Protected Special Agricultural Zone in Tamil Nadu’s Cauvery delta: Experts seek powers to implementing authority

The Protected Special Agricultural Zone that the government created recently is meant to offer farmers of the delta region relief from further hydrocarbon exploration. While the decision itself may be labelled political, experts stress the importance of arming the implementing authority with adequate powers.

It was the 1977 Assembly election. Kuthalam, a sleepy rural constituency in undivided Thanjavur district, was witnessing a heightened poll campaign, as were many other parts of the State. But, there was a difference here. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK) candidate, R. Rajamanickam, who eventually got elected, ran his campaign on the pivot of the complaint that the Centre was “discriminating” against Tamil Nadu by paying “much less royalty for crude oil” taken from Narimanam, also located in the district.

Even though it would take several more years for the authorities to declare officially that an oil field had been discovered in Narimanam, the point made by the DMK nominee had highlighted how important the subject of hydrocarbon projects was in public discourse in the Cauvery delta even then. There is little change in this situation, even to this day. The 2017 Neduvasal and Kadiramangalam protests, which took place immediately after a massive stir in the State for jallikattu, only confirmed that hydrocarbon projects, regardless of size, would not be welcome in the area.

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Prior to these events, the delta had seen an intense struggle over a proposal to implement a coal bed methane project in Thanjavur and Tiruvarur districts. Despite the project proponent getting an environmental clearance, the State government, based on experts’ advice, had got the project cancelled. After a lull of about two years, the delta, in mid-January this year, saw signs of another round of unrest in the wake of the Central government doing away with the need for holding public consultations for all projects — offshore and onshore oil and gas exploration.

A special zone

It was around this time and against this backdrop that Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, apart from conveying his disapproval of the Central action, asked senior officials of the government to examine the idea of turning the Cauvery delta into a protected zone. In early February, he announced his government’s decision to create the Protected Special Agricultural Zone and followed it up by adopting a Bill for the same, on the floor of the House 10 days later.

“While drafting the legislation, we took due care not to exceed our Constitutional limits and step into the Centre’s domain. If you look at the Bill, its focus is agriculture, which is a State subject, and not on industries or environment,” explains C.Ve. Shanmugam, Law Minister, who also handles the portfolio of Mines and Minerals.

The Governor has also given his assent to the legislation. “There is a definite need for such a law,” says C. Ramasamy, former Vice-Chancellor of the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU). “In our State, it is only in the delta that you can expect consistent and reliable production of paddy (rice), while there has been a steady fall in the production of paddy in areas fed by tanks and wells. Under such circumstances, you need to keep the area safe and secure. The new law serves the purpose,” he observes.

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The Protected Agricultural Zone Development Act will prevent new hydrocarbon projects in the region. To drive home the point that the campaign against hydrocarbon projects has a sound basis, S. Ranganathan, a geologist-turned-farmer based out of Mannargudi, recalls how a fire broke out in Nallur, about 15 km near his place, in the late 1970s during a drilling exercise for natural gas exploration. “It was then that we realised that enormous quantities of surface water would be required to put out such fire and the land would virtually go waste,” he observes.

Needless to say, the farming community in the delta is upbeat about the law coming into force. Later this week, a public event is being planned in Tiruvarur to felicitate the Chief Minister.

Some not impressed

At the same time, not everyone is impressed with the efficacy of the law. “When you cannot act against existing hydrocarbon projects, I am clueless what benefit the law is going to give to farmers in the delta,” says K.N. Nehru, the DMK’s principal secretary and former Food and Civil Supplies Minister (1996-2001), who hails from Tiruchi.

P. Kalyanam, former MLA of the Kuthalam constituency, which was merged with Poompuhar and Mayiladuthurai constituencies during the 2008 delimitation exercise, wonders whether the State government is empowered to enact a law that will have bearing on natural resources such as petroleum, which comes under the Union List.

K. Balakrishnan, secretary of the State unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and former Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) representing Chidambaram constituency in Cuddalore district, finds fault with the government on a number of counts. “In the proposed Authority which will be headed by the Chief Minister, farmers are poorly represented. We do not know who will be nominated by the government,” he says.

“Besides, there must be representation for local bodies’ representatives in the Authority. As the new body is going to have the CM as the head, all its decisions will have to be implemented by the government. Instead, there can be an advisory panel, comprising experts, agriculturists and officials. The inputs of such a committee can form the basis for decisions of the government. Through this method, the government will be able to scrutinise actions of the panel,” the CPI (M) leader points out.

Without improving the Cauvery irrigation network or implementing the Cauvery modernisation project, the delta might be forced to remain like an “archaeological monument”, he adds.

However, the Law Minister, dismissing the criticism against his government, relies on the communication sent by Union Minister for Environment Prakash Javadekar on February 19 to the Chief Minister to underscore that the State government is on a strong wicket. The Union Minister had made it clear to Mr. Palaniswami on the amendment to regulations on oil and gas exploration projects that “the final decision as to whether to allow any particular [new] project in any particular region would continue to vest with the State government”.

Mr. Shamugam also points out that there are enough provisions in Environment (Protection) Act and Petroleum and Natural Gas Rules, 1959, that empower State governments to take suitable steps with regard to the provision or withdrawal of licence for industrial projects. It is through powers delegated to the State government under the Environment Act that the decisions were made regarding the Sterlite factory and ban on plastics, the Law Minister points out.

Just as agriculture is important to the State, industry is equally important, is his argument. This is why existing units in the delta cannot be made to shut down arbitrarily. This also explains the exclusion of parts of Tiruchi, Karur and Ariyalur districts, which otherwise form part of the delta.

“In any legal framework, there is always scope for improvement. The government will be at it as and when the need arises,” he says.

Authority’s role

The proposed Authority will make suggestions for fostering the infrastructure for food security, recommend schemes for irrigation and flood management, facilitate the promotion of agro-based and allied industries and come out with measures for augmenting water resources, efficient water use in agriculture including micro-irrigation, the Minister explains. As for agricultural labourers, the Authority will formulate measures to provide “sustainable employment opportunities” to them.

Notwithstanding forceful explanations of the government and its representatives on the debate over the law, there is a view among a section of the farming community that the Act is meant to serve the political agenda of the ruling party. K.V. Ilankeeran, president of the federation of farmers’ organisations in the delta, says the fact that the State government has enacted the law makes him wonder whether the ruling party will wriggle itself out of its alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party at the time of Assembly elections.

“Such an argument is far-fetched. Our regime will stick to its non-confrontationist approach towards the Centre in the remainder of its term too,” says a senior functionary of the ruling party who is considered to be close to the Chief Minister.

Farmers’ wish-list

Already, a wish-list is doing the rounds ahead of the proposed visit of Mr. Palaniswami to Tiruvarur. V. Sathyanarayanan, general secretary of the Consortium of Cauvery Delta Farmers, expects him to make announcements on the formation of a Delta Research Centre to cover issues including soil health, seawater intrusion, groundwater and sub-surface aquifer recharge. P.R. Pandian, president of the Tamil Nadu Federation of All Farmers’ Associations, who has moved the Supreme Court against the Centre’s move on public hearings, says that a campaign is on in certain quarters to the effect that land value in the delta will go down due to the State government’s latest action.

To dispel any such notion, a number of special projects and measures will have to be executed so that agriculture is not seen to be a losing proposition. He suggests that a tripartite agreement be signed between the State government, farmers and traders to ensure remunerative prices to agriculturists for their produce.

As the debate continues on merits and demerits of making the Cauvery delta a protected zone, there exists an opinion among geologists that fears or concerns of people over hydrocarbon projects in general can be easily addressed if those in charge of such projects conduct themselves in a transparent manner and reveal salient features of their projects, including technology to be adopted and safety norms to be followed.

Notwithstanding the government’s “protective measure” for the Cauvery delta, it is common knowledge that the region is at a crossroads. Recurring problems over water availability, shrinking farm labour, growing presence of ageing farmers, changes in cultivation methods and lack of remunerative prices are looming large over the farm sector. Under such circumstances, questions do arise among experts and farmers as to whether it is advisable to hamper industrialisation in the region.

In view of the delta’s importanceto the State, the region must have a vibrant farm sector, which should be supported by appropriate industries as well. And, the government, through the Act, believes that it has made a beginning in this direction, a point that its critics remain sceptical about.

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