New Delhi: Despite a pending Supreme Court challenge and seemingly weakening resolve within the Congress party to push for the Sethusamudram ship canal project, Union shipping minister T.R. Baalu says he is optimistic about the prospects of the controversial Rs2,600 crore project.
Right-wing Hindu organizations, including the principal opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have been opposing the project as they say it would destroy the walkway believed to have been built by Hindu god Ram.
In a rare interview, the minister, who represents the powerful Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in the ruling United Progressive Alliance, brushed aside opposition to the project on the grounds of faith, security, utility, viability or politics. He pointed out that it was the previous BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre which had cleared the project, including the specific alignment it was now opposing.
Troubled waters: The problem in this issue is to decide between faith and science, shipping minister T.R. Baalu says. (PIB)
Baalu exuded confidence that the project would resume as it had been cleared by the Union cabinet, which had also set time-bound targets. At the same time, in a not-so-veiled threat, he warned that it was up to the Congress party to decide whether it wanted to continue ruling at the Centre with the help of the DMK, which has 16 Lok Sabha members. Edited excerpts:
Has the government decided to go slow on the Sethusamudram project?
The highest authority in the country, the Union cabinet, has directed me to go ahead with the project, provided funds and set targets. When there is a target given by the cabinet, how does the question of going slow arise? Because of legal issues, some work has been stalled. But as soon as I get the necessary clearances I will go ahead with the project.
Don’t you think the Congress is doing a rethink on the project, in view of the upcoming assembly elections in key states in the north, where the BJP can exploit the issue?
The Congress is totally for this project. Don’t base your views on what some people in the party might say. We have absolutely no friction with the Congress on this issue. My leader (DMK chief and Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi) has full confidence in madam (Congress president Sonia Gandhi).
Yet, the Congress has made it clear that it does not want to hurt the feelings of any community on this account.
Nobody, under the leadership of Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and M. Karunanidhi, will do anything to meddle with the sentiments of the faithful. The UPA is more secular than the entire opposition. When we believe in secularism, where is the question of hurting the sentiments of any community? But let me add that those who are opposing this project will have to face the people during elections and their political careers will be ruined. If I oppose the project, I will have to pay the price as well. The 40 Lok Sabha seats of Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry have decided the fate of this government. The only thing to decide is whether you (the Congress) want to survive with the party or not. It is a question of ‘to be or not to be’.
Don’t you think the BJP can exploit this issue in the upcoming elections? So, doesn’t the Congress have valid political grounds to go slow on the project?
Who cleared this project in the first place? Which government cleared the current alignment? It’s all on record. If it’s a question of faith, how many objections have been filed against the project with the recent committee? Let me tell you that the number was negligible; it didn’t even touch the double-digit mark. All information about this project has all along been in the public domain, and especially with the petitioners, who have been provided with facts and figures in our previous affidavits filed with the Supreme Court by the shipping department and the Sethusamudram corporation. I have provided relevant information to the highest bodies of democracy, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, by way of statements and answers to questions raised.
Besides Parliament, I have also informed the public through press meets and press notes. If this project is such a big issue, why did the Congress party win 10 more seats in Gujarat this time?
How would you address reservations to the project, from the navy and the coast guard, on its projected utility and the perceived threat to national security?
Last year 20,864 vessels docked at 12 Indian ports. Of these, only 4,422 wouldn’t have been able to use this canal. Which means, the canal would cater to nearly 80% of the traffic. Just because there was a Concorde service between London and New York, should all airports have been designed for such jets? As for the threat to security, where are security issues absent? It is up to the navy to guard our waters.
Are there no issues on our borders with China or Pakistan? Shouldn’t we do anything along those borders because of security issues?
(Baalu produced a letter written by the deputy inspector general of coast guard, B.K. Patasahani on 4 December to negate claims that Sethusamudram is a security threat.)
The letter gives the following points which indicate a possible improvement to the security situation:
1. All coast guard vessels have a draft of less than 12 metres (the depth of the Sethusamudram canal). Implying that they can all pass through the canal.
2. Three coast guard vessels each are stationed in Mandapam and Tuticorin, these can use the canal for ‘search and rescue’ and ‘pollution response’ activities.
3. The most important strategic advantage of the canal will be direct connectivity between the coast guard stations of Mandapam and Tuticorin.
4. Mobilization of coast guard resources and their coordination, in case of natural disasters, will become effective because of the ship channel.
Is the government planning to make the report submitted by the committee of eminent persons in November 2007 public?
That report is still under consideration of the cabinet. It is up to the government to accept or reject a report. The report is based on scientific data only. The problem in this issue is to decide between faith and science.
What is the government planning to do next?
The government is approaching the matter holistically. We have more than two weeks to file an affidavit (in the Supreme Court).
Will there be a single affidavit this time?
Will your ministry file this affidavit?
The government can ask the law ministry or any other ministry to file the affidavit. If I am asked to file the affidavit, I will do so.
Has your ministry been asked to contribute to or give inputs for the new affidavit?
No, not as yet.