India: Why Neduvasal Residents Protest Against Gas Exploration Project ?

by N.S.Venkataraman

( February 27, 2017, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) The writer had the opportunity to interact with the local people living in and around Neduvasal in Pudukottai district in Tamil Nadu , who are protesting against the proposal to take up natural gas exploration projects in the region. The interaction took place during a two hour session with the concerned people in a programme organized by a leading Tamil TV channel (News 18 Tamil), when cross section of people in different age groups , education level and income level, both men and women , from the region and local MLA participated and were encouraged to express their views . The writer was asked to respond to their observations , provide the necessary clarifications and suggest appropriate future course of action.

The programme took place on 23rd February,2017.

Background :

There is a proposal approved in principle by the Government of India to launch hydro carbon (natural gas) exploration project in Neduvasal and the nearby areas, where the preliminary study indicated that there could be considerable gas reserves. This area is amongst several other areas in various states in India approved for exploration.

It is reported that 20 to 23 gas wells would be launched in regions surrounding Neduvasal , which is a region where more than 5 lakh people live. Each well may be drilled to a depth of 1500 metre to 6000 metre depending upon the particular condition .There would be requirement of around 25 cubic metre of water per well per day for operating the well for tapping the gas.

It is possible that some of the wells may not yield adequate level of gas to justify the investment and economics of the project. In such a case, it is possible that such wells may be capped.

Why the government of India approved the project ?:

India presently produces around 31 billion cubic metre of natural gas per year and imports almost an equal quantity of natural gas , as the indigenous production is inadequate. World over , around 26% of the energy generation and use is met by natural gas which is considered as eco friendly fuel, particularly in comparison to coal and crude oil. In India, the usage level of natural gas is 6% at present.

Government of India proposes to increase the consumption of natural gas from the present level of around 6% to around 15%.
As the demand for natural gas is steadily increasing , Government of India is concerned about the outflow of foreign exchange due to import and the dependence on import from various countries. In such circumstances, Government of India’s desire to increase the domestic production of natural gas is appropriate.

Based on the preliminary study ,several locations have been approved for drilling, exploration wells and Neduvasal and surrounding area is one such location identified.

Why local people are concerned ?:

There is considerable fear and anxiety amongst the local people in Neduvasal and surrounding areas that the drilling of the gas wells would deplete the ground water sources. Further, local people think that valuable agricultural land would be diverted for drilling the wells , which would lead to loss of jobs and occupation for them. There is also unfounded fears that gas wells would spread diseases. Another fear expressed is that any leakage of gas in the area may spread disasters by way of massive fire.

The explanation offered to the people :

The writer explained to the people during the interaction various aspects and the people listened with rapt attention and also put subsequent queries seeking clarifications.

The writer explained that the coal bed methane gas project which was earlier conceived in delta region in Tamil Nadu and later on given up due to public protests is different from the proposed natural gas wells. This has to be said ,since there seem to be an impression that the process of extracting coal bed methane gas is the same as that of natural gas.

The coal bed methane gas , lying below the soil caught between the coal seams, is a low pressure gas and it would lie under the water table. Since it is a low pressure gas and the coal bed methane gas wells would be drilled several thousand feet below ground, very large quantity of water has to be pumped out to enable the methane gas to come out. Such pumped out water would be contaminated with metallic salts, high total dissolved solids and other chemicals and therefore ,cannot be used for irrigation purposes or any human consumption without elaborate and expensive treatment. Such tapping of huge quantity of water would inevitably lead to depletion of ground water resources, which the agricultural dominated Neduvasal and surrounding region cannot afford. Therefore, the protest against the coal bed methane gas project is totally justified.

In the case of the present proposal to drill natural gas wells ,the requirement of water would be only around 25 cubic metre per day per well and it would be around 500 cubic metre per day for 20 wells. This is not a large quantity of water.

It is true that some agricultural land area would be diverted for drilling the oil wells. This would be a case of cost benefit analysis , where it remains to be evaluated whether the diversion of agricultural land for drilling gas well can be justified from the overall benefits to the country and without unduly affecting the interests of the local people.

It was also clarified that rumours about spreading of disease due to gas well is totally un founded. There are more than 450 onshore gas wells already operating for last several years in India and any spread of disease around the area due to the wells have not been reported.

The responsibility of the governments :

What is particularly surprising is that no minister or official from government of India have so far cared to contact the concerned local people and allay their apprehensions.

The local people seem to be reasonable in their approach and are not blind agitators. They want adequate and proper explanations from the state and central government authorities, credible technologists and engineers and demand answers for their queries logically, with good understanding of the local situation and the ground realities.

Further, it is not certain as to whether Government of India has taken the Tamil Nadu state government into confidence , before announcing the decision and provided adequate details to it to enable Tamil Nadu government to communicate with the local people Certainly, the state government is in a position to understand the sentiments of the people and local economic and social situation much better than the central government. Communication with the local people by the state and central government is conspicuous by absence.

What is the way out ?

During the interactive discussion that took place in good climate, the following observations were made by the writer and the people listened in silence but did not respond nor they objected to the observations.

  • In a democratic set up, it would not be advisable to force such project on the people, when there is ground swell of opposition ,with the people thinking that they would be socially and economically uprooted. They have to be convinced.
  • While the consumption of water for use in the drilled wells would not be very large, still if the required water would be tapped from the ground , this would really cause concern in Neduvasal and nearby areas , where the ground water resources have already depleted in recent months due to drought and lack of water in the Cauvery river.
  • In such circumstances, the authorities have to assure that the water would not be tapped from the ground in the area but would be brought from elsewhere. Perhaps, like what Koodankulam nuclear power project in Tamil Nadu has done , a separate desalination plant can be put up to meet the water requirement.
  • People in the region are still not aware as to how much agricultural land area would be diverted for the project , how much loss would be there due to diversion of agricultural land and how the farmers there would be compensated in the short term and long term.
  • There is thunderous silence on the part of ministers and authorities, both in state and central governments, in responding to the local people’s fear and anxiety.

The writer suggested that a meeting should be immediately organized by Tamil Nadu government involving the participation of central government, state government, representatives of the local people and the technical experts. Let there be a detailed , frank and healthy discussions with good understanding of the various view points.

Hopefully, the local people would be convinced after the discussions , balancing the need of the state and the sacrifice that they will have to make and how their interests would be protected.

If the local people would not be convinced, the project has to be given up.

What alternate for natural gas?

LNG gas terminal is now being constructed in Ennore port near Chennai for import of natural gas involving an investment of around Rs.6000 cr. with capacity of 5 million tonne.

The project is likely to be completed and ready for commissioning by 2018.

To utilize the imported gas, it is proposed to lay gas pipeline of around 1170 kilometre from Ennore port to Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu for utilization of gas at various locations in Tamil Nadu for setting up downstream projects based on natural gas. Such projects have the potential of generating investment of around Rs. 15000 cr. that would lead to significant economic and industrial development in the state.

However, the firm strategies for laying the pipelines are yet to be made , which involves acquisition of land across the state for laying the long pipeline. Pipeline route may involve cris cross roads, agricultural fields and even buildings in some densely populated areas. Such acquisition of land for the project may lead to acrimonious debates and protests delaying the pipeline project. In such case, the LNG terminal at Ennore would remain largely unutilized for long time.

It has to be pointed out that Kochi LNG terminal in Kerala with an investment of around Rs. 4500 cr. is now operating at just 5% capacity utilization level, since the pipeline project extending around 310 kilometre in Tamil Nadu has to be stopped due to protest against the acquisition of land.

When 310 kilometre gas pipe project has suffered such a fate in Tamil Nadu , one has to keep the fingers crossed about the proposed 1170 kilometre gas pipeline project from Ennore to Tuticorin.

Obviously, central and state government should know that communication with the local people is very vital in implementing such projects and Neduvasal gas exploration project is an instant to remember with regard to the importance of communication.

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