The declaration of the Cauvery Delta as a protected agriculture zone is illustrative of Tamil Nadu's increasing concern for ecology, even if this is quite late in the day. The political arguments over the legality or even the methods by which the desired protection of the rice bowl of the State are not as important as the import of the decision. This should simply mean putting an end to extraction of hydrocarbons like methane and butane, besides hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for shale gas and oil and tight gas in the fertile delta.
It's the time to walk the talk and stop all exploration and extraction. It is somewhat unimportant that various permissions for extraction have been given from a time when different governments (DMK here and Congress in Delhi) were in place in a different era. At the time the decision was made, it may have seemed important to make the best use of natural resources. The world was agog then that the US could fend for itself in terms of limited use of its fossil fuel reserves by exploring shale gas and oil options and even bringing down the global price of petroleum because of its success with fracking.
It has become clear after years of hydrocarbon extractions that they disturb the ecology alarmingly, particularly in our case because the Cauvery Delta was anyway an inappropriate place for such operations. The damage to general fertility of the soil and the excessive use of water for fracking purposes should have thrown a light on the inaptness of choosing to exploit the natural resources under fertile land that feeds the people with food grains, especially rice.
There will be a price to pay when you put ecological considerations first. As a society we should be prepared for this. In any case, the hydrocarbon extraction projects were least likely to benefit the locals, save for some farmers who sold their land holding at attractive prices. The Tamil Nadu government gets a measly percentage of the royalties paid to the Centre. Public and private firms like ONGC and Vedanta may pay handsomely for the resources but very little of it trickles down to the TN economy.
How gullible Tamil Nadu has been in this matter is made clear by the fact that as recently as in May 2019, the environment and forest ministry granted Terms of Reference to carry out environment impact report to Vedanta's Cairn Oil & Gas to carry out drilling a total of 274 offshore and onshore sites in Nagapattinam, Karaikal, Villupuram, Puducherry and the Bay of Bengal. The new kind of hydrocarbon exploration also allows non-conventional methods and just about anything goes so long as 'hydrocarbons' are spotted, drilled, extracted and exploited. But at what cost and at whose expense?
What happens now? Will the exploration be stopped or does the protection of the delta not apply to any extraction or exploration already permitted by the Centre?
The European Union does not allow fracking even as most of the world is turning off fossil fuels for power and turning to cleaner sources as well as pursuing electricity for powering transport. In India, the supervision is so lax and compliance so loose that the worst can be imagined of the businesses that are set up simply to exploit the natural resources.
There will be a price to pay, much as India itself has paid in having to import copper after the closure of the Sterlite copper smelter in Thoothukudi, but not before the demonstrations and the fracas led to loss of lives in the police firing in May 2018. Despite all that, what Tamil Nadu has asked for now is to make public consultation mandatory for oil exploration. How neatly such consultative meetings are manipulated is no secret. Gigantic frauds have taken place after such 'staged' consultations with the public. Remember the quite needless Sethusamudram project that was supposed to cut through the Adam's Bridge, which was a classic example of staged public consultations.
The Cauvery Delta's 14.47 lakh hectares produce only about 40 % of Tamil Nadu's rice needs. The cultivable area had long ago given way to cash crops and fruits like banana as well as diminished over time due to low returns from farming, real estate temptation, soil erosion, pollution and such factors even as agricultural production has been dipping since the first decade of the new millennium. And all along the Centre has been calling for hydrocarbon exploration and extraction. If all onshore hydrocarbon projects are stopped at once, Tamil Nadu will hardly be the loser whereas its agriculture will gain some confidence as well as better crops.
At the risk of sounding radical, the opinion can be ventured that a whole new look at hydrocarbon extraction is absolutely necessary.
It's not enough to say that public consultation should be a must before exploration is permitted. While offshore extraction cannot be as harmful as onshore, particularly in fertile lands, all permissions must be granted after a more detailed appraisal of ecological consequences. The state is already in debt beyond Rs 4 lakh crore and shutting down extraction projects and foregoing the revenues from royalties won't make the situation much worse. To preserve ecology, pay the cost.
(R. Mohan is the Resident Editor of the Chennai and Tamil Nadu editions of Deccan Chronicle)...