Fuelling Protests – States News

On February 10, Tamil Nadu chief minister E.K. Palaniswami announced that the Cauvery delta would be declared a Protected Special Agricultural Zone (PSAZ) to accord primacy to the state’s food security and to protect farmers’ livelihoods. Over the past four decades, the delta’s share of the state’s food production has fallen from 65 per cent to 40 per cent. A major cause of this decline is hydrocarbon exploration. In recent years, there have been many protests against such projects, which not only occupy fertile agricultural lands but also cause ecological damage.

The chief minister’s announcement followed his objection, in January, to a unilateral amendment by the Union government to the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification, 2006. This amendment relaxed the environmental clearance requirements for oil and gas exploration. “The state government will not permit hydrocarbon exploration in the delta region, which would affect the livelihood of farmers,” announced the chief minister. He has also reportedly written to the Centre for support in creating the PSAZ, which will include parts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur, Nagapattinam, Pudukottai, Cuddalore, Ariyalur, Karur and Tiruchirapalli. These areas make up the state’s rice bowl and produce about 3.3 million tonnes of grain every year.

Farmers have long opposed hydrocarbon projects in the delta, pointing to the damage they cause, such as groundwater contamination. Agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan has also endorsed the chief minister’s plan: “Areas identified for PSAZ status should be given facilities to ensure that agriculture remains economically viable. This is an important step to ensure the future of our food and ecological security.”

The chief minister’s plan is to allow only agriculture and allied industries in the region. “Enacting specific legislation to protect the region, though welcome, is inadequate,” says Professor S. Janakarajan, president of the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies. “There are grey areas. The state cannot act unilaterally, ignoring central government laws that permit entities like ONGC to take up [hydrocarbon] exploration. Another serious concern is the fracking technology these entities rely on. It has already been banned in several countries for the ecological harm it causes. Issues like these have to be addressed for any meaningful protection of the delta.”

The state has, in the past, taken note of, and acted on, farmers’ protests. In 2013, Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa had ordered the suspension of coal-bed methane exploration and production in Thanjavur and Tiruvarur districts, following it up with a ban in 2015. However, in 2017, the Centre signed contracts for hydrocarbon extraction in 31 locations in the state. With an eye on investments over Rs 90,000 crore, the state government also notified 45 villages in the Cuddalore and Nagapattinam districts in the delta as part of a Petroleum, Chemical and Petrochemical Investment Region that year. (Chief Minister Palaniswami’s proposed PSAZ puts a question mark on this ambitious scheme.) Then, in 2019, the central government also allowed Vedanta Ltd to conduct impact assessment studies to drill 274 offshore and onshore hydrocarbon wells in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.

Facts like these will make it difficult for the chief minister to walk the talk. He has to get the ministry of petroleum and natural resources on the same page and get the Union government to agree to the proposed PSAZ. This will be all the more difficult since the Centre’s move to relax the rules for hydrocarbon firms is aimed at incentivising increased production in India to address the country’s high oil-import dependence. The Tamil Nadu government will face both pressure from the Union government and litigation from firms that have already invested significant sums in such projects, which could lead to adverse consequences for investment in the state.

At the same time, the chief minister is also using this issue to score points off the rival DMK. The PSAZ tag was a central poll plank of all political parties in the state, both in the previous assembly election and in last year’s Lok Sabha election. By winning 29 of the 45 assembly seats in the delta region in the 2016 assembly election, the AIADMK had conquered what was seen as a DMK stronghold. However, by winning all but one of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in the state and Puducherry last summer, the DMK-led alliance showed that it had regained the upper hand. Moreover, the party managed to win over half the votes in the Cauvery delta, particularly in Thanjavur and Nagapattinam, in local body elections in December 2019.

Some analysts wonder, therefore, if the chief minister’s announcement was made primarily with an eye on the 2021 assembly poll.

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