only to the depletion of ground water in the delta region, but also intrusion of saline water into the agricultural fields - affecting the soil – had initially announced that they would continue the agitation, but have agreed to hold off for now.

Not a new project

The project is not the brainchild of the Modi government and has, in fact, been in the reckoning since 2006.

The environment clearance for it was given in 2011-13 during the UPA rule by the then environment ministers – DMK’s A Raja and Jairam Ramesh of the Congress, a fact BJP state-level leaders such as Pon Radhakrishnan, Tamilisai Sundarajan and spokesman Narayanan have pointed out repeatedly.

The govt’s stand so far

In a press release, the Union Ministry of Petroleum has said the farmers’ fears are ‘unfounded’. It dismisses the concerns of the farmer and lays out an outline of the project:

  1. Hydrocarbon is to be extracted from below 3,200 feet, which would not affect the existing groundwater.
  1. For this project, only a relatively small area of 1461 sq.km is required
  1. Further, the project is to be implemented by drilling 700 small exploratory wells.
  1. Farmlands used for extracting hydrocarbon can be re-used for agriculture after three years. The press release points out that existing oil wells in the country have not affected agriculture.
  1. Cement casing is to be used while drilling for oil and gas to ensure that there is no impact on groundwater.
  1. As the principal component of natural gas, “methane is being used as household fuel globally, in the form of CNG (compressed natural gas),” the ministry said in its statement.
  1. It has also said that the project which will create 500 jobs for locals. The Neduvasal and Kariakal projects are expected to generate gross revenue of Rs 300 crore, and state government will get Rs 40 crore as royalty. 
  1. Finally, all petroleum operations require prior environmental clearances from the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Public hearing is an integral part for obtaining such clearances, it has said.

Long term effects of extraction

Cauvery Delta Farmers Welfare Association general secretary S Ranganathan, a gentleman farmer and a geologist, says that hydrocarbon is a common umbrella name, under which all forms of natural gas, including polluting methane and the equally noxious shale gas are included.

Its extraction will have long-term effects on the fertility of the soil, he says.

Ranganathan, whose life-long struggle for equitable sharing of Cauvery water between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka had led to a final award by the tribunal in 2007 and the proposed Cauvery Management Board, who himself gave two acres of his land for an ONGC project for extraction of LPG in 2006, says he was in the forefront of the struggle against methane extraction in the delta region which eventually led to the then chief minister J Jayalalithaa issuing a ‘GO’ to stop the project.

The issues involved

It was an earlier struggle, led by organic farming activist late Nammalvar against coal-bed methane (CMB) between 2010 and 2016, that informed the farmers in the region about the effects of gas extraction on agriculture.

Ranganathan, who is also chairman of Centre for Cauvery Delta Development Studies (CCDDS), has said there is a vast difference between in extracting coal- bed methane in a fertile land like Mannargudi in the delta region and other places such as Ranikunj. 

Ranganathan says he is not against energy security. “But energy security cannot be at the cost of food security,” he contends.

‘Standard procedure’

S Janagarajan from Madras Institute of Development Studies has said coal-bed methane will damage it further environmentally, economically and socially since methane is worse than carbon dioxide. 

The Ministry says the extraction is as per the standard procedure. However environmentalists say extraction of methane, shale and other natural gas involves hydro-fracking, or drilling deep holes in the sites vertically downwards through sediment layers, the water table, and shale rock formations in order to reach the oil and gas.

In February, the contract for the Neduvasal project was given to Gem Laboratories of Karnataka

Chemical additives are used in the drilling mud, slurries and fluids required for the fracking process. Once the methane and shale deposit is reached, drilling takes a horizontal route. As methane deposits are trapped amid the rocks, the rocks are crushed or fractured so as to release the gas. The rocks are fractured using highly pressurised fluids.         

Each well produces millions of gallons of toxic fluid containing not just the added chemicals, but other naturally occurring radioactive material, liquid hydrocarbons, brine water and heavy metals. Fissures created by the fracking process can also create underground pathways for gases, chemicals and radioactive material, they say.

The agitation

The protest started when the company started preliminary work, after the environment impact assessment was made on drilling of 20 exploratory wells in Thanjavur, Tiruvarur, Nagapattinam and Pudukottai.

The work started first in the Kottaikadu village near Neduvasal last year, but the agitation only gathered momentum after the recent announcement in February by the Centre.

Activists point to the failure of an earlier agitation launched against Kudankulam nuclear plant by fishermen when the plant was about to go critical. They say that is why they have launched the struggle before work on exploration starts.

The Neduvasal oil field reportedly has a seven-year mining lease that expires on 31 December 2019

BJP leaders like Tamilisai Sundarajan say that the state will lose out if every development project is stalled this way and point out there has been no such protest in Gujarat or Andhra Pradesh.

But the party has also said that the project will not be forced on the farmers if it is found to be detrimental to their interests.

Edited by Aleesha Matharu

First published: 3 March 2017, 18:47 IST