Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami wrote a firmly-worded letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday, opposing the Centre's decision to amend the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006. The amendment exempts hydrocarbon projects from public consultations. Hydrocarbon exploration and extraction projects in delta districts around the Cauvery basin have received the Centre's nod, raising alarm in the state.
Objecting to the January 16 amendment notification, Chief Minister Palaniswami wrote, “I had written to you highlighting the strong opposition to Hydrocarbon extraction projects in the delta area; the imperative need for adequate consultation with stakeholders and to ensure that the interest of farmers ae fully safeguarded.”
Further, the letter said, “I would like to bring to your kind notice that projects involving exploration and extraction of hydrocarbons have faced strong resistance from farmers/activists and other stakeholders in Tamil Nadu. Since most of these projects are situated in the Cauvery delta districts, which is ecologically a fragile zone, but a very fertile region and rice bowl of the State, the opposition to these projects has been emotive and intense. Therefore, it is very essential to take the people and all stakeholders along, while implementing these projects, so that their cooperation and involvement is ensured. The present notification goes against this spirit.”
Welcome move and u-turn
The Chief Minister’s letter is a welcome move for those who have been protesting both the hydrocarbon projects in Tamil Nadu as well as the considerable changes to environmental laws under the BJP government since 2014. However, the Chief Minister had a different take when it came to another environmental problem and a struggle- the Sterlite plant in Thoothukudi.
It was only in May 2018, when the state police had killed 15 civilians during the anti-Sterlite agitation in Thoothukudi district, that the Chief Minister had said, “Few members of opposition parties and those belonging to some outfits are deliberately instigating innocent people and conducting protests like this. Many protests have taken place peacefully but this time (on May 22), based on the instigation of opposition parties, anti social elements infiltrated (the protest), used innocent people with the intent to pressurise the government and bring disrepute. They have brought it to a very bad situation.”
Later that same month, Palaniswami stood on the floor of the state Assembly, holding up photographs that reportedly showed damage to public and private property during the 100th day of the stir against the copper plant. He asked the House, “They (referring to people in a picture) are attempting to attack a vehicle. See the kind of people they are. Are they general public? They're not innocent people. Judge for yourself the kind of people they are.”
Following the Thoothukudi shootings and the response of the government to the police action, many social and environmental activists in the state were branded ‘anti-social elements’ and regularly harassed. The Chief Minister mentioning the objection of activists marks a change from his rhetoric less than two years ago.
With specific regard to the public hearing exemption, the Chief Minister notes in his letter ‘the imperative need for adequate consultation with stakeholders and to ensure that the interest of farmers are fully safeguarded’. This position too marks a shift in policy for the Tamil Nadu government which is currently fighting against the Madras High Court stay on the proposed eight-lane Salem Chennai expressway. One of the charges made by farmers and activists against the Tamil Nadu government and the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) is against the omission of public hearings as mandated by law. The court had held that public hearings are a prerequisite and that it should precede any step that may be taken under the provisions of the Act.
In a move that received widespread condemnation, many protesting against the proposed 277.30 km highway including environmentalist Piyush Manush, student activist Valarmathi and actor Mansur Ali Khan were arrested. In June 2018, Malayalam TV channel Mathrubhumi’s reporter Anoop Das, the channel's cameraman Murugan, Tamil newspaper Theekathir’s reporter Ramadass were detained by the police when they were covering protests by villagers against the acquisition of their lands for the project.
Similarly, anti-corruption NGO Arappor Iyakkam has alleged being targeted by the Chennai city police and the state government for exposing multi-crore corruption by Minister for Municipal Administration SP Velumani. Activists and civil society groups have alleged a crackdown by the state for speaking up against the state and the Centre. While civil society in Tamil Nadu has welcomed Chief Minister Palaniswami’s latest objections to the change in environmental rules, they also hope that this stance, taking into account the views of activists remain, and apply to all issues facing the state.