In rough waters

Print edition : January 14, 2005

The Sethusamudram Canal Project, envisaged to provide a continuous navigable route between the east and west coasts of India, is the subject of heated debate in Tamil Nadu.

recently in Rameswaram

Fisherfolk sorting the catch at Dhanushkodi. They fear that they will be evicted from their homes once the dredged spoil of the canal is dumped on the shores.-K. GANESAN

THE Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project (SSCP), which envisages dredging a shipping canal that will connect the Gulf of Mannar with the Bay of Bengal through the Palk Bay, thereby providing a continuous navigable route between the east and west coasts of India within its own territorial waters, is once again a fiercely debated issue in Tamil Nadu. Fishermen of the coastal districts of Ramanathapuram and Tuticorin, who had earlier seen it as "a dream project", fear the proposed alignment of the canal will dispossess them of their traditional livelihood. Environmentalists say the project could turn the Gulf of Mannar, a biologist's paradise, into a purgatory.

The public hearings convened to elicit opinion on the project have ended in fracas. At Ramanathapuram, participants threw chappals and chairs at one another. A local All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leader alleged that the police chased away fishermen who wanted to take part in the hearing. At Nagapattinam and Tiruvarur, the public hearings were inconclusive because participants traded hot words.

The Tuticorin Port Trust, the nodal agency for the project, sees it as beneficial to different sections of people in Tamil Nadu. It believes the project would save time and fuel for ships, develop fishing harbours and minor ports, and transform southern Tamil Nadu into an industrial hub.

India does not have within in its territorial waters a continuous navigable route around the peninsula because of a shallow ridge called Adam's Bridge at a depth of 1.5-3 metres in the sea between the Pamban island near Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu and Talaimannar in Mannar district of Sri Lanka. This sandstone reef impedes the movement of ships. As a result, ports such as Kolkata, Paradip, Visakhapatnam and Chennai on the east coast and Mumbai and Kandla on the west coast are linked with Tuticorin by sea only by ships going around Sri lanka. This entails an additional distance of 400 nautical miles and time of 36 hours. Legally, opponents of the project seem to be losing their case. On December 17, the Madras High Court made observations in favour of the project while dismissing a writ petition against the public hearings. The court directed the Collectors of the six coastal districts (Tuticorin, Ramanathapuram, Pudukottai, Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam) to complete the hearings speedily. The petition filed by Coastal Action Network, an organisation comprising fishermen's organisations, non-governmental organisations, environmentalists, academics and others, sought a stay on the hearings. It wanted the hearings to be declared "not in compliance with the requirements of law". The Tuticorin Port Trust filed its own petition, seeking directions to the Collectors to hold the hearings "in an orderly manner and to forward reports to the State and the Central governments forthwith".

The First Bench, comprising Chief Justice Markandey Katju and Justice N.V. Subramanian, called the Coastal Action Network petition "premature" and said it was liable to be dismissed on this ground alone. The public hearings were under way and no adverse orders had been passed against anyone. "The petitioner has rushed to this court to block a project which is in national interest," the Bench observed. It added that "the project would be of great benefit to the country because at present ships would have to go around Sri Lanka to reach the Bay of Bengal... . By dredging a canal in the Palk Strait, a huge expense and a lot of time would be saved. The distance, time and money, which will be saved by the shipping industry, can certainly augment business and traffic in the Tuticorin Port and other coastal areas." Justice Katju and Justice Balasubramanian disposed of the petition filed by the Tuticorin Port Trust, calling its prayer "an appropriate one".

The mood is grim among the fishermen of Rameswaram, Mukundarayapuram, Dhanushkodi, and Pamban in Ramanathapuram district and Thracepuram in Tuticorin district. If a substantial number of them firmly oppose the project today, it is because they fear that once the canal is a reality, it will become an unofficial boundary line on the sea between India and Sri Lanka. The catch is that it is in the Sri Lankan waters that fish thrive. The canal would seal their entry into those waters for fishing, they fear.

In Rameswaram, fishermen belonging to various associations who had gathered inside a hut near the fishing jetty, make clear their opposition to the Sethusamudram project. R. Suresh, 38, president of the Minority Communities Fishermen's Association, says, "We looked upon the canal as a dream project. But now we know the details and realise that it will ruin our livelihood."

At Pamban, some distance away, U. Arulanandam, president, Singaravelar Fishermen's Forum, calls it "an anti-fishermen project" that will "destroy a hard-working community". Like other fishermen, he suspects that the project is being implemented to enforce the international boundary line in the waters. "They are executing a scheme at a cost of Rs.2,000 crores to draw a border and tell us that we cannot cross the border to fish. This scheme will destroy the fishing community," he says.

In many hamlets, fishermen look upon the project as a ploy to drive them out of their profession. Successive governments at the Centre have acted against the interests of the Tamil Nadu fishermen, they allege. First, they gave away Katchativu to Sri Lanka. Next, when the Tuticorin New Harbour was established, rowing boats ("thoni" in Tamil), which were used for transporting goods and passengers, "became firewood". Then prawn farms were encouraged, which hit fishermen. "Now the canal project has put a question mark on our future," says K. Thomas Vas, secretary of the Country Boats Fishermen's panchayat at Thracepuram.

Environmentalists make no bones about their opposition to the project. Their fear is that if the canal is dredged, the flora and fauna of the Gulf of Mannar will become extinct. The huge quantities of sand that will be excavated will muddy the waters and block sunlight from reaching the sea bottom, killing coral reefs, pearl banks, sea grass, sea weeds, bottle-nosed dolphins, prawns, lobsters, dugongs and a variety of edible fish.

Dr. R.S. Lal Mohan, a marine scientist who worked for 14 years at the Central Marine Fisheries Institute, Mandapam, says any disturbance in the sea bottom will affect the fishing grounds and so the project will have a catastrophic effect on fisheries.

A. Mahaboob Batcha and T. Lajapathi Roy of the Society for Community Organisation Trust (SOCO Trust), Madurai, argue that the project will open a strong current between the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar and alter the water temperature in the Mandapam region. This will destroy the underwater forests.

The project has many takers, too, among the fishermen. N.J. Bose, general secretary, the Tamil Nadu Pondicherry Fishermen's Federation, is one of them. "Although the project may generate some small problems, we support it for the country's welfare. If it is harmful to fishermen's welfare, we will oppose it." The project has been hanging fire for 144 years (Commander A.D. Taylor of the British Navy first suggested in 1860 a shipping canal across the "Thonithurai peninsula" in the waters between India and Sri Lanka) but nobody uttered a word, but when it is about to be executed everybody talks about its harmful effects, according to Bose.

Bose says that there is a lot of uninformed propaganda about the project and his regret is that the State government has done nothing to clarify the issue. Nothing was done to allay the fears that thousands of homesteads in Rameswaram would be removed to make way for the ships or change the impression that ships would be moving along like a train, he says. If the issue is explained in the proper perspective to the fishermen, they will support the project."

Almost all political parties in Tamil Nadu, including the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the Congress and the two Left parties, back the project. N. Sankaraiah, Communist Party of India (Marxist) central committee member, accused the State government of playing a double game. Speaking at Pudukottai, he said that while the AIADMK government claimed that it had no objection to the scheme, it was making efforts to wreck the project. He said the canal project should protect the interest of fishermen. He called for the expansion or setting up of ports at Tuticorin, Nagapattinam, Colachel and Dhanushkodi.

Although Chief Minister Jayalalithaa claims that the credit for the project should go to the ruling AIADMK, there is a suspicion that the party's heart is not in the project. Vaiko, MDMK general secretary, alleged that the State government was instigating protests against the project.

THE National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur, submitted a techno-economic feasibility study and an environmental impact assessment report of the project in July 2004. It also suggested an alignment for the canal. The canal will originate from the Tuticorin harbour in the south and run through the Gulf of Mannar, the Palk Bay and the Palk Strait in a north and northeast direction before joining the Bay of Bengal. In other words, the canal will be dredged through the shallow waters of Adam's Bridge and the Palk Bay. Its total length will be 152 km but it needs no dredging for 78 km in the Gulf of Mannar. The canal will be 300 m wide and 6 km long in the Adam's Bridge area, and another 68 km long in the Palk Bay and the Palk Strait area. Its depth will be 12 m, to enable ships with a draught of 10.7 m to pass through. The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs approved the project on September 2, 2004, and announced the formation of Sethusamudram Corporation Limited to execute it. The Tuticorin Port Trust is the nodal agency for the project estimated to cost Rs.2,000 crores.

According to N.K. Raghupathy, Chairman of the Tuticorin Port Trust, the area to be dredged has several advantages from the environmental point of view. First, there will be no dredging in the Gulf of Mannar.. Secondly, in Adam's Bridge, only a 6 km stretch, essentially of sandstone, will be dredged, "without any loss of flora and fauna", he says. Thirdly, the canal alignment will be 6 km away from Van Tivu (island) in the Tuticorin area and 20 km away from the Shingles island, the nearest in the Rameswaram area in Adam's Bridge.

Leaders of the Country Boats Fishermen's Federation Panchayat at Thracepuram, Tuticorin.-A. SHAIKMOHIDEEN

The project envisages the construction of shore facilities. They include service jetties, slipways, a buoy yard, a repair workshop and administrative buildings in the vicinity of the Adam's Bridge area. The location of land-based structures is to be identified on the Pamban island. There are a few fishermen's hamlets at Arimunai and Dhanushkodi. "The fishermen will be displaced if the land-based facilities are planned in this area," says the NEERI report. It gives the assurance that "a proper rehabilitation plan for the fishermen at Dhanushkodi will be drawn up during the construction phase." It adds that since there will be "considerable sea-borne activity in the form of logistics and support services" during the construction, "this would have significant adverse impact on the traditional fishing activities by the licensed fisherfolk and consequently on their income levels".

When the canal becomes operational, ships will not be allowed to discharge bilge, ballast, treated sewage, solid waste, oily waste and so on in the Gulf of Mannar, the report says. A pilot will board the vessel either at Rameswaram area or at an appropriate place to navigate it through the Gulf of Mannar area up to the Bay of Bengal channel. Ships using the canal will have to pay pilotage charges. The channel will be marked by navigational lighted buoys. Ships would not be allowed to use paints and anti-corrosive agents that would cause damage to the marine organisms. Maintenance dredging of the canal will be done periodically. The dredged material will be used to reclaim degraded areas on the Pamban island, the Ramnad and Mandapam coastal stretches and in the Bay of Bengal at suitable depths to minimise the impact on the coastal areas of the Palk Bay.

According to the report, the benefits accruing from the project are reduction in time and distance travelled by ships; a saving of Rs.5.36 lakhs for every voyage; development of minor ports; a boom in coastal trade; spurt in export of marine products from the coastal districts; easy movement of coal to thermal power stations; industrial development in the southern districts; and the strengthening of national defence and security. Although the NEERI report paints a rosy picture, a number of fishermen have a diametrically opposite view. They essentially look up on it as a ploy to make them give up their profession.

What they find ludicrous is the observation that "suitable timings, apart from ship transit, will be given for fishermen to continue with their fishing activities". C. Munisamy of Mukundarayapuram, about 7 km from Rameswaram, points out that fishermen put out to sea at different times of the day during "seasons" for various fish varieties. Other fishermen fear that if they fish during the unapproved timings, they may be arrested on the charge of smuggling.

N. Kumar and, S. Ramesh of Mukundarayapuram, and K. Thomas Vas of Thracepuram voiced similar sentiments separately. According to them, they normally sail at night, drop anchor, spread their nets and go to sleep, and return with the catch in the morning. "We cannot be on the lookout for ships (when we are sleeping). If a ship collides with our boat, our boat will straightway descend into the sea," says Kumar. There are about 1,300 country boats in and around Thracepuram alone, and each supports eight fishermen. "We drop anchor in the waters where the ships would ply. If the Sethusamudram project is implemented the ships will slice our nets. When this happens, the entire fishing community will be destroyed. Can we take to any other job?" ask R. Raj, president, and F. Jeyapaul, vice-president, of the Country Boats Fishermen's Panchayat at Thracepuram.

A few hundred fishermen's families at Dhanushkodi are worried that they would not only lose their livelihood but also be dispossessed of their houses. They point to the NEERI report, which says that maintenance per year will result in a spoil of 0.1 million cubic metres. This dredged material, which will be mostly silt and clay, will not be disposed of in the sea. "Instead, it will be used to reclaim degraded areas on the Pamban island, Ramnad and Mandapam coastal stretches," it says. Part of the dredged material will be disposed of in the area that stretches between the Kothandaraswamy temple at Kothandam and Dhanushkodi, the Land's End. (Much of the Dhanushkodi island was washed away in a cyclone in 1964.)

R. Munisamy, 50, deftly removing fish from his net on the sandy beach, says: "This will not bring us any benefit. Dumping of dredge will result in the creation of mounds on the beach. How can we relocate?" Santiago Fernandes of Vercode Fishermen's Association asks, "How can we predict what will happen when you try to interfere with nature by dumping the spoil at Dhanushkodi (or Pamban)? We need a sea to fish. If you are going to dump the spoil in the sea, how can we fish? When you artificially interfere with a natural formation, the fish wealth will be ruined. We are on a precipice, poised between life and death."

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