Credit : Sri Lanka Guardian

N.S. Venkatraman

It appears that Government of India have agreed to the demand of state politicians, environmentalists and local people in Neduvasal (Tamil Nadu, India) and have decided not to pursue the Neduvasal hydrocarbon project.

One is not sure as to whether the decision of the government to give up the project due to the local opposition is appropriate, considering the long-term national interest.

In a noisy democracy like India, views of the public have to be necessarily taken into consideration whether they are right or wrong or motivated by some vested interests. In the coming years, giving up significant development oriented projects due to protest from local people or political pressure are likely to become more frequent, as it now seems to be the trend of the day not only in Tamil Nadu but other parts of the country. Perhaps, it is more evident in Tamil Nadu. Obviously, the government has to seriously introspect about this problem and take some policy decisions on approach to such issues.

Projects getting stranded

There are important projects in Tamil Nadu like Kudankulam nuclear power project, which was delayed for a very long time due to protest from local people.

The project for installing a natural gas pipeline from Kochi LNG terminal (with an investment of around Rs.4500 crore) from Kerala to Tamil Nadu for transporting the gas are now remaining virtually stranded, due to the refusal of agriculture land owners in Tamil Nadu to give up the land for laying the pipeline.

A new LNG terminal is now being set up in Ennore near Chennai with the capacity of 5 million tons per annum with the investment of around Rs.6000 crores, which would be completed in 2018. However, for evacuating the gas, the proposed 1175 Km gas pipeline from Ennore to Tuticorin across Tamil Nadu has not yet been implemented. In all probability, much protest is likely to take place from the land owners across Tamil Nadu about giving up their land for installing the gas pipeline. It remains to be seen as to how the Tamil Nadu government, government of India and the project managers of Ennore LNG terminal would tackle the likely adverse scenario.

So many other instances can be pointed out in Tamil Nadu itself about the projects that were given up due to objection from local people and politicians for a variety of reasons, causing investment loss of several thousand crores of rupees and consequent loss of economic development and employment generation opportunities.

Lessons to learn

In any case, there are certain lessons that have to be absorbed by the government as well as the investors and industry houses in public and private sector, on the strategies to be adopted for dealing with public perceptions and related sensitive political, economic cultural issues, with regard to the proposed locations of infrastructure facilities and industrial projects.

The recent episode about Neduvasal hydrocarbon project is an immediate instance that could provide valuable lessons and guidelines.

Misconception regarding Neduvasal project that was not countered

For whatever reasons, several misconceptions were spread amongst local people in Neduvasal and surrounding areas about the proposed hydrocarbon project, which made them panicky and agitated.

There was a propaganda that coal bed methane project that was proposed earlier in Delta region and which was officially given up, later on, is the same project as presently proposed in Neduvasal, with the alternate name of hydrocarbon project being given to it, instead of stating as coal bed methane project.

Another misconception that spread was that the entire region would become a desert due to huge depletion of ground water due to drilling and operation of the gas wells.

One more false news that was aired was that this would be an extremely dangerous project and the local people were reminded of the Bhopal tragedy when thousands of lives were lost due to a chemical leak.

Local people were also told that terminal disease like cancer would spread due to hydrocarbon project.

All the above allegations are entirely false but were not effectively countered at the appropriate time by government of Tamil Nadu or Government of India or by ONGC or the organization that was awarded tender for the drilling project in Neduvasal,

What did the government fail to say?

The government has not informed the local people as for how many wells would be drilled in the region.

The government has not also said that how much land area would be acquired for the project.

There was also no word from the government as to how much quantity of water would be required during the drilling operation and the operation stage. It was also not explained as to from where the water would be sourced.

Further, there is no communication from the government as to what would be the compensation that would be paid by the local people for the acquisition of land and how the long term interest of the agriculturists, who give up the lands for hydrocarbon project, would be protected?

These are crucial questions that have been asked by the local people, and they are justified in raising such questions, especially as most of them belong to lower middle and lower income group, and they do not have any other skill to occupy themselves other than working in the agricultural field. There is real concern about the future of the families.

There has been a deafening silence on the part of the government agencies in providing the above details, which caused, even more, anxiety amongst people living in the area. In such conditions, even those not connected with the Neduvasal village started sympathizing with the local population and thought that they should be provided support to protect their interests. If the government is in possession of proper explanation for the misgivings of the local people, the government has kept it all to itself.

The government at least could have offered to take the local people to other regions in the country where gas wells are being operated without causing adverse conditions, which may have provided some confidence. Even this has not been done.

Later on, some feeble efforts were made to convince the agitators, which appear to be halfhearted efforts. Some knowledgeable people tried to argue the case for hydrocarbon project in Tamil TV media but were not heard much.

What lessons for the future?

Government, industry houses and project promoters should realize that the communication with local people is a crucial part of the strategy that should be adopted to promote such projects.

It is high time to understand that resident’s view cannot be ignored, thinking they are not adequately informed about such technologically advanced projects. Not being properly informed is all the more reason why they should be taken into confidence, an appropriate explanation should be provided with due regard for their anxiety, fear, and misgivings.

It is also vital that much before launching of such projects; the soft campaign has to be initiated to convince the local people to get their support, without which the projects cannot be put up.

Unfortunately, in several projects including Neduvasal, the project announcements have been made in public all of a sudden, catching local people who are the stakeholders of surprise. Inevitably, such approach creates great animosity against such projects.

Such conditions are an ideal ground for vested interests, which have a field day to whip up hate feelings against the project as well as the project promoters.

It is hoped that the leadership of the central and state governments will derive a right lesson from Neduvasal episode, instead of placing the blame on innocent local people.

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