The UPA government has decided to put on hold work on the Sethusamudram project and set up a six-member committee headed by the Energy and Resources Institute Director General R.K. Pachauri to examine alternate alignments. With the Sethu issue triggering a major political row, the government seems unwilling to alienate a sizeable section of the people who revere the Ram Sethu.
The committee, constituted by the government was in response to the Supreme Court'squery whether the Centre was considering the feasibility of studying alternate routes for the project.
Conveying the Centre'sresponse to the apex court, senior advocate and Centre'sspecial counsel Fali S. Nariman submitted a letter written to him by Cabinet Secretary K.M. Chandrashekhar informing the decision to constitute an expert committee that will study all possible alternate routes, including the route cutting through the portion between Dhanushkodi and Lands End on Rameshwaram Island, suggested as an alternative by the court.
?The committee has been asked to submit its report as quickly as possible,? said the communication addressed to Nariman, following the letter written by him to the Prime Minister'sOffice.
Besides Nobel laureate and renowned environmental scientist Pachauri, the committee comprises T. Chakrabarti (acting Director, National Environmental Engineering Research Institute), S.R. Shetye (Director, National Institute of Oceanography), S. Kathiroli (Director, National Institute of Oceanography), Rear Admiral B.R. Rao (Chief Hydrographer to Government of India) and P.M. Tajale (Director General, Geological Survey of India). Tamil Nadu Government'sPrincipal Secretary (Environment and Forests) and Ramanathapuram District Collector have been included as special invitees.
The committee has been asked to ?quickly? examine the suggestion given by the court in view of the technical aspects, cost benefit analysis, social and cultural impact, environmental impact, law and order aspect and other related matters.
The Bench comprising Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan and Justices R.V. Raveendran and J.M. Panchal decided to await the report of the committee following which the matter would be posted for hearing. The Bench concluded hearing arguments of the Centre and the petitioners and reserved judgement on the petitions pending before it.
The Ram Sethu is a 48-kilometer-long chain of limestone shoals that once linked Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu with Mannar in Sri Lanka'snorthwest. Many Hindus believe that it was the bridge Lord Rama'sarmy built to cross over to Lanka to rescue his wife Sita.
The bridge faces some damage due to the dredging for the Sethusamudram canal to create a navigable waterway between India'ssouthern tip and Sri Lanka.
Several petitioners doubted the independence of the committee as it largely comprised government officials. In this regard, they suggested the court should pass directions to allow petitioners to interact with the committee members and to expand the committee to include religious leaders as well.
The Bench dismissed this suggestion after Nariman pointed out a clause in the notification permitting the committee to ?co-opt any other experts or institutions? to facilitate in their work. When one of the advocates representing the petitioners wanted to show a publication in support of his argument on Ram Sethu, the Bench shot back, ?We are not enamoured by such publications. All publications are of 2007-08.?
The Bench even hit out against the petitioners moving the court as late as in 2007 whereas the environmental clearance for the project was obtained in March 2005. ?All of a sudden the petitions are filed. What were you doing for two years,? the Bench asked. Advocate Krishnan Venugopal suggested that this argument cannot be held against the petitioners at the threshold stage of arguments as the case before the court is entirely on merits. He referred to one of the petitions filed in 2004 and explained that the delay was inevitable since the NEERI report on the project along with the notifications issued by the Centre were difficult to procure.
Senior advocate K. Parasaran representing another petitioner argued that the assertion that Lord Rama destroyed the Sethu as stated in Kambh Ramayan, was an interpolation of the original text. The same text later records the sanctity attached to Sethu despite the same being broken. All the religious texts (Puranas) are equivocal in recognising the sanctity of the Sethu and till 1964, it was a pilgrimage centre for several devotees, he added.