Dr S Kalyanaraman
It is the responsibility of the Central or the State Government to promote developmental projects, while protecting the nation’s heritage and the environment. But it becomes a travesty of justice when the governments themselves seek to violate their own environmental protection regulations or disregard economic viability criteria set for projects or fail to protect national heritage monuments.
These are the key issues which are being adjudicated in the Supreme Court where the submission of arguments has been completed and the Bench has reserved judgement on the petitions seeking to declare Rama Setu as a national monument and to scrap the Sethu Samudram Channel Project (SSCP). Until the verdict is delivered, the stay order given by the SC on the SSCP project will continue.
Over 8,000 pages of evidence were provided by petitioners to the Hon’ble Supreme Court, together with the proceedings of an international seminar on scientific and security aspects of the SSCP and how it impacts the Rama Setu and on Rama Setu meeting the criteria for declaring it to be a national monument under the ‘The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958’.
In almost all Indian languages the word ‘setu’ means ‘man-made bund’. Valmiki describes the construction of Setu in detail and even provides bathymetry information about the depths of the Sethusamudram. The word ‘bund’ is derived from the word ‘bandha’ as in Setu Bandha which denotes Rama Setu.
It is unfortunate that some politicians indulge in suppressio veri and suggestio falsi political statements, to promote their pet projects. The issues have been deliberated on many fora and the consensus has been: 1) that SSCP as a navigation project does not make nautical sense, 2) that as noted by many studies SSCP does not also make ecological or economic sense and 3) that it is a national imperative to declare Rama Setu a national monument; indeed, it is world heritage since memory of Sri Ram is venerated all over the globe.
For the arguments related to SSCP, it should be noted that it is a transportation project to provide for movement of goods from west coast of India to the east coast. The objectives of a transportation project can be met without SSCP, for example, by providing for Marine Cooperatives as Special Marine Economic Zones along the coast line of India to provide for the improvement in the lives of coastal people, by building a freight corridor from Vizhinjam, Cochi and Tuticorin to Kolkata by improving the three ports as international container ports, by providing for oil/gas pipelines from the west to the east. Studies should also continue to explore the possibilities of expanding the port facilities of small ports like Cuddalore and Nagapattinam in the context of the ongoing development of a large all-weather, deep water port (with a draft of 18.5 metres), inaugurated on July 17, 2008 at Krishnapatnam in Nellore District on the East Coast of India, located 190 km. north of Chennai port.
Alternatives to SSCP have been studied for over 150 years—starting with a study in 1860 by Alfred Dundas Taylor—and all studies have concluded, including the latest study by Pachauri Committee which was set-up as per the SC directive, that the proposed sea channel is in a very ecologically sensitive marine bio-reserve and protection of the navigation vessels cannot be ensured in a very shallow (only 11 feet deep) mid-ocean channel without earth embankments and structures to retrieve vessels which run into sandbeds—of the type in use in Suez or Panama Canals. This was the primary reason why Ramasamy Mudaliar Committee in 1955 suggested a land-based passage instead of cutting through Rama Setu. They also noted that a mid-ocean passage is open to unprotected navigational hazards subject to shifting sand banks. Sethusamudram is quite shallow, with a depth of less than 10 meters across most of its extent between Tuticorin and Nagapattinam. A shallow channel of the type envisaged for SSCP would have provided for passage of only small vessels of less than 30,000 tonnes. About 95 per cent of the navigation of sea-going vessels are larger than 30,000 tonnes (including oil tankers which could reach upto 2 million tones capacity) which will continue to use the circumnavigation route around Sri Lanka. Saving in navigation time through SSCP was barely two hours between the longer route hence, the project did not make nautical sense. The Pachauri Committee declared that the SSCP project was . ”economically non-viable”, while some of the assumptions (made by the government) about the economic benefits from the project were also “over optimistic”. The Committee saw SSCP as an ecological disaster in the fragile marine economic zone.
Indian Ocean Rim – Members and dialogue partners
India should be taking the lead in forming an Indian Ocean Community (IOC) as a counterpoise to European Community and using IOC as an economic engine for growth of the Indian Ocean region of 59 nations stretching, along the Indian Ocean Rim, from Madagascar to Tasmania (Australia). An interdisciplinary team appointed by Sri Lanka in April 2013 found SSCP to be detrimental to the maritime and environmental resources of the island nation and demanded that in terms of International Law of Seas accepted by the United Nations in 1968, Sri Lanka should provide concurrence to such projects before they can be launched.
Why should Rama Setu be protected?
It should be protected because it is a monument for dharma, the global, perennial ethic, because Sri Rama is called Ramo vigrahavaan dharmah, the very embodiment of dharma. The national poet, Subrahmanya Bharati envisioned a day when Setu will be further strengthened as a causeway embankment to act as a bridge between India and Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean Community.
Detailed studies conducted by international organisations such as the IUCN recognise the Gulf of Mannar as an international priority site for many reasons including it’s biophysical and ecological uniqueness. Without the protective structure called Rama Setu which verily functions as a wall against tsunamis, the next tsunami is likely to devastate southern ports on the experience cited by Dr. Tad Murthy, a renowned tsunami expert. In a reply to a query regarding the Sethusamudram channel’s impact, he wrote, “During the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004, the southern part of Kerala was generally spared from a major tsunami… deepening the Setu Canal might provide a more direct route for the tsunami and this could impact south Kerala.”
Politicians in India should pay heed to expert advice, scrap SSCP and explore alternative transport systems and marine support systems for the coastal people. The primary responsibility of politicians is to protect the integrity of the Indian Ocean coastline and implement projects to improve the lives of the coastal people in the Indian Ocean Rim for whom the Indian Ocean is a major source of livelihood.
(The writer is President, Rameshwaram Rama Sethu Protection Movement and former Sr. Exec., Asian Development Bank)
UPA again hurting the Hindu sentiments: VHP
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad has reacted strongly over the UPA government’s move to revive the Rama Setu project. “When we say ‘Ram Mandir’, the Government says the ‘Supreme Court’. But as the issue of Sethusamudram is in the Supreme Court, the UPA’s Minister Farooq Abdullah is adamant on breaking the Rama Setu! Reviving Sethusamudram is equal to hurting the Hindus.” said VHP chief Dr Pravin Togadia on August 30. He said the protests will go on; we will go on with the project- these are the most arrogant lines by the Central Minister, said Dr Togadia. He said the “Ram Setu is our religious monument and now just because Farooq Abdullah wants to break it using Setusamudram excuse, Hindus will oppose democratically”, he added.
Move to revive the Sethusamudram project
The Sethusamudram project is back on the Centre’s agenda. The UPA government would soon file an affidavit in the Supreme Court to get a nod for the project worth about Rs 25,000 crore that was first approved eight years ago but still not implemented. The Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs (CCPA) on August 29 gave the go-ahead to file the old affidavit again.
Minister of New and Renewable Energy Farooq Abdullah on August 30 confirmed the government decision. “We have decided to take it up again… It is not about elections,” he said. “There will always be protests, but it is in our interest,” the minister added. The 167 km long canal project in the Palk Strait was approved in May 2005 but it soon ran into trouble and dredging work had to be suspended. It aims to shorten the sea route between the eastern and western coasts of India. However, various Hindu groups have opposed the project, saying it would damage the Rama Setu built during the epic Ramayana era.
Meanwhile senior BJP leader and noted Supreme Court Lawyer Dr Subramanian warned that he is resolute to fight the Centre’s decision on the project. “They can file any affidavit they want, but they will have to face me in court,” he said. The RK Pachauri Committee, appointed by the Government after the Supreme Court asked the government to explore an alternative alignment, had said that the project was unviable in all ways. The Centre’s affidavit questioning the existence of Sri Ram or Ram Setu set-off a political storm. The government was then forced to withdraw the affidavit and file a fresh one in February 2008. It sought vacation of interim orders restraining the project.