Centre criticized for excluding key experts from Sethu panel

Centre criticized for excluding key experts from Sethu panel

A motley group of scientists, politicians and fishermen have accused the government of bias, alleging that the committee formed to hear public grievances against the Sethusamudram project purposely excludes outside scientists and conservationists.

This came even as shipping minister T.R. Baalu reiterated the government’s commitment to the project and said he expects it to be completed by November 2008.

Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy, for one, said he will file a petition in the Supreme Court, asking it to intervene in the committee appointments and ensure a fair hearing.

Swamy also plans to meet his former political rival, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader J. Jayalalithaa, to form an alliance against the controversial project to dredge the Adam’s Bridge, also known as Ram Sethu after the belief it was built by Ram.

“The panel is biased and all these public hearings are going to happen in Chennai," said Swamy, who says he is on the same side as the local fishermen who can’t afford to travel all the way to Chennai to participate in the hearings. “It is being treated as a Tamil Nadu panel when it should be a national one."

To address criticism of its plans to dredge the channel, the government appointed a 10-member panel of “eminent persons" to hold public hearings in early November.

While the panel includes bureaucrats, professors and academics, it does not include conservationists or scientists from organizations such as the National Institute of Ocean Technology or the Geological Survey of India (GSI), which usually play a key role in such public projects.

Critics say the head of the panel, S. Ramachandran, chairman of the project’s environmental impact committee and vice-chancellor of Madras University, is biased since he gave his clearance long ago. His phone rang unanswered on Monday.

The committee also includes the author of an environmental impact report that gave the green light to the project, though the critics might find an ally in him after all. Deputy director of the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, S.R. Wate, said that when he wrote his report he was not aware of a rock bed on the Sethu.

If he had had that information, the institute would not have given the project environmental clearance, he told Mint last month.

“The region is a marine biosphere," he said. “Any blasting will destroy...fragile ecology. We simply cannot risk it." Wate did not return phone calls on Monday.

Another contentious member is R.S. Sharma, a historian and a former history professor at Delhi University, known for controversial statements questioning the historical existence of Ram and Krishna. Observers wonder why someone whose position is so well-known was selected.

One scientist called the committee an “eyewash." Former GSI director R. Gopalakrishnan asked: “If you are looking at something that can be a national monument, doesn’t it make sense to have an archaeologist in there? There is no one from the navy to look at the security angle either."

Some critics have claimed that the Rs2,600 crore project, backed by the Union government, opens India to attacks from nearby and war-torn Sri Lanka.

National secretary for the Rameshwaram Ram Sethu Protection Movement, R. Kuppu Ramanium, says the fishermen, who stand to be the most affected by the loss of the bridge, are unaware of the committee. “Even if they were, how do you think they will reach Chennai? The committee must come here to talk to them," he said.

According to the Sethusamudram project website, the previous “public hearings" were conducted in six districts between September 2004 and February 2005.

All were conducted by district collectors, unlike teams usually assembled from outside, to avoid the appearance of a bias, according to one IAS officer who requested anonymity.

The process employed was “very unusual for a national project like this one," the officer said.

The Supreme Court has halted dredging on the bridge; the Sethusamudram Corp. Ltd website says dredging in the Palk Straits is nearly half done, with a quarter done north of the bridge.