Black Gold Part-I: Why the Centre eyeing lignite blocks in Tamil Nadu’s Cauvery delta mines turbulence and uncertainty

The three blocks are still in the list of 106 mines that are to auctioned — despite Union Minister Pralhad Joshi's assurance that they have been excluded.

ByVinodh Arulappan

Published Apr 29, 2023 | 11:30 AMUpdated Apr 30, 2023 | 11:12 AM

Tamil Nadu coal mining Cauvery delta region

After a furore in the state, Union Minister for Coal and Mines Pralhad Joshi announced that the three lignite blocks on the east coast of Tamil Nadu that were on the list of coal blocks to be auctioned, will be excluded. With the demand for energy on a steep rise in the country, the minister’s assurance — made on Twitter — makes little sense to Tanjavur farmers, who remain apprehensive.

South First visited the region for a closer look at the ground reality. This is the first of a two-part series on the black gold threatening the livelihoods of farmers in the fertile lands of Vadeseri and its neighbourhood in the Cauvery Delta Zone. Read the second part here.

The chirping crickets slipped a hint of mystery into the night of Vadaseri in Tamil Nadu’s Tanjavur district.

The wind swept down and over the delta, caressing the paddy under the summer night sky. Silhouettes of palmyra palms and coconut trees stood tall, guarding the vast expanse of fields. The wind eerily whistled as it swayed the palmyra tops.

The whistling wind is leaving much unsaid, like the fear that has gripped the farmers of Vadaseri in the Cauvery Delta Zone (CDZ).

The farmers are sitting on a large reserve of lignite, part of the estimated 30,275,000 tonnes of brown coal deposits in Tamil Nadu.

The Union government wants to auction the three coal blocks east of Senthiathope, Michaelpatti and Vadaseri. It included the coalbeds in the fifth, sixth, and seventh rounds of its coal mine auction.

Farmers in and around Vadaseri are disturbed by the Centre’s move to auction the coal blocks. They feel auctioning the coalbeds would adversely affect their livelihood.

Following protests by the farmers and the state government, the Centre rolled back the notification to auction the three blocks in the CDZ. The announcement, however, was made only on Twitter.

The move, however, involved more than a touch of politics, with the roll back being credited not to the state government’s objections, articulated by Chief Minister MK Stalin, but to state BJP chief K Annamalai.


Spirit of federalism?

The central government launched the seventh round of commercial coal actions on 29 March. It intended to increase the availability of dry fuel.

Vadaseri Coal Map

Vadaseri Lignite Block Map (Union Mines Department)

The seventh round put 106 coal mines under the hammer. Of the 106 mines, 61 blocks are partially explored, and 45, fully. The government also put up 95 non-coking coal mines, 10 lignite mines, and one coking coal mine for auction.

The announcement ran into opposition in Tanjavur. Following the farmers’ protests, Chief Minister Stalin wrote to Union Minister Pralhad Joshi on 4 April, terming the Union government’s decision to auction the coal blocks “unilateral”, and without the state’s concurrence in such a “sensitive matter”.

“Had the State Government been consulted before the issue of the notification, these issues could have been clarified and the unnecessary disquiet caused by the notification could have been avoided,” the letter read.

The next day, the chief minister informed the state Assembly that DMK MP TR Baalu has been assigned to hand over the letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“I had a discussion with the officials concerned and asked senior DMK MP TR Baalu to hand over my letter to the prime minister and convey him our concerns,” Stalin told the House.

On 6 April, the Union minister announced on Twitter that the decision to auction the three blocks in Tamil Nadu has been rolled back. Joshi made the announcement a day before Modi reached Chennai to launch a slew of projects, including a semi-high-speed Vande Bharat Express train.

“In the spirit of cooperative federalism and keeping in mind the interests of people, I have directed to exclude them (three lignite mines) for auction,” he said.

Related: After Stalin letter, Centre removes TN coal blocks from auction list

Tweet fails to allay fears

Instead of pacifying the farmers, the Union minister’s Twitter announcement angered them more.

PR Pandian, President of the Tamil Nadu Federation of All Farmers’ Association told South First that the minister had given only an assurance and it cannot be considered as a cancellation order.

“How can we take a Twitter announcement as a government order? The coal auction in the delta zone has not been officially cancelled so far. The chief minister should ensure that the coal auction is stopped,” he demanded.

His outfit was instrumental in stopping the Union government from exploring, testing wells and commercial exploration of coal beds and methane in the same region in 2012.

Pandian stated that in the 1980s the then-Union government learnt of the abundant coal the region holds and a study was conducted on the reserve in the late 1990s.

Farmers issue ultimatum

“Over the past 10 years, several attempts were made to mine coal from the agriculture belt. A Detailed Project Report (DPR) was also prepared and it was under the consideration of the Union Government for the past five years. Now they have dared to dig up the fertile land,” he fumed.

Paddy Field in Ullikottai in Thanjavur. (South First)

Meanwhile, the farmers’ associations have set a 30 April deadline for the Union government to officially cancel the notification issued for auctioning the three coal blocks in Tamil Nadu.

The associations have called for statewide protests from May first week if the Centre fails to meet the deadline.

They have a reason to set the deadline.

Though Joshi tweeted that the lignite blocks will not be put up for auction, the list of blocks published by the Union government still included them at the time of publishing this report.

The Coal and Mining Ministry has not issued an official notification excluding the three blocks from the auction. Additionally, the prime minister has not yet responded to the chief minister’s letter.

Also read: Charges against IAS officer in Obulapuram mining case quashed

Fishing in troubled waters?

Pandian said the protest was not new. The people and farmers have been struggling for the past 30 years to stop all hydrocarbon exploration projects in the delta region.

“We allowed only the ONGC to operate in the area to a minimum extent and that too was stopped by the Jayalalithaa government in 2016 after sensing that it was affecting agriculture,” he pointed out.

The farmers’ leader accused the Centre of creating disquiet in the southern states.

“The Union government is least bothered about the concerns of the farmers. This coal auction is mostly concentrated in the southern states and they don’t want these states to live in peace,” he alleged.

Politically, the ruling BJP doesn’t have a strong foundation in the southern states, barring Karnataka. The party doesn’t want these states to have a peaceful atmosphere, he said.

“Hence they are not solving water and border disputes. And it has now come up with the mining project,” Pandian added.

Stalin in the dark

Raising suspicion over the state’s delayed action against the move to auction the coal blocks, he recalled DMK MP Kathir Anand raising a query in Parliament on the reduction of hydrocarbon wells in the delta.

“The Union coal minister said that they won’t be decreasing the wells, instead they would be increased since there is a high energy demand,” he said.

Pandian claimed that Chief Minister Stalin was unaware of the issue until the farmers opposed the auction. “Why did the MPs and officials in Tamil Nadu fail to alert the chief minister,” he asked.

After writing to the prime minister, Stalin told the Assembly that mining would not be allowed in the region. He was replying to special attention motions moved by several MLAs.

Protect the delta: Farmers

Veerakumar, a farmer from Keelakurichi village said the region is dependent on agriculture.

Farmers in Vadaseri planting saplings in the field (South First)

“We don’t know any other job other than farming and most of the people in the delta are farmers and farmhands. If this project is implemented, the whole delta will be destroyed and the state will be deprived of food,” he told South First.

Eleven villages — Vadaseri, Mahadevapattanam, Ullikottai, Kuppachchikottai, Paravankottai, Kizhkurichchi, Andami, Karuppur, Paravatur, Kodiyalam and Nemeri — in the Orathanadu taluk have been earmarked for coal extraction.

Ramachandran, a farmer who owns two acres of agricultural land, was busy planting paddy crops when South First met him at Paravankottai.

Fears abound

“We don’t get the Cauvery water. Each farm has borewells within 60 feet of each other. If this project is implemented, the groundwater will be completely depleted,” he said.

The Pamaniyar river flows about 2.5 km northeast of the Vadaseri block and the Kannanar river cuts through it.

The Mineral Exploration Corporation Ltd (MECL), which surveyed the Vadaseri region, found nearly 66.02 sq km of the coal bed.

As many as 66 holes would be bored at a depth of 13,636 metres to extract coal.

Balasubramaniam, a farmer from the region, told South First that they have been farming for generations.

“If this project is implemented, it will not only affect agriculture but the livelihoods of the people as well. Our houses, cattle and rivers will be affected. Perhaps, we will be forced to evacuate,” he said.

Coal Minister Joshi announced that the delta region in Tamil Nadu has been excluded from the list. However, the threat of the Centre auctioning the coal blocks remains — like the Sword of Damocles.

(The second and concluding part of the series narrates why the threat of auctioning the coal bed would continue to haunt the region — because this was not the first time that the Centre has tried to put the blocks under the hammer).