New Delhi: A National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) spokesman says the agency has made no official statement over the origins of the Adams Bridge, a coral walkway between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka slated for dredging to shorten shipping routes. As religious groups protested on the grounds that the bridge was built by Lord Ram more than a million years ago, project officials and the shipping ministry had said Nasa documentation showed the linked formations were a natural phenomenon and “their occurrence is not evidence of any human activity.”
But now the Nasa is clarifying that the astronaut photographs used to bolster the government’s opinion—the bridge project was sanctioned by the ruling Congress party, while Opposition has been led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad—could not be taken as scientific opinion.
In an email to Mint, Nasa public affairs officer Michael Braukus wrote: “Apparently, a response provided by Nasa employees at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) regarding a photograph of Adams Bridge, which was taken by astronauts in space, was mistakenly interpreted as an official Nasa statement about Adams Bridge. No Nasa official statement has been made. Nasa has no official statement or position regarding Adams Bridge.”
The revelation is the latest in a series of confusing moves surrounding the future of the bridge, also known as Ram Sethu. Last week, Sethusamudram Corp. Ltd managing director N.K. Raghupathy was sent on leave, replaced by an interim director. With their website down and phone lines disconnected last week, staff members said they didn’t know if the Rs2,427 crore project would continue. As of Sunday night, both the site and the phone lines were back up. The website did not appear to have been updated, with Raghupathy still listed as the head of the project, and a progress report saying dredging was almost one-fifth completed.
The government claims that elimination of the bridge, set amid the Palk Strait islands off Sri Lanka’s coast, will save time and money, as ships nowgo all the way around the island nation. Hindu groups, such as the VHP, say the bridge is an important part of history, dating back to the Ramayana, and warrants preservation.
Raghupathy’s mobile phone was switched off, so attempts to reach him were unsuccessful. Shipping minister T.R. Ballu did not return repeated calls and visits for comment. Last week, government officials were more than happy to talk to media. On 28 July, they held a press conference in Chennai to discuss Nasa’s apparent conclusion.
“This evidence contradicts claims that said it was created out of human activity,” Raghupathy said. He went on to quote from an email he said he received from Nasa: “The chain of small islets connecting India and Sri Lanka are real geographical features that have been mapped for centuries. Chains of islands form from a variety of natural geological processes and their occurrence is not evidence of any human activity.”
Nasa now says there was more in the email. In email exchanges with Mint over the weekend, Nasa officials said the email that formed the basis of the government’s assertions was actually written by employees of Earthweb, a division of Nasa in the Houston-based Johnson Space Center that distributes astronaut photography to the public with captions. Nasa says the group does not claim to have the data or the expertise to draw conclusions about the origins of Ram Sethu. The complete transcripts of email exchanges between Nasa and Sethusamudram officials could not be obtained by Mint, thus the veracity of either’s claims could not be determined.
On his blog, S. Kalyanaraman, director of the Sarawsati Research Centre in Chennai, said Nasa employees told him by email that they had been misinterpreted and quoted out of context. While he did not immediately return an email from Mint for comment, his blog quotes from the Nasa email:
“We offer no conclusion regarding the ultimate origin of the Palk Strait islands in the response that has been widely quoted; to interpret our response as a scientifically rigorous conclusion as to the nature of the Palk Strait islands is both a misinterpretation and misreporting of our response, and is inappropriate considering the limitations of our data.”