For weeks now, farmers in Nagapattinam, in Tamil Nadu’s Cauvery delta, have been gathering in their fields in numbers, shouting slogans and singing dirges to protest against the Gas Authority of India Limited for laying a pipeline through their lands.

But after the police last week started booking the farmers and the activists supporting them, they resorted to another tactic: they sent notices to GAIL threatening to launch legal action if the public sector company did not stop laying the pipeline immediately. They also intensified their protests.

“We want GAIL to immediately stop laying the pipeline,” said Arun Shori of Thamizh Desiya Makkal Munnani, a farmers’ organisation spearheading the protests. “At least 50 farmers have sent legal notices to GAIL till date. We demand that a public hearing be held immediately and opinions of farmers and fisherfolk taken into consideration before the project goes ahead.”

The contentious project is a section of the 879-km Kochi-Mangaluru gas pipeline, 310 kilometres of which will traverse seven districts of Tamil Nadu. In Nagapattinam, the pipeline will cover 29 km, from Tharangampadi to Madhanam. Farmers in the region claim it will lay waste to vast tracts of farmland. Though farmers who lose land to the project will be compensated without having to give up ownership, they fear the fields will become unproductive in the long term.

“This project will hit at least two crore farmers across Tamil Nadu, affecting 60% of the state’s food production,” said PR Pandian of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, an organisation representing farmers.

The government has acquired 45 hectares of land in 17 villages for the project so far. Scroll.in has emailed GAIL asking how much more land would be required to lay the pipeline in Tamil Nadu, especially the Cauvery delta. The report will be updated when they respond.

Farmers protest against the pipeline in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu.
Farmers protest against the pipeline in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu.

The pipeline is part of the 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.

On February 15, 2017, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved the extraction of oil and natural gas from 31 “contract areas” across the country, including Neduvasal in the Cauvery basin. The region’s farmers started protesting against the project the very next day.

They drew support from farmer groups such as the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, which organised demonstrations across Tiruvarur. On May 25, fisherfolk, under the aegis of the National Fish Workers Forum, decided to join the protests, and move the courts against the project. They also adopted a resolution calling for the formation of an “Anti Hydrocarbon Project Struggle Committee”.

The fisherfolk expressed their solidarity after the police on May 16 filed a case, charging eight protesting farmers and activists with rioting, unlawful assembly, wrongful restrain and criminal intimidation and a dozen others with “assault or criminal force to deter a public servant from discharge of his duty”.

The farmers intensified their protest the next day, with a large number of women joining in. In Kalahasthinapuram village, Nagapattinam, they managed to prevent GAIL workers from using earth movers to level standing paddy and cotton crops.

On May 18, the police arrested KM Iraniyan, organiser of the environment protection group Nilam Neer Padukappu Iyakkam, for staging a protest at Umayalpuram village, Nagapattinam. He was charged with intimidating GAIL workers.

The pipeline, though, is not the only problem facing Tamil Nadu’s farmers.

An earth mover clears paddy fields for laying the pipeline in Nagapattinam.
An earth mover clears paddy fields for laying the pipeline in Nagapattinam.

Oil and gas wells

In early May, the environment ministry cleared Vedanta’s Cairn Oil and Gas to carry out Environment Impact Assessment studies for drilling 274 oil and gas exploration wells, spread over two hydrocarbon blocks, in the Bay of Bengal; Nagapattinam and Villupuram in Tamil Nadu; and Karaikal and Puducherry in the neighbouring Union Territory.

The public sector Oil and Natural Gas Corporation will do similar studies for drilling 67 wells in Cuddalore, Nagapattinam, Bhuvanagiri and Thiruvarur, in the same two blocks in Tamil Nadu.

“The pipeline is being laid to carry the gas extracted from these wells,” said Shori. “It is the farmers who will be held responsible if the pipeline is damaged or there is any problem with it.”

Shori feared the proposed wells would destroy more farmland in Nagapattinam, Karaikal, Poompuhar and Velankanni. “A number of rivers also flow through the project blocks,” he said.

The Thenpennai and Falidam rivers, Buckingham Canal, Kaliveli and Osudu lakes, and Thengaithittu estuary are located in or near the proposed hydrocarbon blocks, raising concerns about environmental damage.

Vedanta, a multinational mining and metals giant, had obtained a “revenue sharing contract” for hydrocarbon exploration and production from the petroleum ministry in 2017. To get the environment clearance for drilling, the company must submit the Environment Impact Assessment studies, an environment management plan and a report detailing public hearings on the project.

The News Minute reported that Vedanta has applied for exemption from the public hearings, claiming the proposed project activities were temporary and that a major portion of the project was offshore. The ministry is yet to decide on the application.

Also read: In Tamil Nadu’s Cauvery delta, villagers say oil wells have contaminated the groundwater

Vedanta got clearance for Tamil Nadu copper smelter by misrepresenting its location, activists say