Neduvasal Hydrocarbon Project

Neduvasal, in Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu,  has been in the news recently, as strong protests have returned to this village owing to apprehension against the government’s renewed focus on hydrocarbon extraction in this region. 

It has been the epicentre of massive protests staged by farmers and residents, in the Cauvery delta region since  2017, against a proposed hydrocarbon project, to be carried out by the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) Limited.

Neduvasal falls under the Protected Special Agricultural Zone (PSAZ) which was passed by the state government in 2020. Under this government order, it prohibits industries from taking up non-agrarian projects in the delta region.

In this article, we shall be discussing the issues and debates surrounding the  Neduvasal Hydrocarbon Project, with an analysis of various policies adopted by the government. Further, this article covers other important dimensions, keeping in mind the demands of the preliminary as well as the main examination of the UPSC IAS Exam.

What are Hydrocarbons?

  • The term ‘hydrocarbon’ refers to compounds of carbon and hydrogen. 
  • Hydrocarbons play a key role in the day-to-day life and are significant sources of energy.
  • Depending upon the types of carbon-carbon bonds present, they can be classified into three main categories, such as:
    • Saturated
    • Unsaturated and  
    • Aromatic hydrocarbons.

What is the Government’s Policy on Hydrocarbon Exploration?

  • The Government of India brought about a critical change in the country’s hydrocarbon exploration policy, in March 2016. 
  • It replaced the New Exploration Licensing Policy (NELP), which had been in existence for 18 years, with the Hydrocarbon Exploration and Licensing Policy (HELP)
  • Under HELP, the requirement for separate licences to explore and extract conventional as well as unconventional oil and gas resources, including CBM (coal-bed methane), shale gas/oil and gas hydrates, was replaced by a single licence.
  • The Government of India sought to increase competitiveness in hydrocarbon exploration and reduce India’s dependence on imports.
  •  It also sought to give  contractors a relaxed time frame, freedom to explore and extract hydrocarbons

Background of the Neduvasal Hydrocarbon Project

  • Projects are overseen by the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons and in 2015, the Government of India started the ‘Discovered Small field’ policy, bidding started shortly thereafter.
  • As per this policy, the government was expected to earn both revenue and royalty in terms of pre-decided percentages.
  • Neduvasal in Tamil Nadu and Karaikal in Puducherry were two sites among the 31 in the final list.
  • The project in Neduvasal (10.0 Sq Km) was awarded to GEM Laboratories Private Limited,
  • Public-Sector Unit Company Bharat PetroResources Limited was to conduct operations in Karaikal. 
  • The two contract areas have a volume of 4,30,000 metric tonnes of oil and oil equivalent gas.

What are the immediate concerns expressed by protesters?

  • Drought-hit farmers, college students and even scientists have taken to the roads to express their displeasure over the project. 
  • The project could lead to an ecological disaster in the area.
  • Large displacement of farmers, where agriculture in this fertile land is their only source of economic activities and livelihood.
  • Loss of cultivable land, soil fertility in adjoining areas due to the projects.
  • Loss of livelihood, as barely any agriculture activities in the region would be possible once the program runs. The story of one potter turned farmer, in a nearby village, having leased his land earlier, with no agriculture activities at present, has been the argument many have projected.
  • Land subsidence, as apprehended by experts leading to saline water intrusion in the groundwater system, would further jeopardize the water security of the region, as the place is barely 30 km from the sea coast.
  • Expert scientific bodies in the field opine that the induced subsidence, which is either subregional or local in extent, has its greatest impact on flat coastal plains and wetlands near sea level where minor lowering of the land surface results in permanent inundation.
  • Apprehensions regarding depletion of groundwater.
  • Contamination of the groundwater sources due to improper handling of waste streams, such as spills of produced water, temporary or long-term surface storage of produced water or oily wastes, leaks of heavy metal loaded wastewater.
  • Apart from this, the safety parameters and improper handling may cause hazardous incidents such as blow-outs, due to sudden surges in pressure inside the bore resulting in gases erupting and exploding from the well mouth.
  • Lack of information sharing and transparency on technology to be used, leading to further apprehensions by the affected parties. This has led many to believe in something based on their own assessment, which might have been different, had there been a multi-directional flow of information, broader discussion and adopting confidence-building measures.

Why does the government look to explore hydrocarbons?

  • Investing in hydrocarbons is expected to reduce India’s import of oil and petroleum by 10% by 2022.
  • The Government of India expects a cumulative peak production of around 15,000 barrels of oil per day, 2 Million Metric Standard Cubic Meter per Day (MMSCMD) of gas from all awarded fields.
  • It is estimated that the indicative gross revenue over economic life would be approximately Rs.46,400 crores.
  • The Neduvasal and Karaikal projects are expected to generate gross revenue of Rs 300 crore. 

What are positions taken by the authorities to address the concerns raised?

  • Assurance of using state-of-the-art technology and scientifically advanced well-established practice and equipment.
  • Comprehensive Environment Impact Assessment in time as per the procedure.
  • Drilling in a limited area, and not expected to affect the agriculture scenario in the region.
  • Hydrocarbon exploration carried out at much depth, beyond the water table.
  • Following all environmental safety norms, protocols.

What is the current status?

  • With the evolving position of the private entity, assigned to carry out the experimental study, requesting for dropping the village from the list of the site, there is a sense of security and half victory prevailing over the affected parties of the project.
  • Further, the assurance was given by the chief minister of the state and other political leaders to not allow any project adverse to the interest of the farmers, and specifically, in the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu, the project has hit a halt, in all probability.
  • However, the protests have resurfaced, owing to apprehensions and information of state floating fresh tenders for hydrocarbon exploration, taking the example of the pipeline planted at the Karukakuruchi village, 5 km from Neduvasal. 

Conclusion

Energy security is essential for the development of our country, and sustainable exploration of natural resources is necessary. However, the promise of development may not always translate to wider acceptance by the citizens where the questions as fundamental as livelihood, sustenance and overall affinity to the homeland are concerned. It is always a painful venture for the parties affected to part with the land they grew up in, they saw generations sustain themselves! And therefore, the policy adopted by the government and other agencies must address the concerns, as may be raised by the parties, comprehensively discuss all the provisions, communicate with transparency, debate and evolve a consensus among the citizenry.

Development at the cost of the environment, with potential irreversible long-term damage, is better replaced by a model that sustains livelihood, integrates the economy and drives growth and development. Displacement and alienation have been a common theme, on several projects in post-independence India.

There must be comprehensive scientific studies, on various effects, at different levels, taken up to assuage the concerns and apprehensions as raised by the protesters. It is better in the interest of good governance and development that all stakeholders must come together, their concerns must be addressed before proceeding further in this venture.

This article is relevant for the sections of Environment and Current Affairs part of the UPSC Syllabus prescribed for Preliminary and Main Stages of Civil Services Exam.

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