It has been less than two months since protests rocked Tamil Nadu, in dissent against the hydrocarbon extraction project in Neduvasal and Karaikal. But the ONGC seems adamantly committed to the project, and is now aiming to skip the public consultation process for drilling 21 exploratory wells across the state's districts.
Environmentalists, activists and general public who have caught wind of what they call a 'murder of democracy', have warned the Centre of a major uprising and a legal battle if a public hearing is avoided. However, the process itself is inching closer to the Centre's assent, after the Expert Appraisal Committee meant to study this situation has approved the exemption.
Documents accessed by The News Minute detail ONGC's arguments to the Expert Appraisal Committee to exempt it from public hearing for this latest project. The exploratory wells this time around have been planned in Ariyalur, Thanjavur, Nagapattinam and Tiruvarur districts.
According to one document, 9 wells have been proposed in Nagapattinam, 6 in Ariyalur, 5 in Thanjavur and 1 in Tiruvarur.
The ONGC has claimed that in Ariyalur, as elsewhere, â€śThe drill site location is selected always away from the habitation, highways, railway lines, schools, hospitals, etc. keeping the minimum distance as per Oil Mines Regulationsâ€ť. In other districts, it states, the drilling will commence in blocks already allocated to it.
ONGC also claims that public hearings for existing wells in these four districts were conducted in June 2014 and October 2014. ONGC has further argued that the exploratory wells will not increase the environment load and that there has been no adverse effect due to any drilling earlier conducted in the Cauvery Basin. The report even claims that, â€śthere is no ongoing agitation against the ONGC's E&P activities at present in Tiruvarur, Thanjavur and Ariyalur districts.â€ť
"This sets an extremely bad precedent in a democracy such as ours," says Sundararajan of the environmental group Poovulagin Nanbargal. "Individuals and communities cannot be taken for granted. They must have a say in projects that are planned in their vicinity.â€ť
â€śIf they think there were no protests in Tiruvarur and Thanjavur, that is ridiculous. Just because the cat has its eyes closed, does not mean that the world is dark. Once the court opens again, we will be filing a PIL in the matter," he adds.
Activists believe that a heightened awareness amongst people about the effects of the hydrocarbon project, has pushed ONGC into panic mode. "ONGC is clearly looking for a way to circumvent public hearing because people don't want these projects in their districts," says T Jayaraman, Chief Coordinator of the Anti-Methane Project Federation.
"Tamil Nadu is already facing an acute water shortage. It is common knowledge that the oil that they seek to drill can contaminate the ground water. Evidence of this already exists in villages where drilling has been conducted. If they still go ahead with this process, then there will unprecendented protests in these districts," he warns.
The EAC, however, seems unperturbed and has already recommended to the Environment Ministry that an exemption be granted. A statutory environmental public hearing is required to be held under the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification (EIA), 2006. It was, however, not held even before the Neduvasal exploration began.
"What this goes to show is that the Expert Committee has been completely compromised," says environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman.
"Experts in this case have been chosen for their lack of a backbone to stand up to the Centre. It is their job to define the scope of the Environmental Assessment survey, see if it is executed properly, to look at public concerns and give solutions. But here, they have merely bowed down to the Centre's diktat," he alleges.
Jayaraman argues that the ONGC must give way to public sentiment like any other company. "ONGC is not above public sentiment and they must understand this. They can't behave in this manner because they are a public sector company," says Jayaraman.
He asserts that when it comes to taking over land and relocation of residents, development cannot always be used as an excuse.
Nityanand, who has written extensively about the Neduvasal project and the protests that followed, asks, "If the common man is against a project, then who is the government actually bringing about this 'development' for?"