Cauvery delta boils over gas project

The development debate in the water-deficient Cauvery delta in Tamil Nadu has taken a worrying twist as farmers, economists and some scientists are up in arms against a Gurgaon-based company that has obtained the Centre’s approval for drilling for methane gas from coal-beds in the heart of this rice-bowl.

For long, Thanjavur district has been hailed as the South’s granary -- it still accounts for about 36 per cent of the state’s and 7 per cent of India’s total rice output. But now there is a fear that the Cauvery delta might become the first unwitting theatre to play out prime minister Manmohan Singh’s recent remark that the farmers for whom agriculture is non-profitable should leave the fields. This proposition has acquired an urgency after the Great Eastern Energy Corporation Ltd (GEECL) won, through international competitive bidding, a contract for the ’Mannargudi block’ here for extracting methane, a natural gas, from the lignite seams. The company will try to extract gas from a large area of 667 sq km under a production sharing contract with the Union ministry of petroleum and natural gas.

Encouraging exploration

For the policy makers in Delhi, it is an ‘encouraging’ exploration to tap a relatively cheap, clean, non-conventional energy source to help reduce India’s oil imports’ bill. The GEECL general manager (projects), Jairam K Shrinivasan claimed that the company was using the latest German technology to extract gas with precision from the crevices of the lignite belt without any ‘collateral damage’ either to the groundwater aquifer (below the to-be-mined lignite bed) or on surface.
The lignite samples will be scooped out for testing the methane content and quality in the first two phases of the project that runs over five years starting with drilling of 50 core holes and two test wells in identified places in the Mannargudi area. This will be followed by drilling 30 test wells, he told stake-holders at a national seminar here, seeking to ally farmers’ apprehensions that their backyards will soon be invaded by drill-jacks. Director General of Hydrocarbons has assessed a potential of 0.98 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of methane gas in the delta, but if the firm’s pilot drilling and commercial assessment phase came a cropper they might quit, he added.
Shrinivasan contends that if the project was a success, it will create more employment, lead to upgrading of local youths’ skills and even resolve some long-pending agriculture issues caused by water uncertainty in the Cauvery delta. Moreover, GEECL  was already extracting gas successfully in Raniganj in Asansol area of West Bengal, with even bakeries there now queuing up to utilise the methane gas.
Uncertain flows

But a majority of farmers and other experts participating in the seminar remained unconvinced. They pointed out that apart from the uncertain flows in the Cauvery river, the project might ‘worsen’ the ground water scenario, with the huge quantity of water likely to be pumped out during extraction—as in nearby Neyveli Lignite mining area —adding to the salinity and excess sodium content that could turn large tracts of cultivable lands in the delta into ‘barren waste lands.’  The Cauvery delta, comprising Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam districts, has been an ancient irrigation system since 2nd century AD and it will be drastically hit, argued S Ranganathan, geologist-turned-farmer, who now heads the ‘Centre For Cauvery Delta Development Studies.  
 Urging the company to reconsider project, Dr S Janakarajan, of the Madras Institute of Development Studies cautioned, “Cauvery delta is already very vulnerable due to lack of water and all its tributaries heavily polluted by various industries.” Two veteran ground water experts, Dr P M Natarajan and P Natarajan, were certain that ‘land subsidence’ will take place when large quantities of water are pumped out.
“You can’t proceed with a project like this without people’s consent and which comes at a social cost that is unacceptable,” asserted C E Karunankaran, who heads the New and Renewable Energy Division of Energy and Fuel Users Association of India. Delta farmers associations now pin their hopes on judicial intervention to ensure that the project is ‘critically examined’ from all aspects.

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