Black Gold Part-II: Farmers question TN’s silence on earlier auction attempts, say mining only ‘over our bodies’

3 coal blocks were included in the 5th and 6th rounds. Farmers want an Assembly resolution announcing a permanent ban on mining.

ByVinodh Arulappan

Published Apr 30, 2023 | 11:00 AMUpdated Apr 30, 2023 | 11:00 AM

Black Gold Part-II: Farmers question TN’s silence on earlier auction attempts, say mining only ‘over our bodies’

This is the second and concluding part of a two-part series by South First from ground zero on attempts to implement hydrocarbon exploration projects in Tamil Nadu’s Cauvery Delta region. Read the first part here.

In February 2020, the then chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswamy, or EPS, announced that the Cauvery Delta would be declared a Protected Special Agriculture Zone.

Besides safeguarding Tamil Nadu’s food security, the announcement was also intended to protect the farmers’ interests.

Still, the central government went ahead with its plan to auction the coal blocks. South First has learnt that it was not the first time that these coalbeds were put under the hammer.

The three blocks were included in the fifth and sixth rounds of the auctions as well.

Repeated attempts

A document accessed by South First, File No. NA-102/1/2023-NA-Part(1) 2511417/2023/Nominated Authority dated January 31, 2023, revealed that all three coalbeds were put up for auction in the previous year on November 3, 2022, under the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulations) Act, 1957).

Michaelpatti coal bed. (Union Ministry of Coal)

However, there were no takers for the deposits included in the sixth tranche. Subsequently, under Clause 3.3.2 (b) (II) (iii) and 9.6 of the Tender Document dated November 03, 2022, the tender process was annulled.

Earlier, the coal blocks were included in the fifth tranche and put up for auction under the partially explored mines category.

The document, dated April 11, 2022, showed that the estimated exploration expense for Michaelpatti was estimated to be ₹16,53,45,000 and the bid amount was ₹4,13,36,250

For the Vadaseri coalbed, the estimated exploration expense was ₹77,19,75,000, and the bid amount, ₹19,29,93,750.

The estimated exploration expense for the East of Sethiyathoppu coalbed was ₹1,47,27,75,000 and the bid amount was ₹36,81,93,750.

In Vadaseri, the depth range of the lignite block is 141.3 metres to 225.8 metres.

Also read: ‘Ex-TN minister Vijayabhaskar received money from mining firms’

Eco-sensitive region

Besides falling under the Protected Special Agriculture Zone, Vadaseri is also an eco-sensitive region.

TN coal deposits graphics.

The Cauvery delta holds huge deposits of coal. (South First)

The Vadavoor Bird Sanctuary is located some 13 km south of the coalbed, and the Udayamarthandapuram Bird Sanctuary is about 16 km in the northeastern direction.

In Michaelpatti, the depth range of the lignite seam is located from 100.20 metres to 118.60 metres.

Further, the coal block is 25 km northeast of the Karaiveddi Bird Sanctuary.

In the early 1990s, the Geological Survey of India (GSI) explored lignite in Tamil Nadu, keeping in view the high demand for accelerated growth of power and industrial sectors.

The exploration found an additional resource of 26,331.4 million tonnes of lignite in the state.

A senior official in the state Mining Department told South First that about 80 percent of India’s coal reserves are in Tamil Nadu and if mined, it would meet the country’s energy needs for the next 70 years.

“The production in Tamil Nadu alone accounted for 52 percent with just three open cast mines at Neyveli operated by the Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC),” he said.

“The NLC has five thermal power stations. Now the Neyveli has almost exhausted its resources. So the Union government is keen on exploring new coal mines and all these have been opened up for the private sector,” the official added.

Also read: TN officer, who took on sand mafia, dies after being attacked

State’s silence shocks farmers 

The coalbeds were put up for auction three times in the past year. The question is whether the state government was aware of the previous attempts.

A paddy field near Orathanadu

N Arumugam, a farmer leader in Orathanadu, was shocked to learn that attempts were made earlier to put the coal blocks under the hammer.

“How could the government be unaware of such attempts? What were the MPs and state government officials doing,” he asked.

“Luckily, the move was dropped since there were no takers. What if someone had made a bid earlier? Why did the state and political parties not question the move,” he wondered.

Arumugam tried to reason. “It is apparent that the Union government wants to mine coal from the Cauvery Delta and every year, it would become a problem hereafter. There should be a permanent solution for this issue,” he told South First.

He also requested the state government to move a resolution in the Assembly, imposing a permanent ban on listing the delta coalbeds for auction in the future.

Arumugam’s fear is not unfounded. Another senior official of the Mines Department said that the Union government is keen on mining coal from the delta region to meet the country’s requirements.

“This time the Union Coal Ministry could exclude the delta coalbeds from the auction. But it would again put it up for auction,” he said.

Also read: Request letters to 4 countries in Janardhan Reddy mining case

Poison us, says farmers’ leader

Manikandan of the Keelakurichi village farmers’ association told South First that most of them are farmhands and have always struggled to make both ends meet.

Farmers working in Keelakurichi paddy field

When asked about the proposed hydrocarbon exploration projects, he said, “Instead of implementing these projects, the Union government should poison us to death.”

He expressed fear that they might be thrown out of the villages and made refugees like the Sri Lankan Tamils.

“They can take coal only over our dead bodies. Famines like those witnessed in Rwanda will occur in this country if the delta is destroyed,” he said.

The Central African country was hit by severe famines between 1897 and 1943 partly because of the irregular distribution of food and population.

A severe famine in central and western Rwanda in 1928 left more than three lakh people dead, and over one lakh displaced.

Members of the farmers’ associations have been visiting every village and meeting the people, explaining the possible impact of mining in the region.

“The people here do not have adequate knowledge of the adverse effects of coal mining,” Saravanan, a farmer in Vadaseri, said.

“The government did not hold a meeting with the people to allay their fears. We will never allow such a project,” he asserted.

He also said that the farmers do not trust the Union government since it has adopted a partisan stand in the Cauvery and Mullaperiyar water-sharing issues.