Delta farmers in distress as Centre waives eco hearing for hydrocarbon exploration

The decision comes at a time when the districts reaped a rich harvest after 15 years.

The Union government’s recent decision to exempt the conduct of public hearing ahead of hydrocarbon exploration has become as a shock to the farmers of Delta districts in Tamil Nadu.

The decision comes at a time when the districts reaped a rich harvest after 15 years.

As per rule, the companies are mandated to seek environment clearance by submitting the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report ahead of every project. The EIA submission was mandated in a 2006 notification issued under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.

In January 16, 2020, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFC) made an amendment to the EIA notification. It said projects like on- and off-shore oil and gas exploration need not have public hearings.

This amendment came reportedly on a request by Vedanta in April 2019. Vedanta was given permission to sink 274 exploratory wells in the Delta districts.

Prior to the amendment, MoEFC listed oil and gas exploration projects under ‘Category A.’ This means the projects should get environment clearance from the ministry after holding a public hearing and conducting an EIA. Now, after the amendment, these projects are listed under ‘Category B2,’ meaning it may be taken up without public hearing and EIA.

“The state of Tamil Nadu is witnessing vigorous opposition to hydrocarbon exploration projects. The farmers are refusing to give away their lands. Even the TN Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) has declined permissions. At this juncture, the Centre’s new amendment is against the interests of the people in general and farmers in particular,” P.R. Pandian, general secretary, Tamil Nadu Cauvery Farmers Association, said.

The association was in the process of filing a suit against the project in the Supreme Court, he added.

“After 15 years, we are witnessing a very good harvest due to sufficient rainfall. This has strengthened our spirits. But we are unable to celebrate it because of such announcements. It breaks our hope. It is an attack on farmers and the philosophy of federalism. The state government usually takes up such matters with the Centre through the TNPCB. Now, the Centre’s notification sidesteps the TNPCB and this is an assault on the federal structure,” Pandian said.

Lawyer Vetri Selvan, who specialises in environment-related cases, said the Centre’s notification on EIA notwithstanding, the companies should get TNPCB clearance under the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981.

“But the TNPCB is not following the rules. Under an RTI, it was revealed that out of ONGC’s 750 hydrocarbon production wells using conventional methods, only 350 had permits under the said Acts. These must be renewed every year but it is doubtful whether such rules are followed,” he said.

Following the Centre’s announcement, DMK chief M.K. Stalin said instead of making the Delta districts ‘Protected Agriculture Zone,’ the Centre was trying to convert the region into a ‘chemical zone.’

“The ruling AIADMK government has taken a stand against hydrocarbon exploration projects in the state but it has not taken any policy decision,” Stalin said.

Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking the Centre to allow TN to revert to the pre- January 16, 2020 notification wherein all hydrocarbon exploration projects are listed under Category A.

In the letter, the CM said he had already written to the PM in 2017 ‘highlighting the strong opposition to hydrocarbon extraction projects in the delta area, the need for adequate consultation with stakeholders, and [the need] to safeguard farmers’ interests.

“Since most of these projects are in the Cauvery delta districts, which is an ecologically fragile zone and fertile region, opposition to these projects is emotive and intense. Therefore, it is very essential to take the people and all stakeholders along, while implementing these projects so that their cooperation and involvement is ensured. The present notification goes against this spirit,”
the CM said in the letter.

Interestingly, the AIADMK government, in 2018, had written to the Centre asking it to ‘consider environmental clearance without insisting on public hearing.’

Terming this the state’s ‘double standard’ and an attempt to bend the rules for the companies, environmentalist T. Jayaraman, who spearheaded the ‘Movement against Methane’ in the Delta region, said, if the companies used hydraulic fracking with more than 600 chemicals, it would affect coastal resources seriously.

“After agriculture, people in the area depended on artisanal fishing. At least 10 lakh fishermen from Puducherry to Karaikkal along the east coast would be affected. If the project is implemented, the fish resource in the region will get reduced drastically. The fishermen then will be evicted. We are planning to hold protests from 27th of January seeking the Centre to withdraw the new amendment,” he said.