CHENNAI: The Unrelenting agitation at Neduvasal follows an all-too-familiar script: a project is proposed, the local population that was kept in the dark rises up in protest after the preliminary work is done, and tension grips the region. What usually follows are mass arrests and multiple cases, from public nuisance to sedition, that drag on for years.
Tamil Nadu has seen all these, most recently in the Cauvery delta where the target was the proposed coal-bed methane extraction project. Before that was the protracted agitation against the nuclear power complex at Koodankulam.
What links the three protests where people rose up as one in protest has been the reluctance of the State and the Centre in the initial days to consult and explain what the projects are about. This is a vacuum that is quickly filled with suspicions and conspiracies.
According to former IAS officer M G Devasahayam, any such project should start with consultation, without which the government work would lack the basic democratic idea of governance - development from below.
“This is not being done for any major project. Neduvasal, for instance, is an area with large farm tracts and dense population which already has a vibrant economy. You must have very strong reasons to disturb that as there will be an economic impact and an agricultural impact. These reasons must be put forth before the people,” Devasahayam said.
This public hearing, mandatory in proposals that could have an impact on the environment, is seldom organised, and in those rare cases where it is, the facts of the projects are not shared fully with the people.
“The government and its machinery have failed to analyse and understand the impact of any project. Academic institutions like IIT and Anna University have also failed in this,” Devasahayam asserted.
Agreeing with the allegation that stakeholders’ meetings are often just an eyewash, Prof A R Venkatachalapathy of the Madras Institute of Developmental Studies (MIDS) outlined how the local people would become aware of the impact of a project much later. He puts the blame on politicians and bureaucrats who presume they know what will be best for the people and are thus keen on leading the masses instead of following their duty of listening to them.
“Such neglect forces the public to resort to drastic steps like agitation to get the government’s attention,” he added.
Even where the Union government proposes a project, the concerns over land, water, livelihood, and law and order are issues dealt with by the State government. It simply cannot claim helplessness, opines Prof Ramu Manivannan from the University of Madras.
“In my view, the State government plays hide and seek on the issue. It cannot shirk its responsibility. Such a big project cannot be executed without the consent of the government here. The Centre-State relationship is not so imbalanced or unequal that the Centre can force it on us... There is a lack of application of legal and constitutional provisions. That is the real crisis here,” he said.
Experts agree that laying down specific guidelines for the public consultation process, especially in cases such as the hydrocarbon extraction and nuclear energy, and ensuring strict compliance, holds the key to address the trust deficit.