ONGC has been operating in the region for close to 25 years, exploring the Cauvery delta for oil.
The villagers claim the work has contaminated their water, and spoilt their land. ONGC blames “vested interests".
On 30 June, there was an oil leak from an ONGC pipeline. Locals protested. There was a lathicharge by the police. 10 people were arrested.
Since then, the locals and environmental activists on one side, and the company on another, have traded charges. ONGC’s latest move is the release of promotional videos on its YouTube channel, debunking the claims made by the locals.
Meanwhile, Kathiramangalam is on the boil.
“Police have restricted outsiders from staying in our village, as they think that agitations will gain more strength. It looks like we are living in war-zone," says K. Vijay.
Vijay’s mother shows a vessel full of yellowish water with a layer of oil over it.
V. Jayanthi, who is on her way to join other villagers in an ongoing hunger strike says the locals are at “war with the government and the oil company for our drinking water and our agriculture land."
The protests that began in Kathiramangalam have spilled across the Cauvery delta, called the granary of Tamil Nadu, and which is reeling under its worst drought in 140 years. It is a drought that has frayed tempers, and amplified differences.
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The residents of Okkur village in the Nagapattinam district have decided to go on an indefinite hunger strike from 7 August.
M. Selvam who lives just opposite ONGC’s Okkur exploratory drill says that he and others have been complaining to “concerned authorities about the noise and air pollution" from the machine, but “to no avail".
In the “last few years our ground water has become saline and it has affected our agricultural lands," Selvam adds.
In a recent briefing in Chennai, ONGC said that, of the 36 lakh acres of agricultural land in the Cauvery basin, the company is exploring only 1,600 acres and that there is no threat to agricultural activities due to extraction.
The state-owned company did not present any data on water quality to counter claims of contamination.
In the meeting chaired by the ONGC’s onshore director V.P. Mahawar and director (HR) D.D. Misra, the company blamed “vested interests" for “continuously spreading false propaganda to mislead the public."
ONGC, which handles 700 wells in Tamil Nadu claimed that its crisis management plan was adequate to handle leaks and accidents. The company also said that it conducts awareness programmes for locals in areas it operates every year.
Mint travelled 500km across the delta but couldn’t find one village where the locals had gone through such programmes.
Like Kathiramangalam, there are rumours in the Cauvery delta that ONGC has been trying to look for shale gas or coal bed methane in the region in recent months, resulting in some of the contamination. The company says it is looking for neither.
G.Ramachandran, who leased two acres to the company, says ONGC acquired some 10 acres of land in Rajankattalai, Tiruvarur district, a decade ago. “While there were no operations, exploratory and extraction works were started three months back," he adds.
“Since then, there has been unbearable stench coming out of the site," says his neighbour S. Vasanthi.
In the Chennai briefing, the ONGC officials said that where the wells have turned up nothing, they have returned the land to the original owners—and in their original condition. This is a claim made in one of the promotional videos released too.
In Erukkattur, D. Srinivasan claims that his one acre of land was returned by ONGC last year. “I wrote back to ONGC asking for reports on the condition of water and soil to prove that the land is cultivable."
“It’s been a year. And, no response yet," he says.
Srinivasan did a soil test through the Tamil Nadu agricultural department and says the results show his land is no longer suitable for paddy , the primary crop in the region.
Such long-standing differences aside, ONGC’s immediate response to the 30 June oil leak was inadequate say activists.
“ONGC could have tested and released results of soil and water from the oil spill site (in Kathiramangalam)," said Chennai-based environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman.
Crude oil that was spilled on farm land, “contains Benzene, Xylene and Toluene, and other toxins. Benzene is a carcinogen and can contaminate groundwater reserves", he said.
Meanwhile, ONGC has filed an application with the union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) for environmental clearance to drill 110 new oil and gas wells across the Cauvery delta and Ramanathapuram.
Back in Kathiramangalam, the locals just want clean water.
“We are just asking for clean water. Is that a problem?," asks R. Nithya. “Whenever I give this water floating with oil to my children, it feels like I’m feeding them poison."