Anxiety over land

The Central government’s decision to commence work on the hydrocarbon project in the Neduvasal field in Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu under its new discovered small field policy triggers a vibrant agitation.

Published : Mar 15, 2017 12:30 IST

On day 14 of the protest against the hydrocarbon project at Neduvasal.

On day 14 of the protest against the hydrocarbon project at Neduvasal.

A COUPLE of hundred metres ahead of Neduvasal village in Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu, policemen stop our taxi at a newly created check post. They note down the vehicle number, check our identity cards, and, convinced that we are from the press, allow us to proceed. For students, Neduvasal is a “no-go” area.

Some distance down the road, a huge hoarding with bold visuals confronts us. The graphics depict crude oil flowing into paddy fields, a question mark over a farmer’s head, and a child with an emaciated torso and a swollen head, among other things. The words on the hoarding read: “Government of India! Stop immediately the hydrocarbon extraction project at Neduvasal. Do not convert our fertile soil into arid land. Don’t make our village into a cremation ground. Give up your hydrocarbon project. We will not take rest till we defeat your project. We will never be afraid of repression.”

Nearby, in the open forecourt of the Nadi Amman temple of Neduvasal, an agitation is under way. Several hundred farmers, the majority of them peasant women, are seated on the ground, listening to speakers criticise the Centre for announcing that hydrocarbon production will commence at Neduvasal. Frightful hoardings and video films prepared by youths of Pudukottai working in Singapore and Gulf countries have contributed in a big way to the fear psychosis gripping farmers in the Neduvasal region on the impact of hydrocarbon extraction from the six wells drilled by the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC). Farmers fear that hydrocarbons extracted from great depths may trigger earthquakes. They feel that under the guise of hydrocarbon production ONGC will extract coal-bed methane and shale gas, which they fear, will disturb the water table and dry up aquifers. As a consequence, there will be seawater incursion, the soil will become acidic and the farmland will become unfit for cultivation. About “600 types of chemicals” will be pumped into the wells to produce oil and gas and this will pollute the groundwater, they fear. The surfacing of crude oil on an abandoned, capped well at Vanakkankadu and collection of crude oil in a cement-concrete tank built at the surface level from a well at Nallandar Kollai have added to the farmers’ concerns.

After conducting extensive seismic studies, ONGC drilled six wells (at Vadakadu, Nallandar Kollai, Vada Theru in Kottaikadu, Vanakkankadu, Karukakurichi and Kannian Kollai) in the Neduvasal field, coming under Alangudi taluk, in the 1990s and after 2006. It discovered oil and natural gas in some of the wells but did not produce hydrocarbons as they were not sizable finds.

On February 15, under the new discovered small field (DSF) policy aimed at producing hydrocarbons quickly from small and marginal fields, the Narendra Modi government announced that GEM Laboratories Private Limited had won the bid for extracting oil and natural gas from the Neduvasal field, which is a small field. Technically, therefore, ONGC is not in the picture in Neduvasal.

Farmlands in the region are fertile; farmers raise paddy, maize, sugarcane, pepper, water melon, coconut, banana, cashew nut, and vegetables. They also grow casuarina and eucalyptus. The fields are irrigated by hundreds of borewells. Spacious tiled houses, expansively built cement and concrete houses, massive haystacks and grazing livestock attest the prosperity and self-sufficiency of the villages. With at least one person each from the majority of the families working abroad, the villages are also flush with remittances.

On March 1, the day this correspondent entered Neduvasal, residents of Neduvasal and the six villages where oil wells had been drilled and farmers from about 70 neighbouring villages gathered in the open ground in front of the Nadi Amman temple. While this became the epicentre of a sustained agitation since February 16, separate, but coordinated, protests are under way at Nallandar Kollai, Vada Theru in Kottaikadu and Vanakkankadu.

On March 2, 11 members of the Save Neduvasal Struggle Committee, headed by C. Velu, returned to the venue of the agitation after a meeting with Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami in Chennai to request him not to allow the hydrocarbon project. Velu, 62, said: “The Centre should give up the hydrocarbon project. Oil wells have already been dug up here. People’s livelihood will be affected if the Centre goes ahead with hydrocarbon extraction. Oil is already oozing from one well and the oil on the surface sometimes catches fire. The discovery of oil and gas here has created a lot of health problems. Two villagers who gave their land [to ONGC] for drilling oil wells have died of cancer. Some villagers suffer from impaired kidneys and tuberculosis.”

Even as Velu was speaking, the atmosphere got surcharged as hundreds of people, mainly women, entered the venue of the agitation. Those in the vanguard of the procession carried a banner that read, “Committee against hydrocarbon methane, Pullaan Viduthi” (a nearby village). The women were waving black flags or had black badges pinned on their saris. They were holding aloft paddy and sugarcane stalks, maize cobs, tender coconuts, water melons, groundnut plants, banana bunches, jackfruits and even flowers to show that all these crops were cultivated in Neduvasal and other surrounding villages. The men came in tractors and bullock carts holding ploughs.

Slogan-shouting filled the air. “Don’t hit us, don’t hit us, don’t hit us below the belt,” the women shouted. “Clap, clap until methane is scrapped” and “Will methane provide food?” were among the slogans that rent the air.

On March 9, the protesters decided to suspend the agitation after Union Minister of State for Shipping Pon. Radhakrishnan, who visited Neduvasal, promised to arrange for a meeting between farmers representatives and Union Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan in New Delhi on March 15 or 16.

The bid round

On February 15, the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas announced that the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs, chaired by Prime Minister Modi, had given its approval to award contracts in 31 contract areas (44 fields; 28 on land and 16 offshore) of DSFs of ONGC and Oil India Limited (OIL). “These areas were discovered long ago but these discoveries could not be monetised due to various reasons such as isolated locations, small size of reserves, high development of costs, technological constraints, fiscal regime, etc.,” the Ministry’s press release said.

As exploration and production of oil and natural gas was one of the critical sectors for India’s “Make in India” initiative and energy security goals, Modi set out a target of reduction of oil and gas import by 10 per cent by 2022, the press release said. “Aligned to this vision, the DSF bid round was launched to monetise early the already discovered hydrocarbon fields,” it added. The award of contracts would lead to faster development of fields and facilitate production of oil and gas, thereby increasing the energy security of the country. An in place locked hydrocarbon volume of 40 million tonnes of oil and 22 billion cubic metres of gas would be monetised over a period of 15 years from these 31 contract areas, it added. These small blocks/fields where hydrocarbons had already been discovered, it said, were less risky and offered opportunities to new entrants in the upstream oil and natural gas production sector, hitherto seen as the preserve of large players. The Ministry launched the bid round on May 25, 2016, under a liberalised and investor friendly regime, which offered 46 contract areas, consisting of 67 fields spread across nine sedimentary basins in the country.

The Directorate General of Hydrocarbons and the Ministry held several roadshows between June and October 2016 in India and abroad.

The DSFs were put on offer through online, international competitive bidding. A total of 134 e-bids were received for 34 contract areas; 47 companies (43 Indian and four foreign) submitted their e-bids. The 31 contract areas, where oil and natural gas will be produced, are in Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Gujarat, Krishna-Godavari offshore, Kutch offshore, Madhya Pradesh, Mumbai offshore, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. Seventeen private companies, including Hindustan Oil Exploration Company Limited, Oilmax Energy Private Limited, AdaniWelspun Exploration Limited, BDN Enterprises Private Limited, Nippon Power Limited and GEM Laboratories Private Limited, won the bids. Indian Oil Limited; OIL; Bharat PetroResources Limited, a subsidiary of Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited; and Prize Petroleum Company Limited, a subsidiary of Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited , are the public sector undertakings that won the bids. GEM Laboratories Private Limited won the bid to produce hydrocarbons at Neduvasal and Bharat PetroResources Limited earned the right to produce oil and gas from the Karaikal field in the Union Territory of Puducherry.

In the 1990s and 2000s, ONGC had typically taken on lease about seven acres (one acre = 0.4 hectare) of farmland each at Nallandar Kollai, Vadu Theru, Vadakadu, Vanakkankadu, Karukakurichi and Kannian Kollai and drilled wells. It discovered oil and associated gas in about four wells. The wells have remained idle since then because they produced only small quantities of oil and gas. As it was not commercially viable for ONGC, it did not take part in the bid to produce hydrocarbons from the Neduvasal wells.

Villagers’ fears

When a Tamil television channel broke the news on February 15 that production of hydrocarbons would commence at Neduvasal, it sent shock waves across the villages in the region. The villagers feared that the release of natural gas ( aavi in Tamil) and its flaring would make men impotent, that women would not be able to conceive, and that deformed babies would be born. Prakasa Mary, a farm worker from Kanniyan Kollai who had come to Nallandar Kollai with her young son to take part in the protest there, said: “If the aavi is generated, we will all die. Nothing will survive.”

What has increased the fear among farmers of Vanakkankadu, about 10 km from Neduvasal, is the oozing of crude oil from a capped, boxed-up well. ONGC drilled the well in 1994 and abandoned it after it yielded only minor oil. It plugged the well and cemented the surface. M. Rajesh, who owned the land, said oil welled up to the cemented surface and caught fire sometimes in the summer, creating a scare. When it rained, the oil got mixed with rain water and the resultant emulsion flowed into his field, damaging the crops.

From arid land to fertile soil

More than anything else, farmers of Neduvasal, who typically own about five acres, fear that they may lose their land and livelihood. Through hard work, they have been able to convert the barren land in Alangudi taluk into fertile soil. Borewells played “a paramount role” in this success story, said A.S. Thirugnanam of the Save Neduvasal Struggle Committee. There are no rivers, streams, lakes or man-made canals in Alangudi taluk, so farmers were forced to tap the groundwater for cultivation. A canal built under the Cauvery Modernisation Project flows near Neduvasal, but it is perennially dry as the village is at the tail end of the Cauvery. Neduvasal is divided into east and west villages, each with a few thousands of families.

As you drive from Pudukottai town to Alangudi, the region on both sides of the road is arid with scrub jungles all round. But the topography changes dramatically between Alangudi and Neduvasal as lush green fields and groves dominate the landscape.

Thirugnanam explained how this was brought about. He said: “About 30 years ago, the Neduvasal region was ravaged by drought. Pudukottai district was described as drought-prone. Rains failed constantly. In order to change this situation, we sank thousands of borewells, each to a depth of about 300 feet. Today, all major crops are cultivated in the area. We have turned this land green. Our lives are dependent on agriculture. We work hard. We eat well. The Centre says that production of hydrocarbons from Neduvasal will provide jobs to 500 persons. I can give jobs to 25,000 people every year.”

G. Subramanian, 67, was drinking tea in an eatery at Neduvasal when other farmers confronted him with the question: “Have you signed the lease agreement for drilling to begin in your field?” He told them that he had not signed the agreement although officials from the Revenue Department and ONGC were after him since 2013. His steadfast refusal to sign the agreement to hand over about four acres of land to ONGC became the rallying point for the agitation at Neduvasal.

As we sat in the shade of his coconut grove, Subramanian told us how he fought off attempts at acquiring his land. He owned eight acres of land. He spent Rs.5 lakh on the mastectomy that his wife had to undergo. His eldest son’s wife had died and he had two children. The eldest son was hard of hearing. The younger son, who had studied up to 10th standard, did not have a steady job. Subramanian has a daughter. He had to support a family of 10 with the income from eight acres.

In April 2013, when Subramanian was ploughing his field he saw a group of officials, including the local Tahsildar and the Revenue Inspector, arrive in two jeeps. They had a map and the survey number of his land. “Without my permission, they took the survey number of my land from the Village Administrative Officer [VAO],” he said. The officials entered his land and laid the boundary stones. When he confronted them, he was told that ONGC would obtain four acres of his land on lease and the boundary stones were for marking the land meant for lease. Subramanian asked the VAO to remove the boundary stones as it would amount to disrespect if he removed them. The stones were removed.

Four months later, the officials returned to convince Subramanian to part with his land. From 2013 to 2016, different sets of officials came every three or four months to coerce him into leasing his land to ONGC. In 2014-15, he was served an ultimatum. Subramanian replied that he was ready to face them in the court. A few months later, he was called for a “peace committee” meeting in Tiruvarur. He went alone and had to confront 25 officials, including those from ONGC. They pressured him to lease his land. An ONGC officer gave him the papers and said, “Sign in these places.” But Subramanian stood his ground. The last time the officials visited him was about seven months ago.

At Vada Theru hamlet, ONGC had drilled a well, struck oil, and installed a “Christmas tree” (a wellhead assembly of valves, spools, and fittings to control the flow of oil or gas from the well). Associated gas was found, and it was flared for a few months. As we reached the spot, a crowd of young men, wearing black badges, materialised from nowhere, and clambered up the fenced Christmas tree and shouted slogans against the Centre. The land on which the Christmas tree and the well stand belonged to I. Elias aka Maria Soosai, 71. M. Aruldoss, whose mother leased three-fourths of an acre to ONGC in 1991 to lay a dirt track to reach the drilling site at Vada Theru, and A. Subbiah, another resident, took us to meet Elias.

Seated on a chair in his farmland, about a few hundred metres from the Christmas tree, Elias said: “I gave three-fourths of an acre to ONGC in 1991. They never compelled me to part with my land. Never. First, ONGC officials gave me Rs.4,500 for the three-fourths of an acre. Then they increased the amount to Rs.25,000. This year, they increased it to Rs.97,339.” He was prepared to show us the papers for the money he was receiving. Would he have earned more if he had cultivated that piece of land? “I would have got Rs.2.5 lakh,” he said. He was in the midst of paddy fields with a young crop just watered from a borewell. Beyond the paddy fields were casuarina, eucalyptus and sugarcane plantations.

Aruldoss said ONGC had taken his land on lease for three years but it kept it for 24 years. “We get Rs.20,000 for the land now.”

Subbiah said ONGC initially said it would take the land on lease for three years to explore mann ennai (kerosene) and if they found mann ennai , they would keep the land for some more years but if the well did not yield kerosene they would return the land to the farmers after cleaning it. “But they have kept the land for 24 years and they are not even producing oil from the well,” Subbiah said.

J. Anand Arputharaj, 36, his father, S. Jesuraj, and Arputharaj’s aunt, A. Arul Mary, joined us. It was with delight that they showed us around their “paradise”. There were coconut groves and banana trees, and they had cultivated bitter gourd, brinjal, shallot, varieties of beans, green chilly, snake gourd, greens, jackfruit, tapioca and gooseberry. “We never buy vegetables. How can we give up all this and go away for the sake of hydrocarbons?” Arul Mary asked.

At Kottaikadu, hundreds of people sat in dharna under a shamiana firm in their resolve to block the hydrocabon production project at Vada Theru.

Protest at Nallandar Kollai

A protest was under way at Nallandar Kollai, where ONGC had drilled a well, struck oil and installed a Christmas tree over the well. Black flags were fluttering from the Christmas tree and posters asking the ONGC to “stop fracking” were everywhere. There were hoardings with garish graphics showing how production of “methane” at Nallandar Kollai would doom agriculture, groundwater and the environment. A young man, standing on the Christmas tree, shouted, “We will safeguard our agriculture. Until we retrieve Neduvasal, we will not go back to our veedu vasal [homesteads]. Do not cheat Tamils, do not punish Tamil Nadu, we have woken up.”

It was easy to see why the agitation was intense at Nallandar Kollai despite a fiery afternoon sun. About a 100 m from the well/Christmas tree were two tanks made of cement-concrete at ground level. While one of them was empty, the other had caked up jet black oil in it.

At a pandal nearby a public meeting was under way. The entrance to the pandal was decorated with banana bunches, banana trees, coconut bunches, jackfruits and maize cobs. The protesters mostly comprised peasant women.

Outside his spacious house, P. Kulandai Velar, 70, was lolling in his bullock cart but looking dejected when we met him after watching the agitation at Nallandar Kollai. He and his brother, Govinda Velar, had together leased six acres (three acres each) in 2006 to the ONGC at Nallandar Kollai for drilling the exploratory well. (Another farmer had leased 0.5 acre.)

The oil major drilled a well in the Velars’ land in 2007. Kulandai Velar, a potter by profession, was cultivating paddy, sugarcane and banana when he leased his land. The officials did not mention the lease period. He gets Rs.60,000 a year for the leased land. His two wives died of grief because he leased the land, he said.

Asked what the substance in the square-shaped tank was, Kulandai Velar said it was crude oil. ONGC collected the crude oil from the well in the tank with an overground pipeline.

Farmers feel they would have earned more if they had continued to cultivate their land. They are not sure when they will get back their land because, under the new DSF policy, the private company that has won the bid can keep it for 15 years.

G.S. Dhanapathy, Pudukottai district chairman of the Farmers’ Forum of India, said it would be a disaster if India became a cash economy instead of an agricultural economy. Any project should aim at improving people’s standard of living. “The consequences will be dreadful if projects that affect people’s livelihoods are thrust on them,” he said.

Dhanapathy, who is a respected farmer from Bharathipuram at Andakulam village, said: “It is the unanimous demand of the people that the projects should not be implemented without a public hearing.”

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