Protests intensify in Tamil Nadu over the hydrocarbon exploration project, which is set to eat into the agricultural lands of Neduvasal in Pudukkottai district.
Scores of protesters, from different age groups and professional levels, are coming together to oppose the project – even though clarity on the issue is limited.
It is 8.30am, time for the bus to leave Pudukkottai for Neduvasal, the village in the Cauvery delta region that has become the epicentre of protests against the Ministry of Petroleum’s hydrocarbon project in Tamil Nadu.
Pudukkottai is 380km south of Chennai, an hour-long journey to Neduvasal. New faces in the bus stand out from that of regular travellers. They are easily identified as supporters of the protests.
Inside the bus, school teacher Francis Xavier reads out from a regional newspaper. The general drift is how villagers of Neduvasal have been cheated on and deceived by the government. The newspapers say the government has grabbed land in the name of research.
At the end of the reading, Xavier hands a donation of Rs 100 to the protesters. It’s quite apparent that the man is clueless on the benefits – or drawbacks – of the hydrocarbon project; his knowledge is limited to what he has read in the newspaper.
Three kilometres from Neduvasal, at Avani Kaikatti, scores of students from nearby towns and villages board the bus. They have been allowed to take the day off to fight the common enemy. Asked why they are supporting the farmers, they say,
We have seen videos on WhatsApp and Facebook of the ill-effects of hydrocarbon extraction.
When the bus finally stops at Neduvasal, it’s a scene of freshly harvested paddy, groundnut and coconut crops. Farming activity is in full swing.
Social media has played a key role in mobilising resources for the various groups – students, village administration and politicians – who are part of the protests.
Groups of students have stationed themselves at Nalandaar Kollai, about 4km from Neduvasal, where some of the pits dug years ago are leaking a black, oily sludge-like substance.
Twenty-six-year-old Ambigapathy Thivaghar from Puducherry, an Information Technology (IT) professional with an engineering background, is in Neduvasal along with 20 of his friends. They have been there for five days. The villagers are supporting them with food and shelter.
Thivaghar says he quit his job in Bengaluru before jallikattu protests erupted in Tamil Nadu. “My full-time job is now ‘protesting’,” he asserts.
He and his team are spearheading the student campaign against the hydrocarbon project, sharing videos and images from the protest site through social media to garner support. People in the village fear that, once the hydrocarbon project kicks off, they would lose agriculture lands, and the ground-water level would fall in this water-scarce region in the Cauvery delta limits. Also, they believe that hydrocarbon and methane extraction would cause health problems in the years to come.
The team insists it’s not affiliated to any organisation or political group. However, their Facebook posts pin the lie. They are members of the Puducherry Global Tamil Youth and Student Organisation.
The government has cheated the villagers. They said they would extract kerosene and now are extracting something else which is going to be harmful to the villagers. We want the government to declare this region as protective farmland.
“We took material – visual, photos, live examples from foreign countries from the internet – about the harmful effects of hydrocarbon and methane extraction. Whatever we say and show, is new to them (villagers).”
Students, environmentalists, IT professionals, farmers, the film fraternity, women self-help-groups and politicians from different parts of the state are all part of the protests. Many of them were part of the jallikattu protests too, and have been in Neduvasal for the past two weeks to lend support and solidarity to the protests here. Everybody wants to have a slice of the pie of success.
On 15 February, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs, chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, gave its approval to 31 contract areas (44 fields – 28 inland and 16 offshore) of discovered small fields of Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and Oil India Limited (OIL). The release said,
These areas were discovered long back, but these discoveries could not be monetised due to various reasons such as isolated locations, small size of reserves, high development costs, technological constraints, fiscal regime, etc.
This move came in the wake of the Prime Minister’s vision to cut energy-import dependency by 10 per cent by year 2022. The contract for the hydrocarbon extraction project in Neduvasal was awarded to Gem Laboratories Pvt Ltd, which declined to comment on this report.
"We have suffered all our lives in the Middle Eastern oilfields. The air quality and the percentage of oxygen in the air is low in those regions. We do not want our next generations, particularly people in my own village, to go through similar pain and sufferings," said Bala Velayudham, a villager who has worked in Kuwaiti oilfields and whose family is in the farming business in Neduvasal.
While the protest is garnering support by the day, the focus seems to have been lost, and the protesters are not united. Everybody is in protest mode, but there is no clarity on the issue. While some want to protect the interests of farmers, a few are against the centre for continuously neglecting the demands of the people of Tamil Nadu. Certain groups also invoke the Cauvery issue by talking about the centre’s failure to form the Cauvery Management Board.
V Gowthaman, noted Tamil film director and actor, who was in Neduvasal on Wednesday, told Swarajya,
There will come a time when all the groups will unite. We are all for protecting the interests of farmers. When there is a problem in our motherland and source of livelihood is being taken away, we are ready to give our lives to protect it. The central government should withdraw this project.
Thivaghar and team are careful not to let politicians hijack the “student movement”. This has angered some politicians. “What is the problem if they let our leaders sit in the protest, address the gathering and show support? Who are these outsiders who are claiming to protect the interests of our people,” said a Congress worker who did not wish to be named.
“These politicians have betrayed us in the past, which is why we are in such bad shape today. If they care, let them think of (an) alternate source of energy like solar power and implement (a) viable solution,” says Thivaghar.
The state government and the local administration have been silent so far. Some villagers are angry about that. Police security has been beefed up in the region.
Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) leader Vaiko, who visited the proposed plant site on Wednesday, told reporters that MDMK will not allow the project to take off.
If they (government and contractors) bring machines to extract hydrocarbon from this region, Vaiko will not be quiet. We will come to this village with equipment and break those machines. I don’t fear the police or the guns. The government cannot do anything.