Tamil Nadu Dalit farmers say hydrocarbon projects snuffing out hopes of brighter future, vow to carry on fight

  • This Dalit colony of Pazhaiyapalayam, where Shanthi lives, sits in the middle of paddy fields that make this region the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu

  • Dalits own only small parcels of land, if at all. A few families rent land and earn by sharecropping. Most work as labourers on landlords’ fields

  • After the Tamil Nadu government acquired land for hydrocarbon projects, Dalits lost access to it

“Do you see that fire burning?”

Shanthi Shanmugam, an agricultural labourer from Pazhaiyapalayam village, in Nagapattinam district in Tamil Nadu, added: “It burns over our heads 24X7. With it burns all my hopes of a good future.”

Shanthi’s life has changed dramatically in recent years. From the prosperity of the Cholas to making it the modern rice bowl of Tamil Nadu, the River Cauvery has nurtured the delta region. But, now, the three acres of land Shanthi owns is proving to be not enough to feed her family of seven. To supplement her income, she took up jobs as an agricultural labourer. But those have dried up. 

Now she travels to other villages for work. Her son, Thiruvasan does the same. Her other son, Thirupuhar, became an electrician after agriculture jobs disappeared.

“Today, my life is sandwiched between the fire and the well,” Shanthi said.

 Tamil Nadu Dalit farmers say hydrocarbon projects snuffing out hopes of brighter future, vow to carry on fight

Shanthi Shanmugam, an agricultural labourer from Pazhaiyapalayam village, in Tamil Nadu's Nagapattinam district said her life has changed dramatically in recent years. Image courtesy: Monica Jha

The fire and the well are part of Madanam field, a hydrocarbon production project of State-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC). The work at Pazhaiyapalayam started with ONGC drilling the well (MD-6) at one end of the village, close to the main road, in 2014. The fire is from the combustion of fugitive gasses at a processing facility on the other end of the village. Now, there are several oil and gas wells within a radius of 30 km. In addition, a gas pipeline project started in early 2018. 

The first casualty was land. 

When they talk about land, they only think of landowners, said Shanthi. “Government talks to them, convinces them, and gives them money. What about us? We are dependent on the land, more than anybody else. Did anybody ask us? Did anybody give us money for our loss?”

This Dalit colony of Pazhaiyapalayam, where Shanthi lives, sits in the middle of paddy fields that make this region the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu. But Dalits own only small parcels of land, if at all. A few families rent land and earn by sharecropping. Most work as labourers on landlords’ fields. 

After the government acquired land for hydrocarbon projects, Dalits have lost access to it.

Shanthi said that agricultural land not directly used by the oil and gas units is being ruined by oil spills, groundwater pollution, and emissions.

Nothing grows on this land anymore, her neighbour Kandhimari, who owns an acre of land, added.

And, how will anything grow without water, wondered another neighbour, 31-year-old Ezhilarasan, who also scouts for agricultural work in nearby villages. “The groundwater has turned black since the well came up. Earlier, groundwater was available at a depth of 12-15 feet. Now, it’s much lower.” 

Cauvery Delta has been facing severe water scarcity, seawater ingression, a decline in paddy cultivation area and production, and farmer suicides. Hydrocarbon projects have added to this pressure. 

Hydrocarbon production in Cauvery Delta is much talked about as an ecological issue, said S Sundar, a Dalit land rights activist. “But, it is also an issue of land rights of the Dalits. One that nobody mentions.” 

Landlords own huge tracts of land and live in cities, said Shanthi. “They are happy to receive compensation and abandon agriculture. We’re seeing a lot of people give up farming since wells started coming up. If this continues, I’ll have no job and nothing to feed my family.”

“It is us who lose.”

The work at Pazhaiyapalayam started with ONGC drilling the well (MD-6) at one end of the village, close to the main road, in 2014. Image courtesy: Monica Jha

The work at Pazhaiyapalayam started with ONGC drilling the well (MD-6) at one end of the village, close to the main road, in 2014. Image courtesy: Monica Jha

Cauvery basin is one of India’s seven Category I sedimentary basins: having commercial production and proven hydrocarbon resources. ONGC conducted its first drilling here in 1964 and declared a drilling holiday in 1977. It restarted drilling in 1984.

Today, ONGC’s Cauvery Asset extends from Puducherry in the north to Ramnad in the south and Thanjavur in the west to Karaikal in the east. It operates 24 onland fields covering 27,800 sq km and and three offshore fields covering 30,000 sq km. Cauvery basin produced 0.40 Million Metric Tonnes (MMT) crude oil and 1.29 Billion Cubic Meter (BCM) gas in 2018-19, according to a report of the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons. 

The well MD-6 in Shanthi’s village is an oil and gas producer discovered by ONGC in 2014-15.

Sundar said that ONGC operates 158 wells in three districts: Nagapattinam, Thanjavur and Thiruvarur. “For this, they have acquired over 206 hectares in Nagapattinam alone and over 502.58 hectares across three districts.”  

In Villupuram district, another 274 wells operate covering an 1,653 sq-km land and 141 sq-km sea, he added.

The official number of wells and extent of land acquired is unavailable. People living close to hydrocarbon facilities have no information on whether their neighbouring well is functional or  what the plant is used for, and how safe it is to live close to them. KM Iraniyan, organiser of Tamil Nadu Land and Water Protection Movement, said that he has been trying to procure this information for several years but ONGC is extremely secretive. 

 Map of Cauvery Basin. Source- 2018-19 report of Directorate General of Hydrocarbons

Map of Cauvery Basin. Source- 2018-19 report of Directorate General of Hydrocarbons

A February 2018 report entitled “Illegal Business: The Real Story of ONGC’s Operations in Cauvery Basin” pointed this out too. It mentioned that ONGC has declared 700 well sites and 183 operational wells. However, Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) has records of only 219 well sites and 71 operational wells, the report stated.

ONGC wells in Cauvery delta districts  

District Well count Operational wells Abandoned wells
Nagapattinam 57 25 Not known
Cuddalore 41 5 34
Ramanathapuram 40 35 5
Thanjavur  29 5 4
Thiruvarur 29 Not known Not known
Pudukottai 13  None  10
Ariyalur 10  1 4
Total 219 71 57

(Source: Illegal Business: The Real Story of ONGC’s Operations in Cauvery Basin, Feb 2018. Compiled from information from TNPCB and Online Consent Management and Monitoring System, CPCB)

It also accused ONGC of operating wells without licenses. “According to files provided by the TNPCB, all the wells are operating without valid licenses under the Air and Water Act.” 

ONGC  did not responded to several emails asking for information on Madanam project, number of wells, land acquisition, and how they make their facilities safe for the community. 

If you look at all the wells and processing facilities, and the pipelines connecting them, the whole of three delta districts — Nagapattinam, Thanjavur, and Thiruvarur — are covered, said Iraniyan. “There is no place left for agriculture.” 

Kandhimari, Shanthi’s neighbour, was awoken by a loud thud. It was a cool night in late December 2019. Her grandson, barely a month and a half, started screeching. Her daughter was crying.

Kandhimari started praying frantically.

“Then, I heard a piercing, hissing sound,” recounted Kandhimari. 

“‘It is a gas leak,’ shouted somebody in the neighbourhood.” 

“We started running around in confusion. Children were petrified. We were panicking.” 

Shanthi's neighbour Kandhimari said a patch of her land was burned in an explosion. Image courtesy: Monica Jha

Shanthi's neighbour Kandhimari said a patch of her land was burned in an explosion. Image courtesy: Monica Jha

The noise at night has become quite common, said Kaushlya, Shanthi’s daughter-in-law. “We asked officials; they said it was routine maintenance. They do all this at night when we don’t see anything or complain. But that night was unusual. We knew something was horribly wrong.” 

Sundar said the thud was an explosion that occurred when a damaged rubber valve in the gas pipe burst; and this led to a gas leak. 

People in neighbouring villages, including Shanthi, took to the streets to protest. But a large police force didn’t allow it. “They enforce Section 144 (forbidding more than four people to assemble) whenever we attempt to protest,” Shanthi complained. Iraniyan said the police didn’t allow him and his fellow activists to enter the village. 

“I’m afraid of false cases,” said Shanthi, referring to many protesters in the district being arrested and slapped with charges. 

Two weeks later, in January 2020, at around 3 pm, another explosion occurred. “Dhaaaadh! That’s what I heard,” Kandhimari recounted. “My heart sank.” 

She ran out to check. She saw fire and smoke rising from her paddy field, closer to the processing plant. “A patch of my field was burnt. Two month old paddy seedlings had turned to ashes,” she said.

She lost her investment of Rs 20,000. She didn’t receive compensation for the crop damage. “When Cauvery is kind, this 1 acre of paddy sails me through a few months. But, this gas plant ruined everything.”  

Now, she needs to work extra to recover the input cost. 

“But where are jobs to make money?” she wondered.

Cauvery asset 

  • 24 Oil and gas fields in Cauvery basin: Adiakkamangalam, Attikadai, Bhuvanagri, Kali, Kanjarangudi, Kamalapuram, Karaikal, Kizhvalur, Kovilkalapal, Kuthanallur, Kuthalam, Mattur, Nannilam, Narimanam, Neyveli, Pallivaramangalam, Periyapattinam, Perungulam, Pundi, Ramanavalasai, Thirukkalar, Thiruvarur, Tulsiapatnam, Vadatheru
  • Offshore fields (3): Pondicherry 1 and 3, Palkbay high, Palk bay shallow
  • Major Production Installations
    • Group gathering stations (2): Narimanam, Adiyakamangalam
    • Gas compression station (3): Kovilkallapal, Kuthalam, Ramnad
    • Central tan form (1): Narimanam
    • Early production system /Extended production Testing(9): Kamalapuram, Nannilam, Bhuvangiri, Kuthanallur, Mattur, Tulasiapattinam, Pundi, Kuthalam-13, Kovilkalappal-11 
    • Effluent Treatment Plant: 1
    • Trunk Narimanam pipeline: 34 km
    • Flow lines: 540 Km

(source: https://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/136262/11/11-chapter%205.pdf)

Earlier, repeated leaks in the pipeline have been reported in Mathirimangalam and Anaimangalam in Nagapattinam district. Several other incidents have been reported from other districts where hydrocarbon projects exist.

List of oil or gas leaks and fires at ONGC facilities in Cauvery basin

  • February 7, 2020: Oil spill from the underground pipeline of ONGC carrying natural oil damaged a fertile land cultivated with black gram crop in Moolangudi village, Tiruvarur district. Due to the oil leakage, a portion of the land is inundated with the crude oil.
  • February 2018: Over 20 acres of farmland in Thiruvarur and Kattur districts of Tamil Nadu have been severely damaged due to oil leaks from an abandoned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd. (ONGC) pipeline. The oil mixed with water from the Pandavai river, flowing through the district, is polluting it and further affecting 110 hectares of neighbouring Samba farmlands that use the river water for irrigation, according to a report by Puthiyathalamurai.
  • September 2017: A fire broke out in a cement tank containing effluents adjoining an ONGC exploratory well at Nallandarkoil village near Neduvasal in Pudukkottai 
  • August 2017: Oil/gas leak from pipeline at Mathirimanglam village, Nagapattinam. According to villagers, this was the fourth leak in 45 days.
  • June 2017: Oil leak from pipeline damages certified organic farm in Kathiramangalam, Thanjavur, and spreads to downstream farms through Veloor irrigation canal due to lack of timely remedial action.
  • February 2017: Oil leak and fire from ONGC pipeline in Vanakkankadu
  • March 2016: Oil leak from pipeline damages cropland in Velangudi,
  • November 2012: Oil spill from an earlier pipeline leak in June 2012 that ONGC had failed to clean up properly resurfaced with monsoon rains and contaminated farm land in Anaimangalam village, Nagapattinam. Spill spread into nearby irrigation canal due to lack of timely remedial action. Earlier leaks in the same section. 
  • August 2011: Oil spill from ruptured ONGC pipeline ruins paddy fields and flows into River Devanadhi in Adiakaramangalam, Nagapattinam.

(Source: Illegal Business: The Real Story of ONGC’s Operations in Cauvery Basin report, The Times of India, The Hindu, The News Minute)

The report quoted the Central Pollution Control Board’s observations on Anaimangalam oil spill: “Oil leakages are occurring regularly and ONGC has not shown any urgency in mitigating these happenings, clearly indicating laxity on their part… ONGC does not have any established disaster management system to have immediate feedback in case of any eventuality like leaks and fire and the incident in the present case was brought by the affected farmers to the knowledge of the ONGC officials… ONGC does not have automatic leakage detection systems...,”.  

That day, after the second explosion, Kandhimari dispatched her daughter and grandchild to her in-laws. “I asked my daughter not to visit me.” 

 Padmavathi, a farmer from Vettangudi village, was shocked when she received a letter from GAIL notifying the acquisition of her land for a project. Image courtesy: Monica Jha

Padmavathi, a farmer from Vettangudi village, was shocked when she received a letter from GAIL notifying the acquisition of her land for a project. Image courtesy: Monica Jha

On 27 April, 2018, Padmavathi, a farmer belonging to a Most Backward Class (MBC) in Vettangudi village, received a letter. It was from GAIL (India), a State-owned natural gas processing and distribution company, notifying acquisition of her farmland for a gas pipeline project. 

GAIL proposed laying a pipeline from Madanam to Memathur in Tharangambadi. The 29-km pipeline required around 112 acres of land in 17 villages and was approved by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas in 2016, reported The New Indian Express. The Hindu quoted Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) youth wing president Anbumani Ramadoss saying that this project would affect about 30,000 acres of farmland. Another gas pipeline already existed between ONGC’s Narimanam and Kuthalam fields close by. 

The letter informed Padmavathi that survey numbers of land to be acquired, including hers, were notified in a Central government gazette on 2 February, 2018.

Padmavathi was shocked. “This was the first time I was hearing of my land being acquired.” 

They asked for 10 cents of her land and offered her a one time compensation (lease amount) of Rs 10,000. 

“But you can’t cultivate three meters on either side of the pipeline, which they don’t compensate for. Also, they say they’d lay pipes at a depth of three meters so that cultivation isn’t affected but they don't lay it that deep. And if the pipe suffers any damage, the agreement holds the landowner responsible. The landowner could face three years in prison,” explained Padmavathi.

She refused to give away her land.  

A few weeks later, some officials arrived with the police to acquire her land by force. Padmavathi didn’t relent.

Officials held a “peace meeting” and assured landowners of no adverse impact on farming. Still, several landowners refused to offer their land. Padmavathi was one of them. 

S Sundar, a Dalit land rights activist, stands in the middle pf paddy fields, threatened by hydrocarbon projects, in Nagapattinam. Image courtesy: Monica Jha

S Sundar, a Dalit land rights activist, stands in the middle pf paddy fields, threatened by hydrocarbon projects, in Nagapattinam. Image courtesy: Monica Jha

Padmavathi and her husband, Vilvanathan M, decided to contest parliamentary elections from Mayiladuthurai seat in May 2019. Padmavathi’s nomination was rejected while Vilvanathan contested and lost.

They were among 100 “anti-methane” activists who had decided to contest elections. Only 14 could contest. None won. 

“We both knew we weren’t going to win,” laughed Padmavathi. The idea was to use the platform to raise awareness and build a momentum around the anti-hydrocarbon movement. “It’s difficult to freely discuss opposition to hydrocarbon projects here. Some people — local administration, police, ONGC officials, and local people who act as land brokers for ONGC — create trouble. But, nobody could stop us if we spoke about it as part of our election campaign. Opposition to hydrocarbon projects figured prominently on our election manifesto.” 

People held a massive protest against the pipeline project on 13 April, 2019 at Nangur village in the same taluk. The work on laying of the pipeline was halted in November 2019.

Then, one day in mid January, a registered post arrived. Padmavathi received and opened it. It was a cheque in lieu of compensation for her land. “I’ve lost my land to GAIL,” said Padmavathi, 

One morning, in  December 2018, Kavitha Sella Pandiyan was busy with her household chores. Her husband had left for fishing early in the morning. 

They live in Thoduvai village, which translates to “touching the mouth (of the ocean)”. Most of the 1,000 families here are into fishing and related trades. Kavitha, like most families in the village, belongs to a fishing community, declared MBC, and now fighting for the status of Scheduled Tribe. 

She heard some noise outside, and went across the road to check. A few people had arrived with drilling equipment. 

She knew from news reports that ONGC was planning to drill well in her village. She called her neighbour Jayalakshmi who arrived with dozens of more women. Soon, a huge crowd gathered. 

A neighbouring village — Iruvakollai in Vettangudi panchayat— already had an ONGC well. “We’ve seen it standing right in the middle of the paddy fields. We didn’t want that in our village,” Kavitha says. 

The crowd stopped the ONGC team from working. The police arrived. But the crowd didn’t give way. 

The government organised a “peace meeting” at the taluk office. “Officials tried to calm people down saying the project would benefit everybody and that it wouldn’t affect soil or water,” said Kavitha’s neighbour Vishwanath. 

Next day, the fishing community organised a meeting near the village temple. “More than 100 families gathered, including farmers and Dalit labourers. We discussed how the oil wells would threaten our unique landscape of fishing and agriculture,” says Kavitha.

Vishwanath explained that monsoon failure has forced a shift from groundnut as the major crop a decade ago to cashewnut and that most farming families take a single paddy crop. “People are already working around an agrarian crisis. Taking away land and adding pollutants would add to the pressure,” he says. 

And, what if effluents from the well leak into the sea, added Kavitha. “How will my husband earn with no fish in the sea?” Kavitha’s husband earns about Rs 10,000 a month, considered a good income here.

After the meeting, the landowner, who had earlier made an agreement with ONGC, submitted a letter to the Tahsildar withdrawing his permission for his land to be used. 

The Revenue Development Officer repeatedly asked for peace meetings, Vishawanath said.

Angudhan, a councilor of the neighbouring Vettangudi panchayat, says that ONGC offered Thoduvai a Rs 66 lakh project to build roads on the coast and buy walkie talkies for fishermen. But, many youngsters and women who are active in the anti-hydrocarbon movement refused the offer. 

“We want development of the village but the government should do it, not ONGC,” says Vishwanath.  

Meanwhile, Thirumullaivasal gram sabha, to which Thoduvai village belongs, passed a resolution to not allow any more wells. Some other gram sabhas, including Vettangudi, Kathiramangalam, and Kadhirpur, have followed suit. 

A total of 84 revenue panchayats and 65 fishing villages have decided to not allow hydrocarbon projects, says Angudhan. “In total, over 250 panchayats across Nagapattinam, Thanjavur and Thiruvarur have passed such resolutions.” Firstpost was unable to independently verify these numbers.

The ONGC has not come back to Thoduvai since they were driven out with their equipment, said Kavitha. “But, I fear they will come back. And this time with a much larger police force like they’ve done in some villages.” 

“Whatever happens, we are not going to allow it.”

The biggest victory of the people’s protest came in February.

The state government legislated the Tamil Nadu Protected Agricultural Zone Development Act, 2020 on 19 February. Aiming to protect agriculture in Cauvery delta, it prohibited eight categories of projects including hydrocarbon projects. The next day, the state also cancelled a 2017 notification that had declared 57,000 acres in 45 villages of Nagapattinam and Cuddalore districts as a Petroleum, Chemicals and Petrochemicals Investment Region (PCPIR).   

Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami has recently spoken about public opposition to hydrocarbon projects and their detrimental impact on the agriculturally-crucial delta. This is a huge step away from the Union government’s position that these projects do not hamper agriculture or pose environmental or health hazards.

However, celebrations might be premature. 

The Act stops only fresh allocations and allows the existing hydrocarbon activities or projects to continue. This means Shanthi and Padmavathi don’t benefit from it, neither do all the villages in delta which have seen mushrooming of projects in recent years. In 2017, the Central government said that more than 700 wells were drilled for extraction of oil and gas in Tamil Nadu. Since then new projects, including the GAIL pipeline, have come up. 

Kavitha Sella Pandiyan from Thoduvai village is among those opposing ONGC drilling another well in her village. Image courtesy: Monica Jha

Kavitha Sella Pandiyan is among those opposing ONGC drilling another well in Thoduvai village. Image courtesy: Monica Jha

Meanwhile, Kavitha isn’t sure if the law stops offshore projects that might affect the sea. 

There is another problem: the law doesn’t cover the entire delta, spanning eight districts. It forbids new projects in Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam districts and in some blocks in Cuddalore and Pudukkottai districts. The whole of three districts — Tiruchirappalli, Ariyalur and Karur — and parts of Cuddalore and Pudukottai are left out. 

The cancellation of the petrochemical region wouldn’t stop a Rs 50,000 crore petrochemical refinery by Haldia Petrochemicals in Cuddalore as it falls out of both the protected zone and Petrochemical investment region. The chief minister pulled this project out from deep freeze just a day before he announced his intent to protect the delta. 

Similarly, a Rs 27,460 crore greenfield refinery in Nagapattinam by Chennai Petroleum Corporation Limited, which would depend on imported crude, will be unaffected, reported The Times of India. 

Also, power plants and pipelines fall out of exemption. 

Meanwhile, the Central government has been aggressive in accelerating hydrocarbon exploration and production activities under its Open Acreage Licensing Programme (OALP). The ongoing fifth round of OLAP bid includes 4,064 sq km in Cauvery basin, spreading over Nagapattinam, Cuddalore, Puducherry, and Karaikal. The only ultra deep water block in this round also falls in this region. 

Another push from the government came when it exempted hydrocarbon exploration from Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and public consultation. This came two days after round 5 bidding began on 14 January. Vedanta Ltd, the firm with the highest number of hydrocarbon blocks awarded so far, had requested exemption from public hearing. Many of Vedanta’s projects in Cauvery delta have faced stiff opposition from the public. 

At the moment, the impact of new state law on this round is unclear. 

In effect, the new law has created more confusion than reassurance in villages where hydrocarbon projects exist. 

Vishwanath of Thoduvai is glad about the law stopping new mega projects. “Government officials who routinely visited us to build public support for ONGC projects have stopped coming. At least for now.” 

But, a village level meeting in the first week of March left him confused. “A village leader said the CSR fund from ONGC was available to us for building roads and installing solar lights. Why are they offering us money if they are not building a project in our village?”

The government is playing political games, says Padmavathi. “They want to keep us confused till the 2021 Assembly elections. Once that’s over, they’ll be back to snatch our lands.”

 As the setting sun turns the last-standing patches of paddy into soft gold, Shanthi finished her stroll around the village. She reached her house and said, “Three generations before me have lived right here.”

Shanthi's daughter-in-law Kaushalya with her children. Kaushalya said that sometimes, she thinks about taking her children away from the village. Image courtesy: Monica Jha

Shanthi's daughter-in-law Kaushalya with her children. Kaushalya said that sometimes she thinks about taking her children away from the village. Image courtesy: Monica Jha

But this place is not safe for the fifth generation, cuts in her daughter-in-law, Kaushalya. “Sometimes I want to run away with my kids.” 

Not that they have a future here, she added “There is no land. There is no job. And, there is no food.” 

Shanthi’s smile vanished. She nodded helplessly. “Anyway, it doesn’t look like they will let us live here for a long time,” she murmured. “They said gas, oil, pipeline, coal… And, they kept taking away more and more land. They will come back.”  

Will the chief minister close this well, asks Shanthi, pointing at the MD-6 well near her house. “Till that fire is burning behind my house, I will not sleep peacefully no matter what the chief minister says.” 

She stared at the street light — a board below declares it was installed by the ONGC — in front of her house. 

“Will they let me die on my land? Will they allow my children to live here?” Shanthi wondered. “That is my greatest fear.”

This story has been reported with the assistance of the Impact Journalism Grant 2019

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Updated Date: Mar 21, 2020 13:36:14 IST