The Indian government’s decision, earlier this year, to allow the exploration and development of three oil and gas blocks off the Kanniyakumari coast, under the provisions of the Hydrocarbon Exploration and Licencing Policy (HELP) of 2016, has left fish workers in the districts of Kanniyakumari and Thirunelveli in Tamil Nadu and Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam in Kerala, concerned about their livelihoods.

Experts who have studied the sensitive marine region have confirmed that the proposed mega-oil exploration could have a detrimental effect on the ecosystem of Wadge Bank. Industrial activity and pollution from oil exploration could have unpredictable consequences for the ocean ecosystem. According to the Notice Inviting Offers (NIO) issued by the Union Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gases, three blocks with a total area of 27,154 square kilometres on the Kanniyakumari coast would be brought under the programme.

  • Undertaking oil exploration in the Wadge Bank will impact the biodiversity of the sensitive marine region and the livelihoods of numerous fish workers in the southernmost districts of India, spread in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, say experts.
  • Wadge Bank is a vast oceanic area located in the far south covering an impressive expanse of 10,000 square kilometres and renowned for being the country’s largest source of fish varieties.
  • The region contains numerous reef systems that serve as habitats for over 200 rare fish species and over 60 other kinds of aquatic organisms.

M.G. Devasahayam, a retired civil service officer and an environmental activist in Tamil Nadu has noted that the Wadge Bank is vital to livelihoods and a source of nutrient-rich food and oil exploration could destroy the fragile ecosystem, pushing the fishing community into extreme poverty. Devasahayam has written to the Union Fisheries Department and the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, requesting they withdraw the exploration bids.

Wadge Bank rich in biodiversity, abundant fishery resource

According to marine science experts, Wadge Bank is a 10,000-square-kilometre submarine plateau in the country’s far south. Rich in biodiversity, it’s considered India’s most abundant fishery resource. It has minimal movement regarding currents, waves, and tides, which creates optimal conditions for accumulating nutrients and fish food.

Studies have compared it to a storage facility and a feeding house for fish. Furthermore, multiple reef systems exist in this region, which are home to over 200 varieties of rare fish species and more than 60 kinds of other aquatic organisms. As it is a productive coastal area where three water bodies, the Indian ocean, the Arabian sea and the Bay of Bengal, meet, and tides create a rich fishing ground from May to October every year, fish workers from Tamil Nadu and southern Kerala treat it as their treasure trove for generations.

Ocean’s ecosystem may be negatively impacted

According to A. Bijukumar, a noted marine scientist and head of the Department of Aquatic Biology and Fisheries at Kerala University, oil exploration in the Wadge Bank region could have devastating effects on the livelihoods and resources of the area’s fishing communities. He said that industrial activity and the pollution brought on by oil exploration could have a significant negative impact on the ocean ecosystem.

According to the 1976 agreement between India and Sri Lanka, Wadge Bank is located south of Kanniyakumari, between latitudes 7°10 and 8°00’N and longitudes 76°40’E and 78°00’E, and outside the country’s territorial waters. The region’s seabed is made up of sand with rocky spots and is rich in natural resources other than fisheries. The agreement also allows India’s union government to explore the area’s oil and natural gas reserves.

According to the maritime boundary agreements between the two countries, the Wadge Bank lies within India’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), giving the Union government sovereign rights over the region and its resources. The agreement prohibits Sri Lankan fishermen and vessels from fishing in the Wadge Bank, while granting India the right to explore the area for petroleum and other minerals.

However, marine scientists such as S Lazarus, who heads the Nagercoil-based Institute of Environmental Research and Social Education, have expressed concern about the impact of oil exploration on marine ecosystems. Lazarus believes that targeting such sensitive areas for oil development could have disastrous consequences for tradition, employment, and livelihoods.

Efforts being made to prevent oil exploration in the area

A. Mariadasan, the leader of the fish workers in Kanniyakumari and Thirunelveli, acknowledges that challenging such a large project would be tough for the less privileged fish workers and the numerically weak marine scientists and environmental activists of the region.

However, he hopes that the Tamil Nadu government, which fought and won a protracted war against unscientific oil exploration attempts in the Kaveri delta region, will not allow oil exploration in the Wadge Bank. He has sent a memorandum to all political parties in Tamil Nadu, seeking their efforts to prevent oil exploration in the area.

According to marine researcher Kumar Sahayaraju, who hails from the fishing community of southern Kerala, the Wadge Bank is a unique conservation site and one of only 20 such highly important regions worldwide. “Any destruction of the Wadge Bank could have disastrous effects on the fish wealth of both Tamil Nadu and Kerala,” he said. “The region has reported the presence of 44 elasmobranch species, including two species of sharks and two species of rays, under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List Endangered Category. It is a fertile fishing ground with rich marine biodiversity.”.

Bijukumar added that the Wadge Bank serves as a critical biodiversity hotspot and a vital support system for both the local fisheries and the broader marine ecosystem of the region. Any disruption to these resources due to oil and gas drilling could have devastating economic consequences, depriving local populations of their primary source of income and exacerbating poverty and food insecurity in the region.

“Oil and natural gas drilling inherently carry environmental risks, including oil spills, habitat destruction, and pollution,” he added. The sensitive nature of Wadge Bank’s ecosystem should be considered before venturing into oil and natural gas drilling in this delicate ecosystem. The Wadge Bank has a rich tapestry of marine life, including numerous fish species, corals, and other marine organisms. The fisheries of sharks and carangids are of special importance; they sustain the fisheries of traditional fish workers in the region. The area serves as a crucial breeding ground, nurturing marine biodiversity that sustains local fisheries and the wider marine food web.”

S.P. Udayakumar, a conservation activist from Kanniyakumari, said that the fisheries in Wadge Bank are crucial for the survival of coastal communities in India and Sri Lanka. “These communities depend on the rich marine resources, including fish, for their livelihoods and food,” he said. “The drilling of oil and gas in this area could significantly reduce these resources, which could have severe economic consequences,” said A.P. Lipton, retired Principal Scientist and Head of the Marine Biotechnology Division at the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), said that allowing oil and gas drilling in Wadge Bank would worsen our dependence on harmful fuels and contribute to climate change, further endangering marine ecosystems through rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and other climate-related impacts. “Wadge Bank is not just a resource to be exploited, but a treasure trove of biodiversity and heritage that must be protected for future generations,” he added.

The fish workers’ collectives in Kanyakumari and Thirunelveli have already launched a campaign, including advertisements in newspapers, to educate people about the need to protect Wadge Bank from oil exploration.

Election heat

Katchatheevu Island, located off the coast of Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu, was at the centre of a political dispute just before the first phase of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections when, on March 31, in a post on X (formerly known as Twitter), India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the then Congress-led government “callously gave away Katchatheevu”, a strategically important island, to Sri Lanka.

However, experts on foreign policy and marine diversity clarified in the subsequent informed discussions that the then-union government had recognised Katchatheevu as a Sri Lankan territory only after ensuring control of the nearby, resource-rich deep-sea fishing grounds of Wadge Bank.

In 1974, India recognised Katchatheevu as Sri Lanka’s territory and gave up claims on the rocky, uninhabited island which is over 1.6 kilometres long and a little over 300 metres wide. In another two years, Sri Lanka withdrew its long-pending claim over Wadge Bank through a bilateral agreement recognising India’s sovereignty in the fishing-rich area.

The agreement proved beneficial for Indian fish workers who wanted to use the resources of the unique marine region located close to the country’s southernmost edge, Kanniyakumari.