Slogans against the central government, Narendra Modi, state government, chief minister Edapaddi Palaniswami and placards that sent out their message loud and clear – we don’t want oil extraction plant in our village – Neduvasal.
This village, located in Pudukottai district of southern Tamil Nadu has reserves of oil and natural gas, as do 30 others across the country, where the Union government had cleared hydrocarbon project on February 15. And since then, the village came out in full strength, joined in by 70 other villages nearby, to block the project.
It was and is a Jallikattu moment all over again in Tamil Nadu, where people from different walks joined in protests as the project will be severely detrimental to the farms and farmers of the region.
Flush with success in forcing the state and central governments on the back foot on the bull-taming sport and in the process banishing animal rights body PETA from Tamil Nadu, the youth and students lent themselves to the farmers who were protesting against the project and they know they are on the winning ground, for the moment.
Ever since they came out into the streets on February 15, the farmers, students and youth stayed put on the spot and rejected every plea for withdrawing their stir. But they held ground, till Union commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman spoke to the villagers in their own language and promised to convey their sentiments to the prime minister and factor in everything in decision-making.
The villagers have only temporarily suspended their stir with a clear-cut intent to resume the protests if the government went back on its word. Though the farmers in Neduvasal have suspended the stir, similar protests are carrying on in the state here and there, keeping the issue alive.
It is, in fact, the awakening of the Tamil population, said a political analyst, to issues that they identify with and where there is a perception that Tamil Nadu is getting the wrong end of the stick, due to a deliberate design. The Centre’s treatment of the state is something that the people are wary of, and their fears are stoked by strong regional parties that exploit such sentiments. The state has been facing Sri Lankan Tamils issue, fishermen’s problem, farmers’ distress, Cauvery river water tussle with Karnataka and a host of other issues where it is felt that Tamil Nadu was receiving step-motherly treatment.
This more or less explains why the student community and the youth is agitated in the state and has come out in strength to pitch in, as was seen in Jallikattu protests.
Jallikattu – a bull-taming sport – was exploited well by those in the background organising the movement in packaging it as a Tamil pride issue. And slowly but surely, the people have also realised that only a collective action can bring focus back to Tamil Nadu that many fear was losing out over the recent past.
If Jallikattu stir brought back the bulltaming sport, it also landed a knock-out punch to cola majors – Coke and Pepsi – as the seeds of boycott of soft drink giants were sown during the January Jallikattu protests at Marina beach. Even as the collective sentiment of the trading community was building up against the cola majors, the Neduvasal protests gained momentum.
It was after Nirmala Sitharaman’s assurance that the farmers suspended their 22-day-long protests. The villagers are very clear in their message to the Centre via Sitharaman – scrap the project or we start the agitation again.
The main problem, the villagers say, is that the project will destroy their farmlands and also pollute the groundwater. The Tamil Nadu government’s declaration that it will not give permission for the project failed to satisfy the masses. Chief minister Palaniswami had assured that the state government will not implement any project that would be “destructive to the interest of the farmers”.
But it was only after Union Minister Pon Radhakrishnan promised to arrange a meeting of the farmers with Union Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan in New Delhi that the villagers were willing to listen to the central minister.
The villagers have only temporarily suspended the stir with the intent to resume the protests if the government went back on its word
Pon Radhakrishnan thanked the protesters for suspending the agitation. “I’m happy that the protests against the hydrocarbon project have been called off. I extend my appreciations and thanks to the village headmen, youngsters, students and women,” he said.
Neduvasal project is one of the 31 contracts cleared to 44 oilfields, including 28 onland and 16 offshore fields discovered by Oil and Natural Gas Corp. (ONGC) and Oil India Ltd. (OIL). GEM Laboratories Private Limited, a company based at Davangere in Karnataka, bagged the contract for the project in Neduvasal. The protests that started in Neduvasal soon spread to neighbouring villages and also to other districts and soon had the support of students, activists, politicians and other celebrities.
Film actors GV Ramakrishna and Kamal Haasan came out in full support of the Neduvasal protests. Kamal Haasan in fact lauded Puducherry chief minister V Narayansamy’s rejection of the hydrocarbon project, one of which is located in Karaikkal in Puducherry. “Bravo Hon CM of Pondicheri for your clear stand on hydrocarbon project. My Salute,” said Kaman Haasan in a tweet. In another tweet he said he admired the way in which the youth and the student community was behaving with responsibility and standing up for causes.
In fact, Kamal Haasan was among the first supporters of Jallikattu movement, along with other film celebrities.
The main problem, the villagers say, is that the project will certainly destroy their farmlands and also pollute the groundwater
What Jallikattu movement has done is to bring Tamil Nadu together on one platform. But will it evolve into a political movement, to replace the established Dravidian parties that are also losing the support of the youth and student community, it remains to be seen.
But the Jallikattu movement has also led to the birth of a political party, My Nation My Rights Party, which has fielded a people’s candidate in the assembly byelection to RK Nagar constituency that was represented by former chief minister J Jayalalithaa till her death on December 5 last year. The constituency goes to polls on April 12.
Tamil Nadu farmers have seen victory in a different but similar central government project too. The Cauvery delta region farmers had opposed the central government’s coal and methane and shale gas extraction project since 2011. The central government scrapped the project in November 2016.