The Rajasthan Pollution Control Board had issued an advertisement in local papers on July 30, calling for a public hearing ahead of the grant of environmental clearance to Cairn Oil and Gas, a vertical of Vedanta Limited, the largest oil and gas exploration and production company in India, for exploring oil and gas in six blocks in Sindhari, Chohtan, Dhorimanna, Gudamalani, Bayatu and Shiv. Barmer is the site of the country’s largest onshore oil block.
However, farmers have called for postponement of the hearing scheduled to be held on Monday, August 31. They fear the exploration will affect productivity of their land.
Under notifications issued by the Union Environment Ministry in 2006, such public hearings are mandatory for undertaking such work, and notice of these must be issued 30 days in advance.
This time, given the unusually heavy rain and fear of the spread of the pandemic, public hearings are scheduled to be held via video conference, and officials are to gather for this at the panchayat samiti office in each of these villages.
In a letter addressed to local district officials, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and copied to the Prime Minister’s Office, authorities at the pollution control boards at the Centre and state and ground water departments at the Centre and state, the farmers, under the umbrella of the Kisan Sangharsh Samiti, said that in this time of pandemic, when there are also activities to be carried out in the fields, there is little chance of people actually taking part in the proceedings scheduled for Monday.
Also, since newspapers are not being delivered regularly in many parts of Barmer district ever since the lockdown, several people only learned about the public hearing some 20 days after the advertisement was issued.
The farmers have suggested that the hearing should ideally be conducted in December or January, when the worst phase of the pandemic is likely to be over, the monsoon would have ended and activities in the fields won’t be at their height.
In the letter, the farmers also listed complaints they had earlier taken to the pollution control authorities against Cairn, which had not yet been addressed.
One of the complaints is that hazardous chemicals are being pumped out because of Cairns’ exploration activities, and productivity of the land is also declining.
Surface water in areas where Cairn operates is polluted, and can no longer be used in agriculture or for cattle, the farmers said, adding that as chemical fluids overflow into their land, areas where agriculture was once possible, had turned barren.
Water has become brackish near the Mangla oilfields, spread over 3,000 sq km in the district, said the farmers, adding that locals can no longer depend on water sources in their villages. The district collector had instructed Cairn to make water available to villagers in Chokhla and Kangi Ka Tala and other villages, but this is not being done, they alleged.
The letter also highlighted that it had become to keep livestock in good health in these villages, as the water sources were polluted and chemical waste from the oil sites lie unattended in open area. Wildlife and cattle face heightened risk, and mortality has risen, the farmers alleged.
The complaints also listed cutting of trees without proper permission, with no compensation being offered for the loss of tree cover. Even Khejri and Rohida trees, that are the pride of Rajasthan, were being felled.
On January 17 this year, Hindi newspaper Dainik Bhaskar carried a report saying that corporate social responsibility funds from Cairn were being used to plant trees. In eight years, over Rs 20 crore was spent, but the trees that were planted did not survive. Many trees were cut near the bed of River Luni, which flows through parts of Barmer district during the monsoon but dries up through several months each year.
The local residents have also complained that explosives used in the exploration process were damaging their houses, with some saying that cracks had appeared on walls but no compensation has been offered or repairs carried out. People living in the area also cited tremors and vibrations, but the district authorities have not paid any heed to their concerns.
The farmers also pointed out that land occupied and later abandoned by Cairn India was no longer fit for cultivation, and this matter too had been raised in the past but the villagers have got no relief. They said there were 68 abandoned sites in the district.
Barmer is a desert area with huge water scarcity, and the oil wells use up precious water, depriving the residents. Land acquisition laws are not been observed, and farm lands are being acquired cheaply by the company, exploiting poor and gullible farmers, said the letter, alleging that demands for fair compensation were being suppressed by intimidation and filing of FIRs against those who had lost land.
“Vedanta, through its touts, uses unfair means to keep the police and local administration from hearing the grievances of people,” the farmers added,
The farmers urged the authorities to “fix the pollution problems” first and then settle on a new date for the public hearing.
Yashovardhan Sharma, Barmer district coordinator for Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) said: “We have taken up in the past matters of pollution of local streams from careless handling of waste by Cairn. We have also recorded instances of illegal dumping of material in forest lands, putting wildlife in danger. The mortality of chinkara has gone up. The common pasturelands that have been preserved for generations, the Oran or sacred groves in the district, have been affected. We hope the voice of local farmers is heard.”
The company, however, has denied many of these charges. “Cairn is a responsible organisation, working in partnership here (Barmer)with ONGC. We have the highest domestic oil production, and we work in accordance with global standards,” a spokesperson for the firm told NewsClick. The district collector Vishraam Meena and officials of the state pollution control board did not respond to calls from this reporter.
The writer is a freelance journalist .