Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami’s announcement that the delta region will be a ‘Protected Agricultural Zone’ has come as a surprise to many.
Leaders across the political spectrum welcomed the announcement and the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) has started projecting itself as the only party which has ever opposed hydrocarbon exploration projects.
The claim appears to be far from true. The Federal tried to look back at the AIADMK’s flip-flops on the issue from 2011 till 2020.
The Coal-bed Methane (CBM) project, a first in the series of methane gas and hydrocarbon explorations in the Cauvery belt, was first proposed by T.R. Baalu, a DMK leader, who was Union Minister of Petroleum in 1996-98.
The project kicked off in 2009 when the Centre granted licence to the Great Eastern Energy Corporation Ltd (GEECL) to extract coal bed methane in Thanjavur district. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was the ruling party in TN then. It licensed GEECL in 2011 only to research and detect the presence of methane.
In 2009, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) was given permission to dig wells in Neduvasal, Pudukkottai district, for hydrocarbon exploration. Under the ‘Discovered small fields policy,’ the Centre gave permission to the Karnataka-based GEM laboratories to ‘extract hydrocarbon’ in 2015.
In 2017, ONGC planned to replace all the existing borewells in Kathiramangalam, Thanjavur district, with deeper ones. As work progressed, an oil spill happened and there were widespread protests.
In 2018, the Centre granted permission to Vedanta for hydrocarbon exploration in Nagapattinam district.
Stand on CBM project
In May 2011, the AIADMK came to power in TN. In December that year, during a public hearing in Thanjavur, farmers opposed the project. In 2012, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) gave environmental clearance to the CBM project. Nammalvar, an organic farming scientist, started campaigning against the project across the state and it haad garnered good support.
In 2013, the state government set up a committee comprising experts from Anna University, the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, and the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), to study the environmental impact of the project. Based on the study, on October 8, 2015 then chief minister J. Jayalalithaa banned the project.
After the oil spill in June 2017, the people of Kathiramangalam went on to protest against the ONGC. The police lathi-charged the protestors. Reports said the police used undue force on the peaceful protests. There were reports of the police intimidating women protesters and threatening them of false cases of prostitution being slapped on them.
In 2017, farmers in Neduvasal organized protests against hydrocarbon exploration projects. The AIADMK government, which reportedly gave permission to the project, arrested environmental and academic T. Jayaraman, one of the leaders of Anti-Methane Project Federation under the Sedition Act and arrested a student named Valarmathi under the Goondas Act for taking part in the protest.
In 2019, after the Lok Sabha elections, the Centre gave nod to Vedanta to undertake hydrocarbon projects.
In 2018, TN Environment Minister K.C. Karuppannan wrote to the Centre asking it to ‘give exemption from conducting public hearing to carry certain projects of public importance.’
The Centre amended its Environment Impact Assessment notification in January 2020 stating that public hearing were not necessary hydrocarbon projects. But chief minister Palaniswami immediately wrote a letter to the Prime Minister seeking amends to the notification.
It is in this backdrop that the CM’s ‘Protected Agricultural Zone’ announcement becomes important. Many opposition leaders, while welcoming the announcement, said they were skeptical of the time of announcement. They said the CM made the announcement keeping the upcoming state assembly elections in 2021.
Prof. Jayaraman told The Federal that the people welcomed the announcement even though the AIADMK always adopted a double standard on the matter.
“Now, the fifth round of hydrocarbon auctioning is going on. The exploration will be carried both on land and sea. In the past auctions, Vedanta, ONGC, and the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) were given large number of licences. When Vedanta and ONGC applied for environmental clearance for 341 wells, the state government did not reject their applications. But in public, it said that it opposed hydrocarbon projects. If the applications are not replied to in 45 days, the companies can deem it as permission granted,” he said.
Prof. Jayaraman said Puducherry chief minister V. Narayanaswamy had rejected the applications but Tamil Nadu chief minister Palaniswami had not.
The people of the Delta region in general and farmers in particular were not seeing the announcement as politically motivated one, he added.
“We are not seeing any politics behind the announcement. Being a Tamil, the CM has announced it for the benefit of the people of Tamil Nadu and we should welcome it,” he added.
Three days before the announcement, the state government had a discussion with West Bengal based PSU Haldia Petrochem regarding the setting up of an oil refinery worth Rs.50,000 crore in Cuddalore district. The district also comes under the ‘Protected Agricultural Zone.’
Activist and writer Nityanand Jayaraman said the state government was allowing petrochemical projects even when it declared the delta regions as ‘Protected Agricultural Zone.’
“Many people think that hydrocarbon projects are different from petrochemicals. But the fact is, all petrochemicals are hydrocarbons. The refineries are the dirtiest part in the petrochemical cycle. It creates a lot of pollution,” he said.
Both the AIADMK and the DMK have been changing their stance on these projects, he said.
“The refinery comes under Petroleum, Chemical and Petrochemical Industrial Region (PCPIR), created when DMK leader M.K. Alagiri was Union Minister of Chemicals. The reason why the government chose Cuddalore is because the state wants to expand refining capacity. We already have one refinery at Narimanam in Nagapattinam district, but it is a small one. The water and air in the location are polluted. The same can happen in Cuddalore if a refinery is set up here,” Nityanand.
He also sought to know whether the government means no more new wells or no new refineries too when the government said it would deny permission to hydrocarbon projects.