TN assembly passes bill to declare Cauvery Delta as Protected Agricultural Zone

DMK walks out as their demand to send the bill to a joint committee rejected

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami | PTI Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami | PTI

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami on Thursday introduced a bill in the state legislative assembly to declare the Cauvery Delta region in the state as a Protected Special Agriculture Zone. The bill was tabled in the assembly after the cabinet on Wednesday approved the policy decision announced by the chief minister during a public meeting recently. 

The bill, a pet project of the chief minister himself, however, does not cover the entire Cauvery Delta and all the nine districts he mentioned in his speech during the public meeting. The bill excludes Tiruchirappalli, Ariyalur and Karur districts and parts of Cuddalore and Pudukottai regions from its ambit. Also, the bill does not address the issues concerned with the existing industrial or oil extraction projects in the Delta region. 

“Any ongoing projects or industry in the proposed zone will not be disturbed,” reads the bill. According to the bill, a 30-member committee with the chief minister as its head will be set up to advise the government to protect and improve the farming activities in the region. The committee, which will be headquartered in Chennai, will also advise on increasing the farm production in the region. “The bill is proposed to protect agriculture and prohibit certain activities in this region as non-farming activities are adversely affecting agriculture and threatening state’s food security,” reads the bill. 

The proposed agriculture zone, as per the bill, includes Thanjavur, Thirvarur, Nagapattinam and five blocks in Cuddalore and Pudukottai. The bill fails to include Tiruchirappalli, Ariyalur and Karur which are geographically included in the Cauvery Delta. It, however, states that the areas listed in the bill have been included under the first schedule of the act. “The government may add or omit any areas in the future,” states the bill, which also talks about the projects that adversely affect agriculture in the region. Zinc smelter, iron ore process plants, copper smelter, aluminium smelter tannery and ship breaking industries are prohibited in the agriculture zone as it will affect agriculture developments in the region. Also, this list of projects, which is called as the second schedule of the Act is also subject to addition and omission in the future. 

The bill, however, says that it will not affect the activities or the existing projects in the agriculture zone. “Nothing contained in the legislation shall affect the activities or projects in operation in the protected agriculture zone before the date of coming into force of this Act. The legislation will not affect infrastructure developments in the protected agricultural zone such as ports/harbours, pipelines, road, electricity, telecommunications, water supply and other utilities.” 

The bill was later passed as a legislation in the assembly after the opposition DMK walked out demanding that the bill be sent to a joint committee for further discussion and debate. “It is a welcome move that the Cauvery Delta is declared as a special protected agriculture zone. But it has a long way to go. The bill tabled and passed as a legislation today is an eye wash. It doesn’t address the existing or the most important issues. It doesn’t talk about the existing hydrocarbon extraction projects in the zone,” R. Sundarrajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal, told THE WEEK. Poovulagin Nanbargal is an NGO which works on environmental issues.

Questions remain

The bill leaving out regions like Tiruchirappalli, Ariyalur and Karur raises several questions as the government recently signed an MoU with Chennai Petroleum Corporation Limited (CPCL) to set up a greenfield refinery in Nagapattinam, one of the important districts in the Cauvery Delta region. The MoU, in fact, was signed by Palaniswmai himself during the second edition of the global investors meet. The project is worth Rs 27,400 crore, which the government might have to drop once the legislation is passed. Apart from this, several other private companies, like Haldia Petrochemicals, have plans to invest Rs 50,000 crore to set up a petrochemical complex in Cuddalore, which was also inked during the Global Investors Meet.

Again the bill doesn’t talk or even mention about the proposed Petroleum, Chemicals and Petrochemicals Investment Region (PCPIR) in Cuddalore and Nagapattinam region. The PCPIR, though a non-starter until now, covers 23,000 hectares of agricultural land spread across 45 villages in the Cuddalore region. Incidentally, these villages have been excluded from the agricultural zone, proposed by the government in the bill. “The government had already signed MoUs with Vedanta group for 489 wells in the Delta region. Will it be stopped? Why the government has not proposed the bill with a retrospective effect?,” asked Sundarrajan. 

Though the committee proposed as per the bill has representatives from the farming community,  the government held no discussion with farmer associations while drafting the bill. “There are at least 25 recognised farmers associations in the state. None of us has been consulted,” said Ilankeeran, one of the farmers association leaders in Cuddalore district.