An uneasy silence prevailed in Kathiramangalam, a village in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district, on the morning of July 5. Shops were shut, the streets were empty but for a few vehicles, and the villagers were all confined to their homes. “We are too scared to step outside,” said Vinoth Kumar, a resident.

A series of incidents in Kathiramangalam since the beginning of June have made the residents fearful of arrests and police action. It started with the villagers protesting against the operations of the Oil and Natural Gas Company – an Indian multinational company in which the Union government is the major shareholder – in the area, accusing it of contaminating and depleting the groundwater. They also accused the company of digging new oil wells and of extracting coal bed methane, which involves hydraulic fracking, the process of drilling deep into the earth and directing a high-pressure water mixture at the rocks below to release the gas inside. This technology is known to disrupt the groundwater system. Methane is primarily used for electricity generation.

The situation took a violent turn on July 1 when villagers clashed with the police following a leak in one of the pipelines and a fire. Nine people were arrested for leading the protests. They are currently being held in Trichy jail. According to G Sundararajan of the environmental advocacy group Poovulagin Nanbargal, the police booked the arrested people for attempt to murder, damaging public property and obstructing authorities from doing their work, among other charges, The News Minute reported. “We do not want the ONGC to operate in our area any longer,” said S Kaveri, a resident of Kathiramangalam. “Our groundwater is getting contaminated. Our children are suffering from skin diseases, fever and even cancer from consuming this water. Even our cows and goats are suffering.”

Over 100 km away in Neduvasal village in Pudukottai district, a similar agitation against a Central government project to extract hydrocarbons has been on since February but is gathering pace after the violence in Kathiramangalam. Neduvasal’s fertile soil grows paddy, groundnut, pepper, cocoa and cucumber and villagers fear losing their land, crops and livelihood to the project.

Who started the fire

The oil leak in Kathiramangalam was discovered on the morning of July 1. Residents noticed a brown substance bubbling out of the ground in one of the fields surrounding the village. “When we heard about it, everyone gathered around the field,” recalled Anitha Murugan. “There was a terrible smell that accompanied the leakage, we could barely breathe. We all sat down around the field. We wanted the collector to see the damage caused by ONGC.”

When ONGC officials arrived to fix the leak, the villagers did not allow them near the area. Soon after, the police, the sub-collector and the district revenue officer arrived and asked the villagers to let the officials do their work. But they would not budge. As the stand-off continued, a fire broke out in the field in the evening.

Accusing the villagers of setting the fire, the police charged at them with batons. ONGC officials claimed the protestors manhandled their staff and the policemen. The residents, however, accused the police of assaulting and pulling the women folk by their hair and threatening them with prostitution cases.

The police finally managed to disperse the crowd and the ONGC officials completed the repairs. By this time the collector arrived, the villagers were in no mood to meet him.

P Gunasundari, a resident who took part in the protests, said, “Never has anything like this ever happened in our village. We always thought this kind of thing happens only in movies.”

Kathiramangalam residents believe ONGC's operations are behind the water contamination in the village.

Villagers, ONGC face off

Before the violence on July 1, resistance to ONGC had been building up over a month. In the first week of June, Kathiramangalam residents had stopped ONGC from repairing one of its wells for five days. “We had gone to repair one of the wells that had ceased to produce efficiently,” said ONGC asset manager Kulbir Singh. “But a lot of people gathered there. Finally, after five days, with police protection, we carried out the job. After that, there were a lot of protests. People were asking why ONGC was coming here.”

The company, India’s largest oil explorer and producer, has 29 oil wells in and around Kathiramangalam, all of them operational since 2002. When ONGC officials visited the site for repair work, villagers feared they were there to dig new wells. Some suspected the company of carrying out methane extraction.

The arrival of a large police contingent made the villagers more suspicious. “Why would they bring so many people if they were not laying new pipes?” asked Anitha Murugan. “We do not want ONGC here. They are ruining our groundwater and our village.”

The district administration and ONGC officials, however, said the apprehensions of the villagers were unfounded. Pradeep Kumar, sub-collector of Kumbakonam town in Thanjavur, said, “Even when we explained to them that this was just repair work, people began protesting, saying it was for methane extraction. That is how the protests initially started.”

He added, “Later we conducted five to six meetings with representatives of the village. Only when some of them were convinced did we start the maintenance work.”

Kulbir Singh of ONGC said “certain groups” were spreading rumours that ONGC would perform hydraulic fracking in the area. Although, he added, “the Government of India has already said there will be no extraction of coal bed methane or shale gas in Tamil Nadu.”

During the protests, more than 350 villagers were reportedly taken into custody and later released.

Yellow, oily water

A steep decline in groundwater levels is a major factor behind Kathiramangalam’s opposition to the ONGC. The village, whose residents are mostly farmers or farm labourers, has borne the brunt of a water crisis arising from the failure of both the South West and North East Monsoons and Karnataka’s refusal to release the regular volume of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu.

But Kathiramangalam, located between the Palavar river in the north and the Cauvery in the south, was not always this starved for water. Until a few years ago, groundwater was plentiful here. “If we dug a well, we would find water just 20 metres below the ground,” recalled R Gandhi, a resident. “Now, we only get water from the panchayat supply, which digs wells over 100 metres deep.”

The villagers blame the drop in water levels on lack of rains but also the ONGC. They also say for the past few months, private hand pumps have been dispensing yellowish-brown water with a visible layer of oil. They allege that oil or gas from the ONGC’s pipelines have mixed with the water.

Villagers say the water that comes out of hand pumps is brownish-yellow with a layer of oil.

The company’s officials, however, dismiss these as “unnecessary rumours”. At a press meet on Monday, ONGC officials shared a field investigation report on the hydrological and geological conditions in Kuthalam block of Nagapattinam village, published by the Public Works Department. This area has around 49 oil wells but, the report said, “there is no remarkable change in water level of the said area. Based on the Geo Chemical Report, the groundwater available is suitable for both drinking and irrigation purposes”.

However, social activist Nityanand Jayaraman pointed out that the report was missing some pages, presumably containing the methodology, findings and results, and hence, could not be a reliable scientific document. On the other hand, Jayaraman added, “the common sense observations of the people of Kathiramangalam are absolutely scientific”.

The activist added, “ONGC says there is no problem with the water. Visual evidence says there is a problem. Whether the problem has been caused by ONGC or not, we do not know yet. Unless it is tested in a lab, we cannot tell why it is yellow or what it contains.”

Despite their misgivings, most residents use this dirty yellow water for drinking, cooking and bathing. Water supplied by the panchayat, which comes for about an hour everyday, is cleaner, they said. This is pumped out of borewells that are up to 200 metres deep. Yet, this water is not enough for their needs.

According to sub-collector Pradeep Kumar, the yellow colouration of the water is because of the depth of the borewells, which are “40 metres to 50 metres” deep. Once the groundwater rises, it will be rectified, he said.

He added, “On Thursday, when people complained about the water supply, we rectified the problem by replacing the pipe. As of now, the situation is peaceful.”

Disaster management perspective

Apart from contaminating groundwater, villagers say leaks in the ONGC pipelines have resulted in at least three fires. P Jayalakshmi, a labourer, was out in the fields when she suffered burns from what she described as “fire exploding from the ground”. It was this incident that first made villagers suspicious of the oil wells surrounding them. ONGC officials took care of Jayalakshmi’s treatment and hospitalisation costs.

According to activists, Indian law stipulates that pipeline routes are clearly marked above the ground. But the residents of Kathiramangalam said they were not aware of any such markers.

Jayaraman said the fact that villagers had run towards the site of the oil leak meant they had not been given any safety instructions – for instance, that they should run away from such a situation and call ONGC. “We are not even looking at this from a disaster management perspective,” he said. “It is being viewed as a law and order problem, to some extent an environment problem, but not a disaster management issue.”

The villagers are determined to continue their protest until ONGC leaves.

Small Fields project

While the protests in Kathiramangalam are relatively new, the agitation in Neduvasal and its neighbouring villages in Pudukottai district against the Centre’s hydrocarbon extraction plan is completing five months. The protests began on February 16, a day after the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved the extraction of hydrocarbon resources such as oil and natural gas from 31 areas across the country. The project is part of the Centre’s Discovered Small Fields policy, launched in 2016 to unlock the hydrocarbon potential of small and marginal fields to reduce India’s dependence on oil imports. In Tamil Nadu, the project is to be carried out in two places – Karaikal in Puducherry district and Neduvasal in the Cauvery basin.

Neduvasal is a farming village. But it also has a large number of engineering graduates working abroad, 25 of them in oil fields in West Asia, said R Balavelayuthan, who, too, has worked in oil fields in Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. “Abroad, extraction projects are carried out in desert areas where nobody lives,” Balavelayuthan said. “When we found out that such a project was coming up here, we knew it could have a terrible impact on our agricultural livelihood.”

Many are also concerned about the environmental impact of such a project. Jayaraman cited the example of the ONGC drilling oil wells in Neduvasal in 2007, only to shut them down as they did not prove economically viable. A response to a Right to Information petition filed by Jayaraman, which he posted on Facebook last month, showed that the company had not prepared an environment impact assessment report for the project. It also refused to share copies of the environmental clearances secured for the project, stating they contained “commercial confidence information”.

The wells dug by the ONGC in 2007 have now been given to Gem Laboratories for extraction of oil and gas.

After the initial protests against the hydrocarbon extraction plan in February and March, a few representatives of the villages were called to Delhi to meet Minister of State for Petroleum and Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan. The villagers said he assured them that the project would not be carried out against their will.

“But just a few days later, we heard he had allowed the project to continue,” said SR Malarmani, one of the people at the forefront of the protests.

In May, the villages regrouped to continue their protest. In the past few days, their numbers have been swelling. “Since the incident in Kathiramangalam, people have started to fear that similar action would be taken in our village,” said Malarmani.

In Neduvasal too, villagers are protesting the Centre's plan to extract hydrocarbons.

Extraction continues?

While these agitations have brought oil extraction in the region to a temporary halt, it is not clear if they have forced the government to rethink its plans.

Gem Laboratories is waiting for the protests to die down to begin work in Neduvasal. “We cannot oppose the people,” said John Abraham, the company’s human resources manager. “It is the state’s duty to give us the opportunity to start the work. So we do not know when it is going to happen. We are just waiting.”

The ONGC also has plans to dig more oil wells in the Cauvery basin. The company has 710 wells in the basin that provide 0.2 million tonnes of oil a year, said asset manager Kulbir Singh. But India consumes up to 200 million tonnes of oil a year. To meet this demand, the ONGC has over 100 oil extraction projects planned over the next few years, he added.

However, the ONGC official admitted to difficulties in getting clearances for projects. “We are able to drill 10-15 wells every year,” he said. “But for the past one or two years, we have been finding it very difficult to receive environmental clearances from the Central government and consent to operate from the state government. When the country is in need for oil, we have to plan accordingly.”

All images by Vinita Govindarajan.