The Act aims to prohibit hydrocarbon projects in the delta region. But it doesn't cover all districts, a major concern among farmers
When the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly passed the Protected Agricultural Zone Development Bill, 2020 on February 19, 2020, farmers heaved a sigh of relief.
The new Act declared the Cauvery delta region a Protected Special Agriculture Zone (PSAZ). It proposed to protect agriculture and prohibit Petroleum, Chemical and Petrochemical Investment Regions (PCPIRs) and hydrocarbon projects in the delta region.
However, activists and farmer associations flagged a major gap in the Act — it did not cover all districts of the Cauvery delta.
The proposed PSAZ comprises Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam districts and some blocks in Cuddalore and Pudukkottai districts. It, however, excluded Tiruchirappalli, Ariyalur and Karur districts and other parts of Cuddalore and Pudukottai, though they also fall in the delta zone.
Farmers in these parts cultivate rice as their primary crop and pulses such as blackgram and greengram as their secondary crop. They also cultivate seasonal vegetables and fruits.
In August 2018, the Central government approved unconventional hydrocarbons policy that permitted exploration and exploitation of unconventional hydrocarbons such as shale oil/gas, coal bed methane (CBM), etc.
This was a major concern in the Cauvery delta, a sight for gas exploration activities since 1985 that has adversely affecting farming and livelihood. Several farmer associations condemned the Union government order and staged protests.
According to activists, the Bill also did not address issues regarding existing industrial and oil extraction projects in the delta region.
According to G Sundar Rajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal, a Tamil Nadu environment group, more than 400 projects were already underway in parts of the now protected zone.
Additionally, Haldia Petrochemicals Ltd was set to invest Rs 50,000 crore in a Nagarjuna Oil project in Cuddalore’s Kayalpattu village. Some parts of Cuddalore falls out of the protected zone ambit.
“At first, the state government planned to make nine districts of Cauvery Delta as Protected Special Agricultural Zone (PSAZ). But they did not do so. We want the entire Cauvery delta region to be declared as PSAZ,” Professor T Jayaraman, coordinator of Tamil Nadu-based welfare group Anti-Methane Project Federation, said.
He added that according to the current Bill, ports, pipelines and telecommunications projects in the PSAZ would not be affected, which was a problem.
“Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami said ongoing projects would not be affected. These are the disadvantages of the Bill. These issues should be addressed some way or the other. I consider this is a starting point. Many political parties openly opposed these hydrocarbon projects. However, no party was interested to stop them,” he added.
“Even when the Bill was passed, hydrocarbon exploration was underway in Ariyalur district, because it wasn't included in PSAZ. There was no mention of soil mining in the Bill. These are the gaps that need to be addressed,” Rajan said.
PR Pandian, general secretary, Tamil Nadu Cauvery Delta Farmers Association, said farmers were happy with the recent developments: “But we want these plans to be implemented effectively. We have already lost our water resources to industrial mess. We cannot lose them anymore.”
Tamil Nadu environment minister KC Karuppannan did not respond to Down to Earth’s queries.
Another issue plaguing Cauvery Delta is water scarcity.
According to Jayaraman, Tamil Nadu had been facing water scarcity since 1970s. Earlier, farmers used Cauvery water for agriculture purposes. However, when the dispute on Cauvery water sharing came up, farmers started to rely on groundwater.
"At the same time, industries boomed in the delta. This drastically impacted agriculture and livelihood of farmers. Agriculture cannot be done only depending on groundwater,” Jayaraman added.
He added that the delta region had nearly 28 lakh acres of cultivable land, which has now come down to 15 lakh acres. He attributed “Central government's partiality towards Tamil Nadu and lack of enough Cauvery water” for the same.
He claimed: “This Central government approach can't be allowed at any cost. We are only demanding what is our right. But their approach towards water dispute is affecting our needs and agriculture.”
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