Explained: The trouble brewing over Centre’s coal mining plan in TN’s delta region

In a rare show of solidarity, the Stalin government and Opposition have vehemently opposed the Centre’s tender

Tamil Nadu, Cauvery delta region, TN coal mining, MK Stalin
Farmers have opposed the Centre's move, saying it would spell environmental disaster in a state already affected by coal mining | Representational photo: iStock

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin has vehemently opposed the Centre’s tender inviting bids for coal mining in the Cauvery delta region in the state. In a rare show of solidarity, all other parties in TN  have done so as well, with AIADMK general secretary Edappadi K Palaniswami, state BJP president K Annamalai, and PMK president Anbumani Ramadoss expressing their disapproval for the Centre’s move.

So, what is the Centre’s proposal and why are all the parties in Tamil Nadu up in arms against it? Here is all about the contentious issue of coal mining in TN’s delta region.

What is the Centre’s proposal?

The Centre last week launched the seventh round of commercial coal auction, putting on the block 106 coal mines. Of these, 61 have been partially explored, while 45 have been fully explored; 95 are non-coking coal mines, 10 are lignite mines, and one is a coking coal mine.

In the sixth round of auctions, big names like JSW Cement, Ultratech Cement, Ambuja Cement, and Jindal Power had bid successfully.

Also read: Coal mining will never be allowed in TN’s delta region: CM Stalin

The Ministry of Coal released the tender on March 29 to auction the mines for the sale of coal/lignite. Three of these 106 coal reserves lie in TN’s delta region — East of Sethiathoppu in Cuddalore, Michaelpatti in Ariyalur, and Vadaseri in Thanjavur. All three fall under prime agricultural regions in the Cauvery Delta.

Why are all parties in TN against the proposal?

As Stalin wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, these three proposed areas involve “valuable farmers’ lands and food security of the people.”

The Tamil Nadu Protected Agricultural Zone Development Act, 2020, prohibits hydrocarbon extraction in the eight districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur, Nagapattinam, Pudukottai, Cuddalore, Ariyalur, Karuru, and Tiruchy. Vadaseri and East of Sethiathoppu fall within the Protected Agricultural Zone under the Act, while Michaelpatti falls in a major paddy-growing region.

Stalin mentioned in the letter that Section 4(1) of the said Act states that “no person shall undertake any new project or new activity specified in the Second Schedule in the protected agricultural zone.”

The projects covered in the Second Schedule include “exploration, drilling and extraction of oil and natural gas including coal-bed methane, shale gas and other similar hydrocarbons.” The Centre’s tender includes the exploitation of coal bed methane, which cannot be allowed in the region.

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“Wasteful exercise”

Even if the Centre goes ahead with the tender process and finds a successful bidder, the mining project cannot be allowed in the three mentioned zones. Hence, the auction process would be “a wasteful exercise,” Stalin has said.

He has pointed out that the state government was never consulted before the issue of such notification. Otherwise, the issue could have been clarified at once.

“Delta areas should be excluded from the coal bidding process. No approval was obtained from the state government before issuing the notification in this regard and the state government was not even consulted. Unfortunately, the Union Ministry of Coal is acting arbitrarily,” the letter stated.

State BJP chief Annamalai has also submitted a petition with Coal Minister Pralhad Joshi, saying: “We request you to remove the three blocks tendered for extraction from the recently released coal auction tender.”

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Farmers’ protest

The Coordination Committee of Tamil Nadu All Farmers’ Associations announced a protest against the Centre’s tender that they say will spell environmental disaster for the region. Farmer leader PR Pandian said in a statement that the mining project would “lead to desertification, groundwater depletion, destruction of fertile land, and displacement of people.”

The farmers have said they would continue to protest until the Centre retracts its move.

Both Palaniswami and Ramadoss have pointed out that NLC mining has already affected the state over the years and further damage could not be allowed. In fact, it was the Palaniswami-led AIADMK government that was in power when the Tamil Nadu Protected Agricultural Zone Development Bill was passed in the state Assembly.

Ramadoss told a Chennai-based newspaper that Cuddalore has already “become unliveable” and even the Centre has admitted in the Parliament that mining has badly affected the district. He wondered what would happen if further mining on such a large scale was allowed in the district.