Methane project

Stop, says CM

Print edition : August 09, 2013

At the public hearing in Tiruvarur in January 2012 for the proposed methane gas extraction project in the Mannargudi lignite basin. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

THOUSANDS of farmers in the Cauvery delta heaved a sigh of relief as the Tamil Nadu government decided to put on hold the controversial coal bed methane (CBM) exploration and production project by Great Eastern Energy Corporation Limited (GEECL), a private sector company, in Thanjavur and Tiruvarur districts.

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa announced on July 17 that the project would not be allowed if it affected even marginally the farmlands and agriculturists in the rice bowl of the State. The Chief Minister called for a detailed study into the “adverse impact” of the project and said the State government would appoint a committee comprising experts from Anna University, the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation. The panel would also have officials from the Departments of Public Works and Agriculture, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) and the Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corporation.

The committee would be asked to submit its report within three months. Until a decision is taken on the basis of the report, work on the project will remain suspended. Farmers in the delta region, more particularly in Thanjavur and Tiruvarur districts which have a total net sown area of 3.45 lakh hectares, have been on the warpath against the project for nearly 18 months. GEECL signed a production-sharing contract with the Central government in July 2010, and the project got environmental clearance in September 2012. The company also signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the then Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government and received the petroleum exploration licence in January 2011.

The project area is spread over 691 square kilometres with an effective area of 66,700 hectares in the two districts. Before launching agitations against the multi-crore project, farmers had opposed the Central clearance for CBM exploration in the Mannargudi block, which is part of the lignite basin in the delta, during the public hearing held in Thanjavur on December 29, 2011, and in Tiruvarur on January 23, 2012 (Frontline, December 28, 2012 ).

The State government pointed out that the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) cleared the project by “imposing certain conditions but without responding to the apprehensions raised by the farmers”. But the project could not take off as the TNPCB had not granted permission to GEECL to initiate the exploratory work by drilling core holes and pilot wells.

Farmers’ leaders, including P. Shanmugam, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, S. Ranganathan, general secretary of the Cauvery Delta Farmers’ Welfare Association, and P.R. Pandian, national council member of the All India Kisan Sabha, welcomed the Chief Minister’s stand. Farmers also appreciated Jayalalithaa for stating categorically that the government was firm in its commitment that agricultural land should not be spoiled for the growth of industries. Ranganathan hailed the Chief Minister’s response to the “queries and worries” of the people in the Cauvery delta. Exploration and extraction of CBM in the region would be detrimental to the environment and to food production. At a time when successive governments have neglected the farm sector at the national level, Jayalalithaa’s move to protect the primary sector won appreciation. She took a similar pro-farmer stand in the GAIL (India) Limited pipeline project in the western districts of Tamil Nadu, said P.R. Pandian.

Shanmugam urged the State government to initiate measures to facilitate local farmers to express their views on the project during the visits of the experts’ panel.

V. Sethuraman, vice-president of the Tiruvarur district unit of the Tamil Nadu Science Forum (TNSF), said that though GEECL had drawn a parallel with the Powder River Basin project in the United States, Jayalalithaa quoted reports on the adverse environmental impact of that project.

S. Dorairaj