Modi government’s attempt to explore gas and oil in biodiversity-rich Wadge Bank roils the Kanniyakumari LS election | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Modi government’s attempt to explore gas and oil in biodiversity-rich Wadge Bank roils the Kanniyakumari LS election

Apr 11, 2024 09:06 PM IST

Local activists say oil and gas exploration in Wadge Bank could destroy fish workers’ livelihoods and have a detrimental effect on the region’s ecosystem.

The Narendra Modi government’s decision to allow the exploration and development of three oil and gas blocks in the biodiversity-rich Wadge Bank by utilising provisions under the Hydrocarbon Exploration and Licencing Policy (HELP) of 2016 is emerging as the most significant electoral issue in Kanniyakumari, mainland India’s southernmost Lok Sabha constituency.

Wadge Bank is an ocean region in the far south that spans 10,000 square kilometres and is considered the country’s most abundant fisheries resource.(K A Shaji) PREMIUM
Wadge Bank is an ocean region in the far south that spans 10,000 square kilometres and is considered the country’s most abundant fisheries resource.(K A Shaji)

Wadge Bank is an ocean region in the far south that spans 10,000 square kilometres and is considered the country’s most abundant fisheries resource.

Renowned for its wide variety of marine organisms, the area has minimal movement in terms of currents, waves, and tides, creating optimal conditions for accumulating nutrients and fish food.

If implemented, mega-oil exploration would have a detrimental effect on the region’s ecosystem, which would result in a significant threat to the livelihoods of fish workers in the districts of Kanniyakumari and Thirunelveli in Tamil Nadu, several local activists told us. It would also significantly impact the fish workers who are traditionally associated with the Vizhinjam and Neendakara fish landing centres in Kerala.

Speaking to Hindustan Times, environmental activist and former civil service officer MG Devasahayam, who is originally from Kanniyakumari, stated that he has already written a series of letters to the Union fisheries department and the ministry of petroleum and natural gas, requesting that they withdraw the bids that have been proposed for the exploration.

Devasahayam alleges that the Union government is pursuing oil exploration without conducting mandatory advanced research. He says that any action of this nature can only be made after conducting an appropriate environmental and economic impact assessment and consulting with the people likely to be impacted by the project.

In a request to the Secretary of the Union Fisheries Department to intervene and ensure that the fundamental requirements were met before proceeding, Devasahayam stated that the Wadge Bank was one of the few places in the world that possessed such a high level of biodiversity and that it served as the primary source of marine resources for fishermen in the southern regions adjacent to Kanniyakumari.

“Oil exploration could destroy all the livelihood options of the fishing community in this part of the country, and as a result, they would land in poverty and deprivation,” said Devasahayam. Besides, he said that industrial activity and pollution caused by oil exploration could ravage the ocean ecosystem, leading to unpredictable consequences.

Nazareth Basilian of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Maria Jennifer of the Naam Thamizhargal Katchi are the two Lok Sabha election candidates from the fishing community, which has considerable sway in the Kanniyakumari constituency.

They accuse Pon Radhakrishnan, the Kanyakumari candidate of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and sitting Congress MP Vijay Vasanth of ignoring the vexed issue, citing that the two hail from outside the coastal communities and maintaining a vote base devoid of fish workers. Both are once again in the fray in Kanniyakumari. Meanwhile, Jennifer and Basilian have turned the oil exploration bid in the Wadge Bank into a key campaign issue, and the prime contenders are now being forced to address it.

When Modi amplified a Right to Information reply obtained by BJP Tamil Nadu unit president K Annamalai on the Katchatheevu island, by accusing the erstwhile Indira Gandhi-led Congress government of “callously giving away” the strategic island to Sri Lanka and creating a political storm, Congress defended the handing over by saying the country received sovereign rights over Wadge Bank by doing so.

Tamil Nadu Congress spokesperson Dr P Senthil said the Indira Gandhi government ensured environmental and livelihood protection by signing a treaty with Sri Lanka on sovereign rights over the sensitive marine region. He also said Congress is committed to protecting Wadge Bank for the benefit of the fishing communities. Senthil said Congress is making it a campaign issue in Kanniyakumari, and Vijay Vasanth himself has sought to repeal the permission for oil exploration.

In February of this year, the Directorate of Hydro-Carbon under the Union Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Resources announced a notice inviting offers to explore and develop oil and gas blocks in the Wadge Bank region.

“Wadge Bank was the mainstay of marine resources for fisherfolks of the southern districts of India. The livelihoods of the local communities must be protected at any cost," said SP Udayakumar, writer and anti-nuclear activist who works in the local fishing community. "We are approaching all candidates in the Kanniyakumari constituency, seeking their intervention to get the bidding for these three blocks cancelled. It should not be proceeded with further,” hed added.

According to Devasahayam, there are a handful of wadge banks worldwide, one of which is situated southwest of the shore of Kanniyakumari. “It is comparable to a storage facility, a feeding house for the fish, and there are multiple reef systems in this region, which are home to more than sixty different kinds of aquatic species and more than two hundred different species of exceptional fish,” he says.

S. Lazarus of the Nagercoil-based Institute of Environmental Research and Social Education said marine life ecosystems are often overlooked, as they are not seen as a top priority for offshore-based projects. He said the Wadge Bank was an invaluable treasure that indigenous people and communities depended on for food and resources important to their culture.

“Targeting these sensitive places for oil development is like cutting a golden egg-laying duck. This would destroy tradition, employment and livelihoods,” he added.

As per the 1976 India-Sri Lanka agreement on the maritime boundary between the two countries, the Wadge Bank falls within India’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and the agreement states that India “shall have sovereign rights over the area and its resources.'' Under the pact, Sri Lankan fishermen and vessels cannot currently fish in the Wadge Bank. The pact also solidified India’s right to explore the Wadge Bank for petroleum and other mineral resources.

Though the BJP unit in Kanniyakumari has not yet addressed the issue, leaders contacted by Hindustan Times said the union government was just attempting to implement a key provision in the agreement signed by Indira Gandhi as it would benefit the country’s oil self-sufficiency. The leaders, who preferred anonymity, said rival parties are misleading the fish workers, and oil exploration would not cause any livelihood crisis for them.

Kanniyakumari constituency, which shares a border with Thiruvananthapuram district in Kerala, has always been a bastion of the national parties. With Congress and BJP emerging as the lead players of the constituency, Tamil Nadu's ruling DMK and principal opposition AIADMK were pushed to the third and fourth spots.

Christians, who form over 40 per cent of the electorate, side with the Congress. Hindus, especially Nadars and Pillais, largely formed the support base of the BJP, which won an assembly seat in the district as early as 1996.

BJP wrested the seat (formerly Nagercoil) from the Congress for the first time in 1999 in an alliance with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam but lost every other election till it emerged victorious in the Lok Sabha election in 2014.

It eventually ceded the seat to the Congress in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and again in the 2021 by-elections. The constituency, consisting of the Kanniyakumari, Nagercoil, Colachel, Vilavancode, Padmanabhapuram and Killiyoor assembly segments, has a total of 15.57 lakh voters, with women accounting for 7.80 lakh.

Congress has fielded incumbent MP Vijay Vasanth, son of late businessman H Vasanthakumar. The BJP has relied on its well-known face, Pon Radhakrishnan, who lost to the father and son in 2019 and 2021 –both Hindus and belonging to the entrepreneurial Nadar caste.

While the two parties will undoubtedly get their core votes this time as well, the million-dollar question is whether the likely split of votes of fish workers aggrieved by the Wadge Bank issue, who are predominantly Christians, between AIADMK and NTK will hurt the Congress this time or whether the national party will ward off the challenge.

One major advantage for Congress here is its alliance with Tamil Nadu’s ruling DMK, which fought and won a protracted war against unscientific oil exploration attempts in the Cauvery Delta region by the first Narendra Modi Government. The DMK has already said it would not allow oil exploration in Wadge Bank.

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