NEDUVASAL, TAMIL NADU: Chitra sounded hoarse after having shouted slogans through the day, protesting against the proposed hydrocarbon extraction project in their village, Neduvasal. Angry determination still lingered on her face as she walked home. But when asked for her husband’s name, her face registered disbelief that a fellow Tamil woman could ask such a question.

It is still a custom in many places where a woman does not utter her husband’s name aloud. Chitra called her college-going daughter walking ahead of her and asked the girl to give her father’s name. The likes of Chitra abounded at the Neduvasal protest site. Yet they were at the forefront of the protest. What prompted these women who seem to be still steeped in tradition to stand shoulder to shoulder with men and challenge the government’s decision?

Located in the Cauvery delta, Neduvasal and neighbouring villages of Pudukottai district in Tamil Nadu are fertile. With good ground water resources, the villagers follow a multi-crop agroforestry that brings them good yield and revenue. So, with the 15 Feb announcement that Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs had approved production of oil and gas in Neduvasal, the village erupted in protest.

When the villagers gathered near the well-known Nadiamman temple in Neduvasal, to protest the government’s decision, majority of them were women. Soon the protest spread to Vanakkan Kadu, Kottai Kadu, Nallandar Kollai and Vada Kadu villages, since these were the places where exploratory wells had been drilled a decade back. In all the villages, women were the prime force.

In Neduvasal, as activists and political supporters made speeches, the women listened intently, clapping at times, unmindful that it was 9 pm. They admitted it was not common for them to stay out that late. They had been there the whole day. While some went home for lunch, others partook of the community meal prepared at the protest venue.

At the crack of dawn, the women were busy with household chores, feeding chicken and milking cows. The typical women farmers, whose lives revolved around the farm and the home; and nothing else mattered. But now with the protests on, by 9 am, the women started trickling into the protest venue.

Once at the venue, there was complete transformation. Their collective angry energy was palpable as they shouted slogans. But it was bitterness and anguish that came through during individual conversations.

Widowed senior citizen Ayipillai tried unsuccessfully to control her tears. From the snatches of what she said, it was clear she was anxious as her livelihood and future suddenly seemed uncertain.

Kavitha Malayarasan was regretful that they had depended solely on agriculture for so many years and they had no other source of income.

Alamelu Sivaji also had reason to be worried. With no land of her own, she and her husband cultivate a leased land. “We don’t know where the project will be located. We don’t know if the land we are farming will be taken by the government. I won’t get compensation also since it’s not my land. So many uncertainties,” she said with a sad smile. Poomalai of Nallandar Kollai echoed their apprehensions.

Poomalai reminisced about the time ONGC came for exploration. “About ten years back they came and said they were going to check if kerosene was available,” she said. Working around language barriers, the villagers enquired about the project.

“They said there won’t be any problems for us. After six months or so, they left, saying they didn’t find anything. Now our village youth working in the gulf informed us about Neduvasal project, and the likely problems if work was fully started. If we are asked to move, where can we find such fertile land?” said Poomalai, pointing to the toor dhal, banana and vegetables she grows near the Nallandar Kollai bore.

Their collective and individual concerns spurred them to protest. Each ones concern was about being uprooted from their land they have inhabited for generations, loss of livelihood and the unlikely possibility of finding a similar bountiful place without water problems.

But some like Chitra had the greater interest of her neighbours and her village in mind. With her husband’s well-paying job, the income from her land that she had given on lease, did not count much. Yet she took part in the protests every day.

And it was not Neduvasal women alone, who were protesting. A group of women from Peravoorani, Viji from Keeramangalam, Selvarani from Pulichenkadu Kaikatti village and many like them participated in the protest at Neduvasal. They did so, just to show their solidarity, even though their villages would not be directly affected if the scheme was implemented. The women believed strongly in ‘united we stand’.

Since no exploratory bore was drilled in Neduvasal, the protests took place near the temple. But in other villages, the protests took place near the oil wells. The fertility of the soil was obvious as the wells were surrounded by lush green fields.

The women at Nallandar Kollai strung spring onions, banana, jack fruit, chillies, mangoes and other produce at the protest venue to showcase what their soil could bring forth. “We don’t get Cauvery water. We depend on bore wells for watering our fields. Yet we can grow any crop here, even what is grown in hilly regions,” said Valliammal of Vanakkan Kadu. “Except apple,” piped in a little girl and the others nodded. With a sweep of her hand, Valliammal pointed at the surrounding fields of varied crops. “See how blessed we are. How do they have the heart to destroy all this,” she said and broke down.

Valliammal’s tears angered the Vanakkan Kadu women more. They pointed at a big puddle of black oily substance at the ground and said, “We are not only losing our land, but our health also.” The other exploratory wells were properly sealed, but the one at Vanakkan Kadu was left open. Three years back black oil started bubbling out of the bore. Marimuthu, the owner of the land where the bore stood died of cancer.

Selvarani, Marimuthu’s daughter-in-law, who was taking part in the protest said, “He used to be at the field always. He passed away within two months of diagnosis.” The field adjacent to Marimuthu’s belongs to Arokiasamy. As he had a government job, his wife Regina took care of the farm and she too died of cancer. “10 people have died of cancer in the last two years. 15 have been diagnosed.

It’s all because of the open oil bore And Regina? She has paid with her life for giving 15 cents of her land to ONGC,” said Anjammal angrily.

Anger, anguish and hope. As a medley of emotions played out, the women’s kindness also shone through. They took turns at the community kitchen to cook and also ensured that everyone at the protest venue was fed properly.

The protesting women of Neduvasal and the neighbouring villages may not fit into the conventional image of empowered or enlightened women. If one goes by the likes of Chitra, they are not likely to be called emancipated too. But then, why confine them into such narrow definitions. For, they certainly rise above these definitions. In their own way, they are a liberated lot.

Note: The protests were called off in the third week of March when the district administration met with the protestors and assured that the project will not be implemented. But with the petroleum ministry signing the contract for the project, the villagers are planning to continue with the protest. “It is likely to start next week,” said Mangalam over phone.

(Cover Photograph R.SAMUEL)