CHENNAI: Eight years ago, it was a winter of discontent when the Cauvery delta was on the boil again. A crucial meeting of all stakeholders including farmers, economists and scientists took place in Thanjavur towards the end of December 2012 to discuss the implications of the Centre giving approval to a Gurgaon-based company then for drilling methane gas from coal-beds at the heart of Tamil Nadu's rice bowl.
The consensus was loud and clear, not to disturb the ecological fragility of the Cauvery delta. A top executive of the Great Eastern Energy Corporation Limited (GEECL), which by then had already been extracting methane gas “successfully” from coal beds in Raniganj in Asansol area of West Bengal, which had got the nod to extract gas from the “crevices of the lignite belt” in Mannargudi block, was also there to explain the company's point of view.
The Directorate general of Hydrocarbons, technical arm of the Petroleum and Natural Gas Ministry in Delhi, had then assessed a potential of 0.98 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of methane gas in the Cauvery delta, though the company then was only to take up pilot drilling. Veteran agriculturist, himself a geologist-turned-farmer, S Ranganathan, who was then also heading the 'Centre for Cauvery Delta Development Studies' summed up the delta farmers apprehensions succinctly.
Mannargudi S Ranganathan had then argued that, already given the uncertain water flows in the Cauvery river, a project like this could worsen the groundwater scenario as huge quantities of water will need to be pumped out during extraction of the methane gas. It could add to the salinity and 'excess sodium content' of the soil - already facing such a threat due to sea water intrusion in the wake of the horrific December 2004 Tsunami-, and in turn large tracts of cultivable lands in the delta into 'barren waste land'. The Cauvery delta, comprising Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam districts, has been an “ancient irrigation system since 2nd century AD and it will be drastically hit,” Ranganathan had further stressed.
While the Central government was looking at “encouraging” such explorations to tap what is “relatively cheap, clean, non-conventional energy source” to not only help reduce India's oil import bills, but also pave way for her energy security in the long-term, the trade-offs, at that Thanjavur meeting of all the stakeholders, came into sharp collision: Energy security at the cost of food security and livelihood means of millions of farmers whose USP is at growing paddy?
As a Correspondent covering those tense days in Thanjavur district, I remember that meeting unwittingly became a turning point in the debate, which began to gain momentum over desirability of allowing hydrocarbon explorations in Cauvery delta. The then Jayalalithaa regime then saw the wisdom of stopping further work on the methane project. And the latest Central government's G.O., which even waived the public hearing requirement for hydrocarbon drilling projects including in Cauvery onshore, in effect has deepened the delta farmers' apprehensions.
It is in this larger backdrop which witnessed subsequent prolonged agitations by villagers of Neduvasal and Kathiramangalam as more exploratory drilling for oil by other players began to take shape, and sporadic tensions in places like Kudavasal, Kamalapuram and Kovilkalapal in Tiruvarur district, that the Edappadi K Palaniswami-led AIADMK government enacting a Bill in the Assembly on Thursday, 'Tamil Nadu Protected Agricultural Zone Development Bill', banning eight categories of industrial activities, including oil, natural gas, coal-bed methane and shale gas explorations, is a small but necessary step.
Area-wise, it covers the heart of the Cauvery delta districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam, besides some blocks in Pudukkottai and Cuddalore districts. The Bill as enacted seems a watered down version of what Mr. Palaniswami had first announced at the function to lay the foundation stone for a state-of-art veterinary research institute and livestock farm at Talaivaasal in Salem district, as Karur, Tiruchirappalli and Ariyalur districts have been excluded from its scope.
That ongoing projects will not be affected by this Bill is a measure of the legal complexities involved. For instance, ever since the ONGC first struck oil in a well at Narimanam in Nagapattinam district in 1985 and commercial production beginning in 1989, followed by Kovilkalappal oil well, the Cauvery Basin was expected to produce about four lakh tonnes of crude oil annually.
This was sufficient for the Chennai Petroleum Corporation Limited (CPCL), now part of IOC, to build a small refinery at Panangudi in Nagapattinam district in 1993. Its capacity was scaled up from 0.50 million metric tonnes per annum (mmtpa) to 1.0 mmtpa later. Now, CPCL is planning to set up a major 9 mmtpa capacity grassroots refinery at Panangudi at a cost of over Rs.37,000 crore, and finalization of the detailed feasibility report is underway. That refinery is expected to play an important role in not only meeting Tamil Nadu's future energy needs, but transforming the agro-centric profile of the delta with downstream units.
But from the State's agriculture scenario point of view, as per official data, consider the ground realities: Still 40 per cent of the population are directly dependent on farming for their livelihood, 92 per cent of farmers belonging to small and marginal categories, the Cauvery delta districts continue to be Tamil Nadu's 'rice bowl' accounting for nearly 35 per cent of the annual paddy production, and there has been “gradual decline” in the State's net crops sown area from 56.38 lakh hectares in the 1950s' to 48.85 LH in 2011-12. Given these numbers, other supportive policy initiatives were urgently needed to save what little is left of the Cauvery delta as the principal food-growing basket. Even if the new Bill raises more issues, in Tamil Nadu's long-term interest it is overdue to balance between agriculture and industry.