Mumbai / New Delhi: The waters surrounding the controversial Adams Bri-dge project are growing murkier. This week, the shipping ministry placed the project’s chairman and managing director, N.K. Raghupathy, on two months’ leave. Until further notice, Chennai Port Trust chairman K. Suresh has been asked to look after the Sethusamudram project.
Union shipping secretary A.K. Mohapatra confirmed that the ministry has asked Raghupathy to go on leave for two months, but declined to explain why.
“Who is going to tell you why he has been asked to go on leave?” he asked Mint.
He also refused to say if the abrupt changes meant that the project, which has been the target of religious and environmental groups, was also being put on hold.
Raghupathy, who is said to be travelling, couldn’t be rea-ched for comment. His mobile phone had been switched off.
A person familiar with the project said the change was made after shipping minister T.R. Baalu concluded that Raghupathy had made unrealistic projections about rates of return as well as costs. The minister has come under criticism as the project costs have escalated to Rs3,400 crore, almost double the original estimate, said this same person, who did not want to be named.
Part of the problem also stems from Raghupathy’s insistence that the public sector Dredging Corp. of India, which did not have the requisite technology to dredge the waters, be used, said this person. Two dredging seasons have gone by without the work having been carried out, this person added.
Phones for the government subsidiary in charge of the project, Sethusamudram Corp. Ltd, appear to be disconnected. A man who identified himself simply as Sheshadari, the superintendent officer of the project, said, “Mr Raghupathy has already left. We have been working so hard, from morning nine to late in the evening every day for the last two years. Now I don’t know what is going to happen.”
The bridge, dubbed Ram Sethu by some who believe it was built for Ram, the mythical Hindu king, has attracted the attention of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).
Claiming that the bridge is from the time of the Ramayana, the VHP had threatened a major campaign against the project, which was launched by the ruling Congress party in 2005, citing an “attack on Hindu culture”.
The VHP had made these claims on the basis of pictures taken by Nasa, the US agency that has been mapping the earth for several decades.
But Nasa, responding to a request from Sethusamudram Corp., wrote in a recent email that its pictures suggest that the bridge—made of sand bars or small islets connecting India and Sri Lanka—was of “a variety of natural geological processes and their occurrence is not evidence of any human activity.”
Even though Raghupathy had held a press conference earlier this week to say he was handing over the project to Suresh, his personal secretary Murugesan maintained on Thursday that the departure was “personal leave.”
The sunken bridge between Dhanushkodi in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka is being dredged to create a canal to shorten shipping distances. Now, ships from Kolkata to Mumbai must go around Sri Lanka, meaning more time and money.
Opposition to the project is varied. Some fishermen, for instance, say they will lose their livelihoods, while environmentalists say rare species in the waters will be at risk.
Venkatesh Abdeo, the VHP’s all India joint secretary, didn’t pay much heed to Raghupathy’s removal.
“It’s just politics,” he said. “The ministry is bent on breaking the bridge and, maybe, Raghupathy was not cooperating,” he said. “Or maybe they are feeling a little pressure. The VHP andolan (protest) will bring it to its knees.”