The project to dredge a channel connecting the Bay of Bengal with the Gulf of Mannar, called the Sethusamudram project, is mired in controversy. In a four-part series, Mint looks at the real issues related to the project. Part 1 on Monday looked at the status of the project as well as the lack of information on all its aspects, including costs.
New Delhi: The sea came that morning of December 2004. The wave entered the sea strip between India and Sri Lanka, ready to gain strength and fury as it funnelled through the narrow straits. But it met something it did not expect: Adam’s Bridge (or Ram Sethu). This chain of coral islets made of rock and sand deflected the tidal wave back into open sea. The wave was forced to find a route around Sri Lanka and by the time it reached coastal Kerala on the other side, it had lost much of its potency.
“That chain of coral islets saved coastal Kerala that day,” says Tad Satyam Murty, former president of the International Tsunami Society and a tsunami consultant to the Indian government.
Murty has been looking at the Sethusamudram project since January 2005 and is disturbed by it. The project, which is about to break this bridge of islets to make way for a channel linking the Bay of Bengal to the Gulf of Mannar (saving 24 hours of passage for ships circumnavigating India), could be a dangerous one, he believes. He is not alone. Many scientists from different disciplines say not enough research has been done before starting this project.
Geologists say there are active volcanoes and moving tectonic plates in the region. Ecologists claim the bridge checks the rough seas of the Bay of Bengal to create a haven for marine life. Mariners argue the channel is a disaster management nightmare. If a ship runs aground, there is no system to extricate it and clear the channel. Scientists formerly associated with organizations such as the Geological Survey of India (GSI) and Indian Rare Earths are wondering why their organizations have not been consulted on this project.
Scientists and non-governmental organizations are agitated because no detailed post-tsunami studies have been done. “This physical bridge saved thousands of lives in 2004,” says R. Gopala-krishnan, former GSI director, who says he spends his days poring over old maps, evaluating this project, and hassling scientist friends at his old workplace for more maps, data and numbers.
Experts say the effect of the 2004 tsunami was cushioned by Adam’s Bridge (circled)
He recounts the history of the project. Just a week after the Sethusamudram Corp. Ltd (SCL) project was finalized, it ran into trouble: the tsunami came. Two months after the tsunami, SCL project authorities sent a registered letter to Murty, who lives in Canada and teaches at the University of Ottawa. The letter, posted sometime in early February, reached Murty in April. “They didn’t have the correct address. It went to two-three other places before reaching me. It asked me to give my opinion on the project by 28 February. The deadline had passed, but I had been thinking about the project since January. Within the hour, I emailed my opinion,” says Murty.
He wrote that if another tsunami strikes, this channel would cause devastation on the Kerala coast: “In the 2004 tsunami, no significant amount of tsunami energy travelled to Kerala through the waters between India and Sri Lanka. The water had to take a wide turn around Sri Lanka. In this process, the water missed southern Kerala. However, if the Sethu Canal is widened and deepened, this will provide an alternative route for the Indonesian tsunamis to funnel energy into the channel. My recommendation was clear: the threat is real, realign the channel.” He also offered his services to create a computer simulation of his theory. No one has taken him up on it.
N.K. Raghupathy, the former chairman of SCL who was asked to go on leave in July and was transferred from his post last week, says he had “taken Murty to lunch to hear out his concerns”. “When I left (in July), we had been thinking about forming a team to look into the tsunami angle,” he adds. No such team has been formed so far.
“How can these people take our lives for granted?” demands V. Vinod, a fisherman in Rameshwaram, who was told about the tsunami threat by social activists from the local church. Scooping his six-year-old daughter off the beach, he asks, “How can they put us at risk? We want to be sure the next tsunami will not come here. Why don’t they find out?”
Only one detailed report on this subject had been commissioned by SCL. The report, compiled by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (Neeri), Nagpur, was based on raw data provided by S. Kathiroli, director of the National Institute of Ocean Technology (Niot). As it turns out, Kathiroli was also on the board of the Dredging Corp. of India (DCI) when he was director of Niot. After the project was approved, DCI got the contract for dredging the channel for the Rs2,600 crore project. Kathiroli refused to comment on the possible conflict of interest that his dual directorship may have created.
In this file picture, a dredger is seen in the stretch near Adam’s Bridge
Kathiroli’s report said there was no rock on the Ram Sethu. Earlier this year, a dredger hit a rock bed and broke its spud.
Since it is impossible to simply cut through the rock layers of Ram Sethu, the solution the government came up with was to use explosives. Rumours grew of how the government had deployed Indian Navy divers to carry out reconnaissance for the best spots to place the explosives and how there was a whole scheme to blast the bridge overnight.
If there was any such plan, the government had to abandon it quickly. In the last week of August, the Supreme Court heard, through a petition filed by Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy, of the rumours and issued a special order asking the government not to damage any part of Ram Sethu until the next hearing on 14 September.
The bench is scheduled to decide a case filed by Hindu activists who say Adam’s Bridge is a heritage site built by Ram and should be declared a national monument.
Even if the Supreme Court issues a verdict allowing the the blasting, Neeri has threatened to withdraw its approval. “Our report cleared it without the blasting. The region is a marine biosphere. There are many Schedule-I species in the area. Any blasting will destroy its (the area’s) fragile ecology. We simply cannot, cannot risk it,” says S. Vate, one of the authors of the Neeri report.
Schedule-I species are endangered species listed in the Indian Wildlife Act. The list includes species such as the tiger and the chinkara deer.
An ecological problem
Ecologists and conservationists have also begun preparing arguments against the project. Areeba Hamid, oceans campaigner of Greenpeace India, says the Gulf of Mannar, with over 3,600 known species of fauna and flora, is home to rare and endangered species. “The biodiversity of this region is already under threat. We need to keep away threats like the Sethu project,” she says.
Seven years ago, the shipping minister would have agreed with her.
When he inaugurated the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve Trust in December 2000, T.R. Baalu, then the minister for environment in the Tamil Nadu government, said in his speech: “The Gulf of Mannar is of very special importance as it has rich variety of flora and fauna and is regarded as a biologist’s paradise. It holds tremendous genetic diversity in the form of sea algae, sea grass, coral reefs, fin and shellfish resources, mangroves and various endemic and endangered species. The Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve is the first marine reserve to have been declared as such, not only in India but also in South and South-East Asia.” He also highlighted the importance of protecting the area: “There are serious problems, which confront the region due to activities of human beings. This biosphere reserve was established for attempting an integrated approach to resolving the adverse impacts of human activities on the rich biodiversity of this ecologically fragile area.”
It seems he has changed his mind.
The minister and shipping secretary A.K. Mahapatra could not be reached despite repeated attempts. The ministry also seems to have placed a gag order on everyone working on this project. It has been impossible to talk to employees of SCL, who are afraid of losing their jobs. Suresh, the project’s new chairman, says he cannot respond to questions about his predecessor Raghupathy’s work. Packing up his home in Tuticorin, Raghupathy says he cannot talk, because he is no longer in charge of the project.