First, the rains failed them. Then successive central governments failed them. And then the corporates let them down. The people of Neduvasal, a village in the Cauvery delta region in Tamil Nadu’s Pudukkottai district, have awoken and sparked a new revolution.
The quiet little village with paddy fields, coconut farms and groundnut crops, is suddenly bustling with protesters all around. Student groups, politicians, film stars, environmentalists, researchers and representatives of several NGO are visiting the village to show support in a fight against the central government’s ambitious hydrocarbon extraction project.
Villagers Feel Cheated
The villagers say that they have been cheated by the ONGC and government, which allegedly forced them to sign an agreement to lease land for the hydrocarbon project.
At the Nallandar Kollai locality in Neduvasal, the pits where Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC ) has dug wells for research and exploration, a black oily sludge-like substance oozes out. Fear has gripped residents of surrounding villages that the project will have a long-term implication on their health and livelihoods.
“In 2006, they came and demarcated the land. When we questioned them, they told us to part with our land for a price and that they wanted to extract kerosene here. Ee refused, but they came back again after three months and forced us to sign on papers to lease our farmlands. They deceived us,” says Palanivel Veramma, whose family has parted with six acres for the project.
Palanivel Veramma, Resident, Neduvasal My father-in-law was illiterate. He was cheated. Initially, they paid us Rs 16,000 as yearly compensation for the six acres of land. Now, they are giving us Rs 50,000 as paddy prices have shot up.
Veramma is joined by several others in the village who are protesting against the proposed hydrocarbon project. The villagers echo her claims, saying the rains have failed them over the years, the successive governments have failed to get them Cauvery water, and now the government is deceiving them and forcefully taking away their land.
Awareness About Ill-Effects
“It has been 13 days since we started our hunger strike. My kids, the cattle, and I are all starving. I am a farm labourer and they are trying to extract even the sand and water from this land. What we will do for our livelihood in future?” questions Valarmadhi Tamilarasan, a resident of Pullanvidudhi, a village about 6 km from Neduvasal.
Tamilarasan has been participating in the protest for the last two weeks. She is also mobilising people from her village and bringing them to the protest site daily. She explains to them the ill-effects of hydrocarbon extraction, the knowledge which she claim to have acquired from videos shared on WhatsApp by village youths.
Valarmadhi Tamilarasan, Resident, Pullanvidudhi village They (people from foreign countries) have sent us videos on WhatsApp about how Tamil Nadu is being affected. They have requested us to stop this project and not to let the government take control.
Protests Stepped Up
The protests have intensified ever since the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on 15 February, approved awarding of contracts for hydrocarbon extraction.
The contracts were awarded in 31 contract areas (44 fields – 28 on land and 16 offshore) comprising small fields discovered by ONGC and Oil India Limited.
“These contract areas have been awarded under the new regime of Revenue Sharing Model. Award of contract is expected to provide faster development of fields and facilitate production of oil and gas, thereby increasing energy security of the country,” the petroleum and natural gas ministry said in a press release issued on 15 February.
While ONGC could not be reached for comment, Gem Laboratories Private Limited, which has been awarded the contract for extraction of hydrocarbons in Neduvasal, declined to comment.
Seeking Justice for Farmers
Student groups, politicians and villagers have all camped at different places and are protesting for a common cause – justice for farmers. The students are not only coming from nearby colleges and schools, but also from surrounding coastal districts like Nagapattinam, Karaikal and even Puducherry.
The student groups are ensuring that no politician takes credit or hijacks the farmers’ movement, which has irked some of the local politicians.
With the state government has been inactive as regards the project and the farmers’ movement, everybody else seems to be hoping for a share of the credit of the protest’s possible success.
“Social media has played a key role. We are spearheading the campaign here and we are spreading the message through social media to garner support. While the politicians have cheated the villagers over the years, we want them to awaken and realised the harmful effects of the project,” says Ambigapathy Thivaghar, a 26-year-old IT professional, who, along 20 students from Puducherry, has come to the village to create awareness.
Ball is in the Centre’s Court
While members of different political parties have been visiting the village to express their support, villagers want these politicians not to convince them, but talk to the central government and stop the project at any cost.
In a relief to the movement the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Edapaddi K Palaniswami, on Wednesday assured that the state government will not approve the project. Also, Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan has said that they would not go ahead with the project if locals are opposed to it.
MDMK leader Vaiko, who visited the proposed project site on Wednesday, told villagers that it is in the interest of the future generation that they have to protest and stop this project.
Vaiko, MDMK leader We have fought against a methane project in the past. We will also fight against this. If the government comes with its machines to extract oil, we will break those machines. I am not someone who fears police or guns.
(The writer is a Bengaluru-based independent journalist.)