Neduvasal, a picturesque town falling in the Cauvery basin and surrounded by lush greenery, in Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu has become a hotbed of protests as thousands have joined hands up in arms against the Prime Minister Narendra Modi's pet project to extract hydrocarbon from the region.
The Oil and Natural Gas Corp. (ONGC) has geographically marked Neduvasal as a hydrocarbon-rich field along with other 43 fields in Tamil Nadu and Karaikal in Pondicherry. The protests intensified after the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA), chaired by the Prime Minister gave its approval on 15 February to award contract in 31 areas of the total identified fields.
And subsequently, the government has awarded contracts for the project to private firms, and Karnataka-based Gem Laboratories Private limited has reportedly got the call to extract oil from Neduvasal.
Now, protests and hunger strikes have become a routine in Neduvasal, fearing it will adversely affect their farmlands and pollute underground water. Neduvasal is a but highly-cultivated region located over 400 kilometres south of Chennai.
According to environmentalists, along with the chemicals substances, the process of extracting underground oil and mineral would itself destroy the region.
Farmers and local politicians were unanimously opposed to the extraction, which involves drilling several wells to inject water under high pressure in order to expand already-existing fissures. The process also requires a vast amount of water, a requirement that did not sit well with the drought-facing farmers, who are distressed with crop failure.
In order to extract oil and gas, deep borewells have to be dug, with a depth between 1750 and 6000 metres. The digging of this borewell will involve the movement of heavy equipment, and operating that for nearly a month will arguably exacerbate pollution of noise, air and water.
Once the initial well is ready, in order to set up the processing stations, nearly five acres of land is needed for each well. This means the agricultural activities of these large swathes of land will come to grinding halt in near future. The land will have to be further prepared, which environmentalists say will change the hydrology of the area.
Further, in order to produce oil, in addition to the first bore well, the need to dig several other wells within the oil field called appraisal wells arises. These are dug to understand how big the reservoir is and how it behaves in different places, etc.
Once the primary oil well is opened, after the initial days when the oil stops flowing by its own pressure, it needs to pump in high-pressured water or gas to push the oil to the surface. If the oil is thick, it will be required to add other chemical substances. Detergents will also be used to wash the surface area. In some other cases, there is a need to set controlled fire to make the oil thinner.
“One does not know what exactly will be used in Neduvasal. Whichever method be used here, the effects of its is generally known,” renowned environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman told SouthLive.
When the oil and gas come out from the underground, it will come mixed with water, which will be highly saline, which is called ‘produced water’. This will come with all contaminants in that area as the salty liquid erode more pollutants. And the oil and water will be separated afterwards.
The waste substances produced out of this process is highly toxic. For every barrel of oil produced, depending on the age of the well, an average of seven barrel of ‘produced water’ will also be generated.
This produced water will have contaminants, including Benzene, Xylene etc. Other metals like Led, copper, arsenic, cadmium, which are toxic metals having different kind of effects. It will also contain naturally occurring radioactive materials. Redone, radium and uranium.Exposing to it through inhaling, food or contaminated water will also land you in health disastersNityanand Jayaraman, Environmentalist
The protesters also fear that there is a chance of corroding over the pipeline which will carry the produced water into the treatment plan, over a period of time. From the plant, the water is re-injected into the ground, through nearly four-kilometres-deep, which will cut through at least tow aquifers.
In Neduvasal, the first aquifer is about 90 feet and there is also a deeper one, which might be used in another 20-30 years.
If there are any leaks from the bore into the aquifer, all the poisonous substances will contaminate the aquifers and will make it unusable in the long term. In the short term, it will be still usable, but contaminated.Nityanand Jayaraman, Environmentalist
Unlike other delta areas, Neduvasal has a plenty water-bed and fertile soil, which makes the area conducive for agriculture.
The government says they will wind up the project within 15 years. But, the land will be destroyed for ever. Where will go the next generation to cultivate? To live? We have no other places to goVighneswaran, A farmer
He also urged the younger generation to join hands with the protesters as the “project is going to put their future at a standstill.”
Taking on the allegation that farmers are blocking developmental activities of the country, Jayaraman says, “Farmers are developed. How can we say farmers are not developed? Farmers are protecting one kind of development.”
For the residents of Neduvasal, there are several examples before them.
“Farmers also know that if we want to take out oil, there is a possibility of pollution, and they also know that it is possible that it may be controlled to some extend. But, they have no faith in the government.
They have seen it in Nagapattinam, Thanjavur and Thiruvayur, where the ONGC has been operating for over 30 years. They have seen the Chennai Oil spill,” Jayaraman says.
If you are cleaning the oil spill with the buckets, on what confidence will I have to allow you to drill for oil in my farm?Gopinath, A protestor
It was in 2012, crude oil from an abandoned ONGC-owned pipeline seeped into some paddy fields in a Nagapattinam, destroying acres of farm produce and contaminating water bodies.
In Karukkakurichi, two kilometres away from Neduvasal, a test well was dug by ONGC in 2008 and in 2009 the well was closed.
“From then till now, the extremely problematic produced water is lying out there,” a villager adds.
In a video shared on social media, it was seen that people taking liquid substance from the abandoned test well and setting fire on it.
This exploratory well gives villagers a sense of things to come.
“For three months after the well was dug, they would burn the gas night and day. Sometimes the gas would burn orange with black smoke, and sometimes blue with no smoke,” says T. Amudha, an engineering graduate who gave up her job in Chennai after being disillusioned by city life to return to the farm in her village.
Villagers found oil oozing out of a borewell in Vanakkankadu village also. This was polluting agricultural lands and we were worried. The farmers know what the companies do as they have seen what they have done alreadyParthiban Vairavan, a resident of Neduvasal
According to farmers, it is nearly impossible to find a similar place like Neduvasal somewhere else.
People have the right to question the project as concerns of safety and security looms large over it. We have several examples before us. Bhopal is still struggling to get over with the tragedy. For the government, oil might be important, for us, it is our livesGopinath, an activist.
K. Dhanapalan, another farmer and activist with the Cauvery Delta Farmers Protection Association says, “Fields damaged by oil leaks are never restored, and a meagre compensation after long-drawn complaints process is all that farmers see. Lands scarred by oil take years to recover.”
Though earlier it was just farmers alone protesting, the recent days witnessed huge turnout of civil society, especially of students and youth. On Monday, nearly 1000 people, along with social activists of various outfits, gathered at Thilagar Thidal in the town under the banner of Anti-movement for Hydrocarbon Project and observed a hunger strike.
“We have been able to reach out to students, youth and people in cities and in other countries through social media and have had huge crowds thronging our village and nearby areas. And agitations have been held at different places in the state to support our voices,” Prathibhan, one of the protest leaders was quoted.
Renowned names from film and entertainment industry too joined the protesters.
“Jallikattu was a break. Young people were upset with a lot of things. Jallikattu was an opportunity for them to sit down and talk and now the youngsters are taking the lead and I hope it goes well,” Jayaraman added.
The organisers planning to convene a mammoth gathering of nearly 2,000 people from surrounding villages, to discuss how to take the initiative forward and urge the centre to drop off the project.
With the chorus growing louder, political parties in Tamil Nadu have also raised their voice against the Centre’s move.
Opposition DMK leader M.K. Stalin on Friday submitted a memorandum to petroleum and natural gas minister Dharmendra Pradhan against the proposed project in and around Neduvasal village and requested the minister to refrain from sanctioning the project as it is against the wishes of the people of the state.
Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi have also announced their support to the struggle.
The BJP-leaders are in a dilemma. While, senior BJP leader and MP L. Ganesan said there should be some sacrifice that people should do for the benefit of the nation, its national secretary H. Raja said that the Centre will not consider any projects that are against the wishes of the people.
Responding to the agitation, Union minister from Tamil Nadu, Pon Radhakrishnan has wondered whether people opposing the project were scientists. However, later he changed his stance adding that the centre will take note of the people's grievances before starting the project.
“In my opinion, the more important issue than environmental impact or profitability for the communities that is thrown up by Neduvasal is the basic human right of anyone to decide for themselves. The central government sitting in Delhi doling out property (including common resources) to private third parties is very reminiscent of the British deciding where indigo or opium should be grown,” a protester said.
Supporting the farmers, the State government on Wednesday announced that it will not grant approval for the hydrocarbon exploration project at Neduvasal in Pudukottai district. Chief Minister E Palaniswami urged the people to call off the agitation, saying no scheme that would be harmful to farmers would be allowed by his government.
But people obviously are not convinced. For them only thing left is to rebel.