The writer had the opportunity to interact with the local people living in and around Neduvasal in the Pudukottai district in Tamil Nadu who are protesting against the proposal to take up natural gas exploration projects in the region. The interaction took place during a two hour session with the concerned people in a program organized by a leading Tamil TV channel (News 18 Tamil), when a cross section of people in different age groups, education level and income level, both men and women, from the region and local MLA participated and were encouraged to express their views. The writer was asked to respond to their observations, provide the necessary clarifications and suggest an appropriate future course of action.
The program took place on February 23, 2017.
There is a proposal approved in principle by the Government of India to launch hydrocarbon (natural gas) exploration project in Neduvasal and the nearby areas, where a preliminary study indicated that there could be considerable gas reserves. This area is among several other areas in various states in India approved for exploration.
It is reported that 20 to 23 gas wells could be launched in regions surrounding Neduvasal, which is a region where more than 5 lakh people live. Each well may be drilled to a depth of 1,500 metres to 6,000 metres depending upon the particular condition. There would be requirement of around 25 cubic metres of water per well per day for operating the well for tapping the gas.
It is possible that some of the wells may not yield an adequate level of gas to justify the investment and economics of the project. In such a case, it is possible that such wells may be capped.
Why has the government of India approved the project?
India presently produces around 31 billion cubic metres of natural gas per year and imports almost an equal quantity of natural gas, as the domestic production is inadequate. The world over, around 26% of energy generation and use is met by natural gas ,which is considered as an eco-friendly fuel, particularly in comparison to coal and crude oil. In India, the usage level of natural gas is 6% at present.
The Government of India proposes to increase the consumption of natural gas from the present level of around 6% to around 15%.
As the demand for natural gas is steadily increasing, the Government of India is concerned about the outflow of foreign exchange due to imports and the dependence on imports from various countries. In such circumstances, the Government of India’s desire to increase the domestic production of natural gas is appropriate.
Based on the preliminary study, several locations have been approved for drilling, exploration wells and Neduvasal and surrounding area is one such location identified.
Why are the local people concerned?
There is considerable fear and anxiety among the local people in Neduvasal and surrounding areas that the drilling of the gas wells could deplete ground water sources. Further, local people think that valuable agricultural land could be diverted for the drilling of wells, which would lead to the loss of jobs and occupation for them. There is also unfounded fears that the gas wells would spread diseases. Another fear expressed is that any leakage of gas in the area may spread disasters by way of a massive fire.
The explanation offered to the people
The writer explained to the people during the interaction various aspects and the people listened with attention and also put forward subsequent queries seeking clarifications.
The writer explained that the coal bed methane gas project, which was earlier conceived in the delta region in Tamil Nadu and later on given up due to public protests, is different from the current proposed natural gas wells. This has to be said, since there seems to be an impression that the process of extracting coal bed methane gas is the same as that of natural gas.
The coal bed methane gas, lying below the soil caught between the coal seams, is a low pressure gas and it would lie under the water table. Since it is a low pressure gas and the coal bed methane gas wells would be drilled several thousand feet below ground, very large quantities of water has to be pumped to enable the methane gas to come out. Such pumped water would be contaminated with metallic salts, high total dissolved solids and other chemicals and therefore cannot be used for irrigation purposes or any human consumption without elaborate and expensive treatment. Such a tapping of a huge quantity of water would inevitably lead to the depletion of ground water resources, which the agricultural-dominated Neduvasal and surrounding region cannot afford. Therefore, the protest against the coal bed methane gas project was totally justified.
In the case of the present proposal to drill natural gas wells, the requirement of water would be only around 25 cubic metres per day per well and it would be around 500 cubic metres per day for 20 wells. This is not a large quantity of water.
It is true that some agricultural land area would be diverted for drilling the wells. This would be a case of cost benefit analysis, where it remains to be evaluated whether the diversion of agricultural land for drilling gas wells can be justified from the overall benefits to the country and without unduly affecting the interests of the local people.
It was also clarified that rumors about spreading of disease due to gas wells is totally unfounded. There are more than 450 onshore gas wells already operating for the last several years in India and any spread of disease around those areas due to the wells have not been reported.
The responsibility of the governments
What is particularly surprising is that no minister or official from the Government of India has so far cared to contact the concerned local people and allay their apprehensions.
The local people seem to be reasonable in their approach and are not blind agitators. They want adequate and proper explanations from the state and central government authorities, credible technologists and engineers and demand answers for their queries logically, with good understanding of the local situation and the ground realities.
Further, it is not certain as to whether the Government of India has taken the Tamil Nadu state government into confidence, before announcing the decision and provided adequate details to it to enable the Tamil Nadu government to communicate with the local people. Certainly, the state government is in a position to understand the sentiments of the people and local economic and social situation much better than the central government. Communication with the local people by the state and central government is conspicuous by absence.
What is the way out?
During the interactive discussion that took place in a good climate, the following observations were made by the writer and the people listened in silence, but did not respond nor did they object to the observations.
- In a democratic set up, it would not be advisable to force such a project on the people, when there is ground swell of opposition, with the people thinking that they would be socially and economically uprooted. They have to be convinced.
- While the consumption of water for use in the drilled wells would not be very large, still if the required water would be tapped from the ground, this would really cause concern in Neduvasal and nearby areas where ground water resources have already depleted in recent months due to drought and a lack of water in the Cauvery river.
- In such circumstances, the authorities have to assure that the water would not be tapped from the ground in the area, but would be brought from elsewhere. Perhaps, like what is being done at the Koodankulam nuclear power project in Tamil Nadu a separate desalination plant can be put up to meet the water requirement.
- People in the region are still not aware as to how much agricultural land area would be diverted for the project, how much loss would be there due to the diversion of agricultural land and how the farmers there would be compensated in the short- and long-term.
- There is thunderous silence on the part of ministers and authorities, both in state and central governments, in responding to the local people’s fear and anxiety.
The writer suggested that a meeting should be immediately organized by the Tamil Nadu government involving the participation of central government, state government, representatives of the local people and the technical experts. Let there be detailed, frank and healthy discussions with good understanding of the various viewpoints.
Hopefully, the local people would be convinced after the discussions, balancing the need of the state and the sacrifice that they will have to make and how their interests would be protected.
If the local people cannot be convinced, the project has to be given up.
What alternate for natural gas?
A LNG gas terminal is now being constructed in the Ennore port near Chennai for the importing of natural gas involving an investment of around Rs.6000 cr. with a capacity of 5 million tonne.
The project is likely to be completed and ready for commissioning by 2018.
To utilize the imported gas, it is proposed to lay a gas pipeline of around 1,170 kilometres from the Ennore port to Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu for the utilization of gas at various locations in Tamil Nadu and for setting up downstream projects based on natural gas. Such projects have the potential of generating an investment of around Rs. 15000 cr. that would lead to significant economic and industrial development in the state.
However, the firm strategies for laying the pipelines are yet to be made, which involves the acquisition of land across the state for laying the long pipeline. The pipeline route may involve criss-cross roads, agricultural fields and even buildings in some densely populated areas. Such acquisition of land for the project may lead to acrimonious debates and protests delaying the pipeline project. In such a case, the LNG terminal at Ennore would remain largely un-utilized for long time.
It has to be pointed out that Kochi LNG terminal in Kerala with an investment of around Rs. 4500 cr. is now operating at just 5% capacity utilization level, since the pipeline project extending around 310 kilometres in Tamil Nadu had to be stopped due to protests against the acquisition of land.
When 310 kilometre gas pipe project has suffered such a fate in Tamil Nadu, one has to keep the fingers crossed about the proposed 1170 kilometre gas pipeline project from Ennore to Tuticorin.
Obviously, the central and state government should know that communication with the local people is very vital in implementing such projects and the Neduvasal gas exploration project is an instant to remember with regard to the importance of communication.