Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Karunanidhi’s Nandigram

Fearing displacement of about 20,000 people across 10 panchayats, villagers unite in two districts of Tamil Nadu against a Tata group project

Another Nandigram is in the making in Tamil Nadu. In spite of vociferous protests against the Tata's titanium dioxide plant to be situated at Sathankulam in Tuticorin district, the ruling party appears to be in favour of it. The mining area of the proposed project spreads across Tuticorin and Tirunelveli districts.
PROMISED LAND: proposed Tata project site:

This impression has gained ground notwithstanding Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi's assurance that the final decision on the project would be taken only after consulting the affected people. But before the beginning of the consultation, it is alleged that DMK leaders are coercing presidents of the affected panchayats to support the project. Minister of State for Home Radhika Selvi is alleged to have met some of them in this regard.

Former Arasur panchayat president M. Jeyapandian — whose wife is the current president — said Selvi once visited his house late at night to discuss the project. "The minister said all other panchayat presidents had agreed to the project and I was the only one opposing it," he told TEHELKA. He is determined to oppose the project, and contrary to the minister's claim, he enjoys the support of other presidents as well. On August 3, eight of them along with the Sathankulam union chairman and 11 union councillors gave a representation to the Tuticorin distr ict collector opposing the project.

On June 28, the Tatas signed a memorandum of understanding (mou) with the state government for establishing the Rs 2,500-crore titanium dioxide project. The previous Jayalalithaa government had dropped the project due to people's opposition. In a statement, Jayalalithaa said the project was dropped after it was found that it would affect the livelihood of people and pollute the environment.

REBELLIOUS: Villagers protest at Sathankulam
Documents available with TEHELKA say top officials of Tirunelveli, Kanyakumari and Tuticorin districts, during the previous regime, had given their opinion against the project. TEHELKA also has a copy of the Tuticorin district collector's letter to a senior industries official in which he warned of serious law and order problem if the land is acquired. Even the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (tnpcb) had opposed it. tnpcb Member Secretary Dr T. Sekar, in a letter dated January 17, 2006 to the Tirunelveli collector, said "The mining proposed by the Tata Iron and Steel Company Limited…for a depth of 6 metres will affect trees, vegetation cover and permanent features of the area." Sources said the company had applied for permission to mine at depths from 6.9 m to 8.3 m.

There is also a hitch in acquiring the patta land for the project. It is pointed out that there is no provision in the Mines and Minerals Act-1957, the Mineral Concession Rules-1960 and the Land Acquisition Act-1894 for acquiring mineral-bearing patta lands. The project requires a whopping 16,000 acres of land — about 70 sq km — spread over nearly 10 panchayats. According to estimates, it would displace nearly 20,000 people.

In a 10-page letter dated September 26, 2006 to the director, department of geology and mining, the Tuticorin district collector listed out a number of negative impacts of the project and recalled the earlier findings that the project would adversely affect the livelihood of farmers. "It's not fair on the part of the government to acquire our land. We will oppose the move. We are prepared to face any consequence," said AVK Balasubramaniam, a farmer at Vijayaramapuram in Thatchamozhi village. He scoffed at the promise of employment to the locals. "What employment did they provide to the people of Koodankulam who gave their land for the atomic power plant? Should we sell our land and work as labourers in the Tata company?" he asked.V. Gurusamy of the Arasur village adds, "They say the Tata project would give jobs to thousand people. But agriculture can produce more jobs." The villagers have formed 'land protection committees' to safeguard their interests.

The region is generally dry and arid but the area earmarked for the project is quite green. There are several coconut, mango and palmyra groves. "Drumstick produced here is exported to the Arab countries," said PP Sakthivel, a farmer in Poovudayarpuram. "If the government wants to acquire our land, Tamil Nadu will witness another Nandigram," he said.

Many DMK members in Prakasapuram area are also opposing the project. K. Rajapandian, organiser of the DMK's farmers' wing, is upset over the developments. "Three-fourth of the land which is to be acquired is under cultivation," he said.

According to the Tatas, the potential of farming in the area is limited due to the non-availability of water and the sandy nature of the soil. The company claims that only less than 5 percent of the land required for the project is wetland. S. Asokan, executive in-charge, Tata's titanium project, said: "We believe that, by consultation, we will be able to win the support of the people. We have clearly said that the land will be acquired based on the price arrived at mutually by the government and the landowners in consultation with us."
Few favour the project, and they do not own any land there. K. Senthil of Pudukapathu, a labourer, said he welcomes the project as it would generate more employment. But prominent political parties including the AIADMK, MDMK, CPI and PMK are opposed to the project. Since the Nadars are the dominant community in the region, various Nadar outfits have pledged their support to the stir.

The government has constituted a committee comprising Mines & Minerals Minister K. Ponmudy, Tourism Minister Suresh Rajan, Animal Husbandry Minister Geetha Jeevan and three officials — the revenue secretary, the industries secretary and the minerals commissioner — to study the situation. But on August 1, Selvi and two DMK MLAs took out a procession in support of the project in Tirunelveli. Speaking to TEHELKA, Selvi said: "All the industries were set up in the northern districts. So, there was no development in the southern part. A project like this would change the scenario."
Source: PC Vinoj KumarTuticorin/Tirunelveli

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