For over two weeks now, the fertile village of Neduvasal has been the epicentre of protests that have gripped several districts of Tamil Nadu. Each day, instead of heading out to the fields for work, thousands of men and women from nearby villages and towns have been gathering at this settlement in Pudukottai district. Seated under a large canopy, they hold placards that say “Save Neduvasal” and “We don’t need methane, our water is enough.”

A little more than a month after protests against the ban on the traditional bull-taming sport of jallikattu subsided, a new movement is gathering momentum across the districts of the Cauvery river basin. It all started on February 15, when the Cabinet Committee of Economic Affairs chaired by Narendra Modi granted approval to projects to extract hydrocarbon resources such as oil and natural gas in 31 areas across the country. These approvals came as part of the Central government’s Discovered Small Fields policy, launched in 2016. In Tamil Nadu, the project was to be carried out in two places – Karaikal in Pondicherry district and Neduvasal in the Cauvery basin.

The policy intends to unlock the hydrocarbon potential of small and marginal fields to reduce India’s dependence on oil imports. At the launch event, Minister of Petroleum & Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan said that the main objectives of the policy were to enhance production, generate employment, attract investment, ensure transparency and reduce the involvement of the government in the production process.

“We are also convinced that a simplified and transparent administrative and regulatory setup has a huge role in fast-tracking developmental activities in the hydrocarbon sector,” he said.

But in the Cauvery delta, transparency isn’t the first word that springs to mind as villagers describe how the approval for the project had been granted. Ever since the villagers heard the news that Neduvasal would be one of the sites for extracting hydrocarbons, they have been gripped by the fear of losing their land, their crops and their livelihood. They had received no official information about the project and have only seen the news reports.

“With so much care, we have grown crops on our soil for so many years,” said Senthil Kumar, a farmer who owns 15 acres of land near Neduvasal. “We are scared all of this will be wiped away. We are scared that our children will not have means to survive such damage.”

Villagers gathered to protest at Neduvasal. Credit: M Arun

Murky plan

The residents of Neduvasal recall that in the early 2000s, officials of the state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Commission visited several fields around the area drilling borewells to test the availability of crude oil. “They closed the borewells and left Neduvasal many years ago, saying that it was not profitable to them,” said Senthil Kumar. “We now suddenly hear that they are going to drill new bores and extract hydrocarbon.”

The activities of the ONGC are not unknown to the people of Cauvery delta region. In Thiruvarur district of Tamil Nadu, sporadic protests have taken place over the last five years against tests carried out by the ONGC in the region. “In around 15 places, hydrocarbon extraction is being carried out in Thiruvarur,” said K Varadarajan, a Thiruvarur town councillor. He said that residents living near many of these sites have witnessed their groundwater gradually disappearing or turning murky and chemical-ridden, upon mixing with the oil. “The fresh water found 200m below sea level seeps to lower levels when oilwells are dug,” he said.

According to Varadarajan, the real problem lies in the fact that the central government was now giving a single licence for all kinds of hydrocarbons to be extracted.

“Now private companies will begin to extract without asking for the permission of the people,” he said. “They can now also work on extracting coal-bed methane, which is dangerous to the surroundings. They could also use hydraualic fracturing technique for extraction which damages the rock bed underground. We won’t be able to see anything that is happening.”

Environmental threat?

But as protests continue to grow in Neduvasal, the Ministry of Petroleum & Natural Gas issued a statement that attempted to allay the fears and allegations of the villagers.

It said:

 “Extraction of Oil and Gas from sub-surface is a well-established practice and the E&P industry uses state-of-the-art technology for the operations and takes maximum care for environmental effects. The operators also get Environment Impact Assessment done before carrying out any drilling activities and other activities. Process of drilling and production requires very limited surface land area (generally 120X120 square meter) which will not affect agriculture or the soil of the entire lease area. Additionally, operators are required to follow strict environmental norms for the use of operational land.”  

However, there is no evidence of an Environment Impact Assessment being conducted in the area and clearances are not to be found on the website of Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. The State Environment Minister KC Karuppannan also said on Tuesday that permission from the state Pollution Control Board had not yet been obtained, reported The New Indian Express.

Meanwhile, Chief Minister Palanisamy stated that since the state government had not granted any license to extract natural gas in Neduvasal, the villagers need not fear for their livelihoods.

But the protest still continues.

“Like in the case of jallikattu, we are going to carry out large protests in a number of places, not just Neduvasal,” said Vinothraj Seshan of Thanneer Iyakkam, an NGO that has been actively involved in this movement. “We are going to put as much pressure on the authorities as possible, so that the entire project in scrapped.”

Members of various parties have visited Neduvasal since the protest began. Credit: M Arun