Major environmental conflicts in Tamil Nadu

Published : Jun 06, 2018 12:30 IST

Most community-led protests relating to environmental issues in Tamil Nadu have been put down with a heavy hand or have fizzled out for one reason or the other.

The protests against the coal-bed methane project, which was spearheaded by the green crusader G. Nammalwar in 2010 in Mannargudi, is claimed to be a success even though there is a version that the contractor gave up the project because it was not commercially viable. It was easy for the authorities to deny that the project was aimed at extracting coal-bed methane simply because a licence was given for prospecting; there was no specific licence for methane extraction.

The protest against the laying of Gail Limited’s pipeline from Kochi to Bengaluru via Tamil Nadu, which passed through agricultural lands, was the only issue in which the State government did an about turn after agreeing to a project. Gail Limited’s project proposed setting up a southern gas grid, and as much as 310 kilometres of the 871 km pipeline was to pass through Tamil Nadu. The project, conceived in 2007, was met with protest from farmers in 2012. Taking the side of the farmers just ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the State government ordered the removal of the pipeline and demanded that Gail pay the farmers compensation. Gail received favourable orders from the Madras High Court. The State government approached the Supreme Court to get them nullified. As of now, the project is in limbo.

The prolonged protest against Sterlite Industries in Thoothukudi is only one of the many common man-industry flashpoints in Tamil Nadu. Prominent among these are the protests against nuclear power plants in Koodankulam and Kalpakkam; the neutrino project, which was initially to be set up in the Nilgiris and then was shifted to Theni; the proposed hydrocarbon project at Neduvasal; the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) pipeline leak at Kadiramangalam; the mercury poisoning in Kodaikanal; and the Enayam port project in Kanyakumari.

The Neduvasal and Kadiramangalam protests gained attention because they continued even after the 2017 jallikattu agitation, and some of the prominent young voices of the jallikaattu movement were also seen in these protests. The protests in Neduvasal began following the February 15, 2017, announcement of the Union government awarding contracts for prospecting for hydrocarbons. People point to oil leaks of 2010, 2011 and 2012, and insist that ONGC must abandon the prospecting. But it is in no mood to listen—it has about 200 oilwells in the region, and has insisted that the process it follows does not lead to environmental degradation.

The Neduvasal protest has been suspended for now. However, the protest at Kadiramangalam is continuing, and is nearing the 400-day mark. Only a few people gather at the venue of the protest though, and on special occasions, opposition politicians, Tamil nationalists and others join in.

By far the biggest and most-prolonged agitation is the one against the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project, which was dealt with a heavy hand by both the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) governments. Protests began soon after the 2011 Fukushima accident in Japan though the project was begun in 2000. Repeated police action, slapping of sedition charges against a large number of people, arbitrary arrests and the exhibition of the might of the state for a prolonged period finally led to the winding up of the agitation.

Fishermen along the Tamil Nadu coast, from Ennore to Enayam, have had many reasons to protest. The collision between two ships off Ennore affected the livelihood of a large number of fishermen living along the Chennai coast. Once the television crews left the scene, clean-up crews followed suit, and fishermen were left to clean up the mess. Both the ships were let off. In Thoothukudi, fishermen believe that the functioning of Sterlite has affected the availability of fish in the Gulf of Mannar. According to the Centre for Science and Environment, “While taking Environment Clearance, the company had flouted norms by misrepresenting facts and giving a faulty Environmental Impact Assessment report. Firstly, it said that the plant was not located within 25 km of the ecologically sensitive area, which was found to be wrong as the plant is located near Munnar Marine National Park.”

Fishermen were clear about the Enayam port project. In an interaction with the District Collector and officials in August 2017, representatives of fishermen associations said that if the International Container Transhipment Terminal were to be established in the densely populated fishermen locality, it would wipe out their livelihood.

There have been local agitations, too, mostly relating to water contamination and air pollution. The Environment Justice Atlas, which documents and catalogues social conflict around environmental issues, lists beach sand mining for ilmenite, Cheyyur thermal power plant, Enayam port, Ennore coal plant, Neduvasal, Kavuthi-Vediappan hills (iron ore mining), the Kodungaiyur dumping site, Koodankulam, Noyyal river basin, Kathiramangalam, Sterlite, and the Kodaikanal mercury poisoning, among the major conflicts in Tamil Nadu.

R.K. Radhakrishnan

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