Mines of concern

Print edition : December 28, 2012

Paddy transplantation in Progress in Mannargudi taluk of Tiruvarur district on October 28.-B. VELANAKANNI RAJ

Farmers protest against the Central clearance for coal bed methane exploration in Mannargudi, Tamil Nadu, as they fear it will devastate agriculture in Tiruvarur and Thanjavur districts.

THE woes of the delta farmers of Tamil Nadu are far from over. While the Cauvery tangle continues unresolved, they fear the proposed multi-crore project for commercial exploration and exploitation of coal bed methane (CBM) in the Mannargudi block of Tiruvarur district will prove detrimental not only to the environment but also to the States food production. Farmers of Tiruvarur and Thanjavur districts have registered their protest against the project as delineated by the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons.

Functionaries of farmers associations and activists of the Left parties suspect that the proposal to develop gas reserves lying below coal seams could be a prelude to lignite mining. They fear that open-cast mining in the block will have a devastating effect on farming operations in the two districts. With a total net sown area of 3.45 lakh hectares, the two districts have been making a significant contribution to paddy production in the State.

Mannargudi block forms part of the lignite basin along the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry in the Cauvery delta. According to official sources, the lignite reserves in the block are estimated to be around 19,500 million tonnes. Quality wise, the lignite has 40-50 per cent moisture content, 4-12 per cent ash, 18-23 per cent volatile matter and 17-20 per cent fixed carbon. Its calorific value is estimated to be 2,200 to 3,200 kilocalories per kilogram (kcal/kg).

Although exploration drills had been conducted in the Mannargudi region earlier, the Central government had put the idea of mining on the back burner for the reason that the reserves are located under built-up and agricultural areas, making exploitation difficult, farmers association leaders recall. However, in the climate of liberalisation, things may not remain the same for long. Finding the energy situation quite tight, the government may adopt a no-holds-barred strategy to tap every possible source of energy, they fear.

Representatives of farmers, functionaries of the Tamil Nadu Science Forum (TNSF), political activists and other stakeholders had registered their protest against the CBM project at a public hearing held by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) on January 23, 2012, nearly eight months before the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) granted environmental clearance for the project on September 12, 2012. Great Eastern Energy Corporation Limited (GEECL), a private company engaged in the exploration, development and production of CBM in India, was awarded the Mannargudi block under the CBM-IV licensing round held in June 2010. It signed a production-sharing contract with the Central government on July 26, 2010. The terms of reference of the project was issued on May 24, 2011.

Soon after the project got clearance, farmers, activists of Left parties and local residents staged street protests calling for the annulment of the contract awarded to GEECL. The protests have continued in different forms since then. On October 27, farmers and residents of Mannargudi participated in a dawn-to-dusk fast organised by the Tiruvarur unit of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam (TNVS). Some of them have threatened to challenge the clearance accorded to the project in court. GEECL, meanwhile, is all set to launch the initial phase of its exploration after obtaining a few minor procedural approvals from the State government. The project would cover an area of 691 square kilometres with an effective area of 667 sq km, or 66,700 hectares. According to the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons, the estimated gas available in the effective area of the Mannargudi block is 0.98 trillion cubic feet.

GEECL signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the previous Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government on January 4, 2011. The DMK regime also gave its approval for granting the company a petroleum exploration licence for Mannargudi block. Under the MoU, the State government would facilitate the necessary approvals, including the environmental clearance. As per the terms and conditions, the project is to be implemented in four phases: the exploration phase for a maximum period of two consecutive contract years; the pilot assessment, market survey and commitment phase spanning three years; the development phase not exceeding five years; and the production phase of 25 years. The company, for its part, should make an initial investment of around Rs.100 crore for the committed minimum work programme (CMWP) comprising the first two phases during which 50 core holes and 30 pilot wells would be drilled in an area of 1.5 to two acres (0.6-0.8 hectare) each.

The exploration work would cover seven taluks in the two districts. The companys top brass has already made it clear that depending on the outcome of the CMWP a further investment of up to Rs.4,000 crore would be made. GEECL expressed the hope that the presence of a pipeline infrastructure in the block would help in marketing.

Although it is three years since the Centre announced the offer of the Mannargudi block, along with nine other blocks, for exploring and producing CBM, many local residents, including farmers and functionaries of civic bodies, claimed that they were not aware of the project until recently.

At the public hearing held at the Tiruvarur Collectors office in January, farmers representatives, functionaries of the TNSF, environmentalists and activists of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India expressed their concerns about the possible impact of the project on the environment and on the livelihood of farmers. They also criticised the secrecy maintained by the company and the government agencies concerned in carrying forward the process to explore and exploit the natural gas.

S. Ranganathan, general secretary of the Cauvery Delta Farmers'Welfare Association, addressing participants in the one-day fast organised by the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam in Mannargudi on November 30 to protest against the proposed exploration for methane gas.-B. VELANKANNI RAJ

Leaders of farmers associations and agricultural experts have called for a thorough review of such industrial projects proposed on farmlands in view of certain disturbing negative trends that have appeared in the agricultural sector, which contributes 12 per cent of the net State domestic product, besides being the source of livelihood for more than 50 per cent of the States population. It is the single largest private sector providing employment for rural people.

The State Agriculture Plan (SAP) released in 2009 has pointed out certain negative trends in this primary sector and called for steps to reverse them. The disturbing indicators include a sharp decline in the average size of holdings to 0.83 hectare in 2005-06 from 1.25 ha in 1976-77 and a reduction in the net sown area to 50.1 lakh ha in 2005-06 from 62.56 lakh ha in 1979-80. Attributing the steep fall in the net sown area to a marked increase in lands put to non-agricultural uses, rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, the SAP said, this is rather a disturbing trend that needs immediate attention of policy makers and planners. Similar concerns were expressed by the State government in the Assembly in the last Budget session. Tamil Nadu, having 7 per cent of the countrys population, is endowed with only 3 per cent of the water resources of India. The net irrigated area in the State came down to 28.64 lakh ha in 2009-10 from 29.31 lakh ha in 2008-09. The extent of current fallow land increased to 11.17 lakh ha in 2009-10 from 7.59 lakh ha in 2005-06.

Making a fervent plea to the authorities not to go ahead with the CBM project, the farmers and other stakeholders argued that drilling of core holes and production wells would result in the depletion of groundwater, adversely affecting irrigation sources in both the districts. Another cause for concern is that groundwater in many areas in the composite Thanjavur district has turned saline owing to the intrusion of seawater. Delta farmers are increasingly dependent on deep borewells for irrigation owing to the non-availability of adequate quantity of Cauvery water.

Denying any secrecy in holding the public hearing, the district administration clarified that advertisements had been issued in the press on the basis of the TNPCBs guidelines. However, many farmers representatives staged a walkout from the hearing, claiming that the project posed a serious threat to their livelihoods, apart from affecting the environment and food security.

Echoing the apprehensions of agriculturists in both districts, S. Ranganathan, general secretary of the Cauvery Delta Farmers Welfare Association, said that the CBM project aimed at prospecting for methane gas was only a precursor to lignite mining. Ranganathan, who is himself a geologist, said if this was true, mining-induced problems, including serious loss of vast stretches of agriculturally productive land, would occur. This would also pave the way for large-scale tree felling, besides causing pollution, he added. He opposed the project on four counts: deterioration of food security, land degradation, environmental impact, and job loss. The association had submitted a memorandum at the public hearing.

Referring to Global Hunger Index 2011 of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), he said India was ranked 67th among 81 countries in respect of food security. Implementation of projects such as the CBM exploration in the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu should be viewed against the backdrop of the alarming food security situation, he argued.

A public hearing organised by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board for oil and gas exploration in Mannargudi and Tiruturaipoondi blocks.-B. VELANKANNI RAJ

He also referred to a study sponsored by three United Nations agenciesthe Food and Agriculture Organisation, the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programmewhich has estimated the severity and costs of land degradation in South Asia. It has concluded that countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan have suffered losses to the tune of at least $10 billion annually owing to land degradation. In his estimate, the project would ruin 1.75 lakh acres (one acre is 0.4 ha) of fertile land in Tiruvarur and Thanjavur districts.

Another area of concern is that the lignite horizon in the Mannargudi block has been associated with strata-showing artesian conditions prevailing between Marakkanam and Rameswaram and passing through the delta region. The possibility of the exploration work hitting artesian wells, thereby causing a spurt of water with high sulphur content, cannot be ruled out. He quoted experts to point out that artesian well water containing hydrogen sulphide was toxic and so unfit for irrigation.

Environmentalists have expressed concern over the possible impact of the project on ecologically sensitive spots, particularly the Vaduvoor bird sanctuary in Tiruvarur district. The sanctuary, created in 1999, attracts more than 40 species of waterbirds. A congregation of up to 20,000 winged visitors was recorded in November. Environmentalists said that GEECL had originally proposed to drill four core holes in areas that fell within a 10-km range of the bird sanctuary but the MoEF struck it down while granting the environmental clearance.

K. Balakrishnan, president of the TNVS, urged the State and Central governments not to allow the CBM project as it would result in the loss of livelihood of lakhs of farmers and farm workers and cause the displacement of thousands of residents. He argued that nobody could object to the exploration and exploitation of natural resources to promote the economy, but said adequate care should be taken while permitting such projects on agricultural lands. As several States had already decided against acquiring farmlands to set up special economic zones or to start other industrial activities, the State government should not agree to the CBM project in the States rice bowl, he said. The losses suffered by the government through the implementation of such projects would be several times higher than the revenue it was likely to earn, he said, adding that it could even pave the way for a social crisis.

Balakrishnan also cautioned against entrusting private players with the exploration process in view of the plunder of natural resources by corporates in different parts of the country.

V. Sethuraman, vice-president of the Tiruvarur unit of the TNSF, said the CBM project should be seen in the light of problems relating to irrigation in the delta. Paddy was the principal crop grown in the three crop seasons kuruvai, samba and thaladiin the composite Thanjavur district until recently.

With Cauvery water becoming scarce, farmers were forced to raise only one crop a year, and they depended on deep borewells for irrigation. In such a precarious situation, pumping out excess water from the core holes and wells would result in the depletion of groundwater. The livelihood of the farming community would be badly affected if the groundwater was polluted in the process of prospecting for CBM. The effect would be worse if waste water was discharged into rivers and irrigation canals flowing in the project area, he said.

Referring to the claim that in its geological setting, the Mannargudi lignite basin shows remarkable similarity with the Powder River basin of the United States, which is a prolific producer of CBM from lignite, occurring at shallow depth, despite its low gas content, Sethuraman cited experts opinion in that country that environmental issues surrounding the exploitation of CBM had resulted in conflicts.

According to N. Ramanujam, professor and head of the Department of Disaster Management, Port Blair centre of Pondicherry University, CBM production through non-conventional methods may pose serious environmental problems. Besides noise pollution, air pollution may be caused by compressor exhaust gases, methane leakage and dust released during CBM production.

Unlike conventional natural gas production, CBM production is inseparably associated with a large quantity of water, which is a co-product. Hence, problems relating to the disposal of large volumes of water will become a major concern of the stakeholders. He pointed out that scientists had cautioned that the process could affect shallow groundwater.

Drinking water sourced from the coal bed may affect human health owing to dissolved contaminants such as phenol and arsenic, which are hazardous. The presence of heavy metal in drinking water could result in goitre, Ramanujam said. He added that other ill-effects of CBM production included reduced soil permeability owing to surface discharge of saline water containing organic or inorganic toxic matter, groundwater withdrawal and seepage of methane.

B. Veerasekar, vice-president of Serankulam panchayat in Tiruvarur district, said farmers of his village, who depended on the Pamani river and deep borewells for irrigation, were worried about the impact of the CBM project on the water sources, which had already turned saline owing to seawater intrusion.

V. Sethuraman, vice-president of the Tiruvarur unit of the TNSF.-R.M. RAJARATHINAM

R. Sekar, a resident of the same village, said agriculture had already become a non-profitable venture owing to the non-availability of water for irrigation and the skyrocketing prices of farm inputs. He said farmers had already started selling fertile lands to realtors. The arrival of the CBM project would only tempt them to dispose of their lands for non-agricultural activities.

A.G. Saravanan, president of the Karnavur panchayat and a small farmer, said the conversion of agricultural lands into housing plots was becoming common in the area. He said he had not received any formal intimation about the project.

GEECL's response

In a bid to allay the apprehensions of the local people, particularly in the face of public protests, GEECL has declared, through advertisements in newspapers and submissions at the public hearing, that the company will repeat the success story of its operations at Raniganj in West Bengal and that it is committed to improving the environment, employment situation and economy in Mannargudi. In our Raniganj [south] block, there are no environmental issues. On the contrary, the environment in the region is improving because of the availability of clean energy and the development of the local economy and industries, a company source claimed.

On the farmers apprehension that implementation of the project would result in groundwater depletion, GEECL said lignite seams in the Mannargudi block existed much below the source of groundwater (400 m to 600 m) and the CBM extraction process did not require pumping out of semi-confined aquifers. Several oil producing wells are already in operation in Tiruvarur, and there is no report of groundwater depletion from these operations, the company source added.

GEECL claimed that CBM was a powerful source of energy and was eco-friendly and that the company was credited with the highest environmental and safety standards. The project would create over 1,000 direct and indirect jobs, it said.

A proposed housing colony in Karnavur panchayat near Mannargudi. With agriculture becoming non-profitable owing to the non-availability of water for irrigation, farmers have started selling fertile lands to realtors.-R.M. RAJARATHINAM

A GEECL source claimed the implementation of the CBM project would only help maintain the ecological balance in the lignite-bearing areas where methane gas released during mining escaped into the atmosphere and damaged the ozone layer as the global warming potential of methane is 21 times higher than carbon dioxide. The CBM project would result in the demethanation of coal beds and the avoidance of methane emissions into the atmosphere. It is the presence of methane gas that makes coal mining hazardous. Extraction of the gas will help reduce hazards during future coal mining operations, the source said.

Seeking to allay the doubts about the disposal of the water produced, the company representative who participated in the public hearing explained that the quantity of water would be 1,350 cubic metres per well and that natural evaporation had been proposed using a solar evaporation pan with a capacity of 1,575 cubic metres and high-density polyethylene lining. The produced water would be reused in the drilling of subsequent test wells. Various quality monitoring tests pertaining to the quality of ambient air, soil, surface water and groundwater in the project area indicated that all the parameters were well within the permissible levels set by the respective agencies, a company source claimed.

However, by and large, farmers representatives and others who participated in the public hearing did not seem to be convinced by GEECLs explanation. Some of them even raised the demand for another round of public hearing with the participation of higher officials of the government departments concerned to discuss the issue in detail.

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