Contentious Issues that Await Resolution
Environmental activists have adduced evidence that:
In recent months, the controversy has widened by religious activists who consider it sacrilegious to cut through / destroy / damage the Ram Setu, described in the sacred epic Ramayan”¦
- Dredging and dumping of dredged material will be catastrophic for the eco-system.
- The Gulf of Mannar is a biologically diverse coastal region and has been declared a Marine Reserve. The reserve is 180 kilometres long and 10 kilometres wide and encompasses 21 islands along the coast. It is the first marine biosphere reserve in South and Southeast Asia. It has the largest remaining beds and varieties of sea grass which in turn are the feeding grounds for endangered species – dugongs and five species of sea turtles.
- There is concern that the churning of the sediment by dredgers will smother over a hundred species of living coral reefs and generally destroy the fragile marine eco-balance of the area.
- There is concern also that the oil and marine pollution associated with shipping traffic will aggravate the ecological stress already being caused by the effluents released into the Gulf of Mannar by nearby Tuticorin’s chemical industries and the ash of its thermal power plant.
- The project will impact the fishing resources of the Gulf of Mannar.
- Human Rights activists have adduced statistics that several thousand families spread over five districts of Tamil Nadu earn their livelihood from fishing. The canal would disrupt the livelihood of thousands of fishermen and their families.
- Within Tamil Nadu, political factions are divided over the project. Indeed the ups and downs of the project have got linked with whether the Tamil Nadu faction constituting the State Government is in coalition with the political party constituting the Central Government in Delhi.
- Successive committees have revised the cost of the project upwards. In 1994, the Tamil Nadu government appointed the Pallavan Transport Consultancy Services Ltd in Chennai to appraise and revalidate a 1983 report. The new report, submitted in March 1996, further revised the project cost to Rs 760 crore for a canal deep enough for ships of 31 foot draft.
Sri Lankan views are similarly divided. In one view, reviving maritime activity in the Palk Strait will benefit the economy of Northern Sri Lanka and the opposite view is that disturbance of the ecosystem would endanger the livelihood of Sri Lankan fishermen.
In recent months, the controversy has widened by religious activists who consider it sacrilegious to cut through / destroy / damage the Ram Setu, described in the sacred epic Ramayan, as having been built by Maryada Purushottam Rama and his Vanara Army to cross over “dry-shod” into Lanka to rescue Sita from Ravana. The heat of the debate has increased when questions are asked whether there is any factual evidence that Ram ever existed?.
With elections imminent at the Central and State Government levels, it has become prudent to cool the debate.
A ship sunk in the channel would not only result in loss of life and marine pollution, but also block the channel for a prolonged period. In case of a ship being hit by a sea- mine, the Navy would need to clear the channel by mine sweeping which takes weeks.
The Government has constituted a panel of experts headed by the renowned and recent Nobel Prize awardee Dr. R K Pachauri of The Environment Research Institute (TERI) to examine whether an alternative alignment is feasible.
On 08 Aug an article appeared in the Asian Age titled “Sethu Project: A White Elephant in the Making”. Its author is a Vice Admiral who was Director General of the Coast Guard before he took over as Flag Officer Commanding in Chief of the Eastern Naval Command from where he retired a few months ago. The substantive points raised in his article are:
- “What are the security threats that the ships transiting the Sethusamudram Canal are likely to face? The LTTE has shown enormous ingenuity and fanatical determination when employing its 3,000-strong “Sea Tigers” and the smaller but suicidal “Black Sea Tigers” in seaborne attacks not far from the proposed Canal Project site. In addition, the LTTE has frequently used crude sea-mines to disrupt Sri Lankan shipping on its east coast. LTTE’s “Air Tigers” have used modified Czech-made light aircraft to carry out reasonably-accurate night bombing attacks on Sri Lankan airports. The Canal Project area falls within strike range of these aircraft. A ship sunk in the channel would not only result in loss of life and marine pollution, but also block the channel for a prolonged period. In case of a ship being hit by a sea- mine, the Navy would need to clear the channel by mine sweeping which takes weeks.
- ”Another threat to the Canal Project would be hijacking of ships by the LTTE which could be used in terror attacks to block the Canal or ports like Tuticorin, Colombo and Chennai by sinking a ship at a strategic place. In all such cases, insurance rates will go up and ships will avoid the area, thus affecting the economics of the Project.
“Can “reasonable” security be provided for the Canal Project? The answer is yes, IF (and this is a big “IF”) funds are made available to acquire additional patrol boats, maritime and fighter aircraft, helicopters, hovercraft, mine warfare vessels and shore-based radars, along with instant communications, data link and real-time intelligence. And provided we accept the possibility of collateral damage amongst the thousands of Indian fishing boats which operate in the restricted Palk Bay area. The cost of this security cover would exceed the Rs 2,400 crore capital cost of the Canal Project.
“Given the long lead time required to recruit and train additional manpower, along with building security infrastructure, this activity should have started in 2005 so that security is in place when the Canal Project becomes operational – originally, the Canal Project was to be commissioned in 2008. There is no indication that additional security requirements have been factored in the plans.”