A channel and a division

Published : Jul 29, 2005 00:00 IST

When dredging began in the Palk Straits for Sethusamudram channel. - HANDOUT PICTURE

When dredging began in the Palk Straits for Sethusamudram channel. - HANDOUT PICTURE

Work on the Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project, which will connect the Gulf of Mannar with the Palk Bay, commences with much fanfare even as fishermen stage protests and the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister raises the question of environmental clearance.

THE Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project (SSCP) became a "dream of the Tamils come true" when Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, at a public venue in Madurai on July 2, pressed the button to signal the commencement of the project, which had eluded implementation for 145 years. Simultaneously, a vessel of the Dredging Corporation of India began dredging the seabed at a point called E-4, about 45 km off Point Calimere in Tamil Nadu's Nagapattinam district. Thousands of people who had gathered at the venue at Vandiyur, a suburb of Madurai, watched on closed-circuit television screens the spectacle of volumes of mud being spewed out in an arc by the dredger.

The SSCP entails cutting a canal to connect the Gulf of Mannar with the Palk Bay in order to shorten the sea route between the east and west coasts of India. A submerged reef called the Adam's Bridge between Pamban on the Rameswaram island in Tamil Nadu and Talaimannar in Sri Lanka impedes the movement of ships between the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Bay. Consequently, ships make a detour, going around the Sri Lankan coast, to arrive at either side of the Indian coast. A channel dredged in the Palk Strait, within the territorial waters of India, would reduce not only the steaming distance but also the amount of fuel consumed by the ships.

The newly formed Sethusamudram Corporation Limited is tasked with dredging the channel. The Tuticorin Port Trust (TPT) will be the nodal agency for executing the project, with its Chairman N.K. Raghupathy as the Chairman and Managing Director of the corporation. The project cost is estimated at Rs.2,427 crores. Ships with a draught of 10 metres can traverse the 167-kilometre-long, 300-metre wide and 12-metre-deep channel. The channel will be 35 km long in the Adam's Bridge area, 54 km in the Palk Strait and 78 km in the Palk Bay. The Palk Bay requires no dredging as it has natural depth.

As many as nine proposals were mooted in the pre-Independence days (between 1860 and 1922) for cutting a channel through land across the Rameswaram island to connect the Gulf of Mannar with the Palk Bay. Commander A.D. Taylor of the British Navy first suggested in 1860 that a shipping canal should be cut across the "Thonithurai peninsula" in the waters between India and Sri Lanka. After Independence, several committees were formed to consider the feasibility of the project. Although they recommended the execution of the project, the Centre put the recommendations in cold storage.

All major political parties of Tamil Nadu - the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) - have had an emotional attachment to the project. Vaiko, MDMK general secretary, pursued the cause of the project relentlessly. The project proposal received a new lease of life on September 15, 1998, when Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee announced its implementation at a public meeting organised by the MDMK in Chennai. When the DMK joined the Congress-led United People's Alliance government at the Centre in 2004, the party's president M. Karunanidhi and its member in the Union Cabinet, Shipping, Road Transport and Highways Minister T.R. Baalu, worked hard to make the project to become a reality.

With elections to the State Assembly 10 months away, it was but natural for the entire UPA leadership from the State to participate in the inaugural event, competing for a slice of the credit for the project. But the fissures in the UPA showed up when Dr. S. Ramadoss, PMK founder, boycotted the function. He was reportedly piqued that he was not asked to speak at the function. His son and Union Minister for Health and Family Welfare, Dr. Anbumani Ramadoss, however, addressed the gathering. That Ramadoss' boycott worried the DMK leadership became evident when Baalu urged the UPA to prepare for the coming elections "without breaking up". "Everybody can take credit" for the implementation of the project "but its architect is Karunanidhi", Baalu reiterated. "Karunanidhi forged this alliance which enabled us to score this victory (inauguration of the project). If the alliance continues, we will score more victories," he said. What rankled other political parties in the State was the way the DMK tried to establish that only it had kick-started the project. The DMK in fact set about making the claim with great gusto. The party flags, welcome arches and posters hailing Karunanidhi as the driving force behind the project adorned all the major roads leading to the venue.

At a press conference at the venue on July 1, when a reporter pointed to Baalu about the predominance of DMK flags, the Minister replied that all the constituents of the UPA were stakeholders in the function. The DMK put up the party flags to welcome all the leaders the same way as the MDMK had erected welcome arches, he said. However, the DMK corrected this picture of monopoly overnight by interspersing its flags with that of the Congress.

Chief Minister and AIADMK supremo Jayalalithaa boycotted the inaugural although she was invited to be "the guest of honour". Posters released by V.V. Rajan Chellappa, former AIADMK Member of Parliament, appeared in Madurai, ridiculing the "Central-DMK Government " for organising a "pompous function" when "Tamil Nadu received no water from the Cauvery, the Centre made no investment in industries in Madurai, the price of petrol and diesel are increasing and there is no concern for the welfare of thousands of fishermen". The posters featured Jayalalithaa prominently.

Ahead of the function, a bitter feud broke out between Jayalalithaa and Baalu on the issue of environmental clearance for the project. The Chief Minister insisted that a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the State government was required before the project could be executed. She called the function "a political road show" and accused Baalu of showing "scant regard for the environmental concerns relating to this project".

"The great tragedy," she said in a long statement on June 25, was that the Ministry of Environment and Forests "has been bulldozed into according the environmental clearance even without waiting for the No Objection Certificate from the Government of Tamil Nadu although this is mandatorily required under the Regulators framed by the Ministry itself. It is shocking to see how the environmental clearance process has been subverted in the pursuit of an immediate mega function and publicity organised as a political road show."

Referring to the environmental concerns raised by the Prime Minister's Office, she said "there is a deafening silence with nobody having a clue as to how these concerns have really been addressed". The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) had appointed an experts committee to go into various aspects of the project before forwarding the proposal to the government to give the NOC. She said the committee, headed by Dr. M. Ravindran, former Director of the National Institute of Ocean Technology, and had reached certain specific conclusions and submitted its report to the TNPCB. "It has warned that further detailed studies are necessary before going ahead with the project ... This committee has categorically concluded that the Environmental Impact Assessment report prepared by the NEERI [National Environmental Engineering Research Institute] has a number of deficiencies," she added.

There was "restlessness among fishermen that their entire livelihood would fall a prey to the dredger which would dig up the sea floor... I am greatly concerned by what might actually befall the fishermen in several coastal districts of Tamil Nadu," the Chief Minister said.

EVEN as Manmohan Singh inaugurated the project, fishermen in the State's coastal districts were on the warpath. In Madurai, hundreds of fishermen held a black-flag demonstration. The police arrested 31 fishermen who boarded a bus in Nagapattinam to go to Madurai to protest against the project. Fishermen in more than 100 boats, flying black flags, put out to sea from Mallaipattinam and Sethubavachatram. Rameswaram was tense. The leaders of the fisher community went underground, fearing arrest.

The Movement Against Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project, a grouping of non-governmental organisations headed by the Coastal Action Network, called the project "unscientific, economically unviable ... and being rushed through in an undemocratic manner". Its members said the environmental clearance given by the Union Ministry based on a "rapid" EIA (from NEERI) was unscientific. The public hearings on the project faced stiff resistance from the fishing community, they claimed. The Gulf of Mannar Biosphere, Point Calimere, the Palk Strait, the Adam's Bridge, the Great Vedaranyam Swamp and other ecologically sensitive areas, protected by the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, 1991, would face irrevocable damage, they said.

Sanjiv Gopal, oceans campaigner of Greenpeace India, said in a press release that the Gulf of Mannar region, with over 3,600 known species of fauna and flora, was home to rare and endangered species such as marine turtles, dolphins, dugongs and whales. "The biodiversity of this region is already under threat owing to intensive, indiscriminate trawling, coral mining and dynamite fishing. If the SSCP is allowed, it will completely destroy the fragile marine ecology of the area," he said. Greenpeace India questioned the claims regarding the benefits from the project. While SSCP supporters claimed that the canal would save a sailing time of 25 to 30 hours for a ship, realistic calculations showed that the actual time saved would be only eight to 12 hours, Greenpeace India said. It added that pilotage and toll charges would offset any cost savings.

With opposition from fishermen gathering strength, speakers at the function took care to stress that fishermen's interests would be protected. Manmohan Singh called the project "the fulfilment of a sacred assurance we gave the people of this country", but at the same time urged the project authorities to be "mindful of the marine environment of the channel ". He said: "We will also protect the livelihood of fishermen." Sonia Gandhi stressed that "fishermen need our care and concern, and we must make sure that their interests are protected." Karunanidhi, who called it a "sweet day", promised that the project would be implemented taking into account the interests of fishermen. CPI(M) State secretary N. Varadarajan underlined the fears of fishermen and suggested that a portion of the project cost could be set apart for their welfare. Vaiko alleged that the AIADMK instigated fishermen against the project.

Baalu, who had borne the brunt of the environmentalists' and the AIADMK's attacks, reacted sharply to Jayalalithaa's allegation that he had shown "scant regard" to the environmental aspects. "I am neither naive nor foolhardy," he said, and pointed out that the Centre was answerable not only to the country but to environmentalists the world over with regard to the marine ecology of the area. He asserted: "I don't require any NOC from the State government." The TNPCB conducted public hearings twice in six coastal districts and the Tuticorin Port Trust made available all the relevant records at the hearings. "The TPT followed transparent procedures. But nobody knew about the setting up of an experts' committee, headed by Dr. Ravindran, to go into the environmental aspects of the project," Baalu said. The TPT was not given an opportunity to place its views before this committee, he said. Baalu claimed that genuine fishermen were not opposed to the project. Jayalalithaa's allegations were politically motivated and aimed at sabotaging the century-old dream of Tamils, he remarked.

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