Silence, controversy shroud Sethu project

Silence, controversy shroud Sethu project

Mumbai: Few public projects have achieved what the Rs2,600 crore Sethusamudram ship channel project has: it has unified opponents as varied as scientists and politicians, Christian missionaries and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, fishermen and conservationists. None of them wants the project that seeks to cut through Adam’s Bridge (or Ram Sethu, to countless Indians who believe this bridge was built by Ram), a physical underwater chain of coral islets linking India and Sri Lanka, to go through.

The Union shipping ministry claims the channel thus created, which will link the Bay of Bengal to the Gulf of Munnar, will save a day’s journey for ships circumnavigating India and benefit the shipping industry as well as those dependent on the cargo these ships ferry. However, scientists, ecologists and economists say the government has begun work on the project without enough research.

Meanwhile, Hindu organizations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and its South Indian counterpart, Hindu Munnani, are protesting “the deliberate designs to destroy the most ancient relic of Hindu history."

At the heart of this emotionally charged issue is a first-of-its-kind project to create a channel that the shipping ministry likes to calls ‘the Suez of the East’. But unlike the Panama and Suez canals, which are land-based canals, this is a channel that will be created not by hacking land but by dredging and deepening the shallow ocean bed. Unlike the Suez, which allow ships with a displacement of 150,000 tonnes to pass, the maximum displacement for this channel will be 30,000 tonnes. And unlike the Panama and the Suez that cut sea voyages of ships by almost half, the government claims that this channel may save ships 24 hours.

Local fishermen walk on the visible stretch of the Ram Sethu or Adam’s Bridge

These figures could not be independently verified because shipping minister T.R. Baalu has placed a gag order on all employees connected with the project.

Bogged down in sand

Experts blame a lack of research for the project’s woes. “There are two elements to this project. One is deepening the shallow ocean bed to 12m by dredging the sand. The second is to cut the Ram Sethu so ships can pass," explained S. Kalyanaraman, chief scientist at the Sarasvati Research Centre, an independent research organization in Chennai, who has been studying this project since its inception.

When the project was started in 2005, though, it was with the assumption that there was no real bridge between India and Sri Lanka. Project authorities believed they just had to deal with heaps of sand, naturally deposited by the oceans. Ships with huge saw-like cutters and pillar-like spuds were employed to smash these sand bars and cut a channel through the bridge.

As it turned out, there were sand deposits, but these were wedged between hard rocks. An engineer onboard one of the ships said that workers encountered the rock bed at just three fathoms (15ft) beneath sea level. Scientists say this is the kind of information the government should have collected before embarking on the project. “You have to consult scientific organizations about the geo-physical structure. Digging two-three bore wells will not tell you the structure of the area. We have a marine geology division. Why was it not consulted?" asked R. Gopalakrishnan, former director of the Geological Survey of India.

Others asked similar questions when the dredger DCI Aquarius was badly damaged in May this year. Its spud, used to break sand deposits and soft rocks, shattered on impact with the hard rocks on Adam’s Bridge and had to be sent to the Cochin Shipyard dry dock, where it still awaits repairs. “We have not made any effort yet to acquire another spud so far and I don’t know how much these things cost," said R.V. Rao, Visakhapatnam-based deputy general manager of the state-owned Dredging Corp. of India Ltd (DCI).

The Indian government had purchased DCI Aquarius in 1991 from the Netherlands and while DCI would not reveal its price, similar dredging ships cost about $200,000 (Rs81.2 lakh) in the market today.

According to local fishermen who spend days fishing close to the site, after the spud incident, ships have not done any work on Adam’s Bridge. That’s also in keeping with an order from the Supreme Court, asking that Adam’s Bridge not be damaged until 14 September, when the court will hear the case and decide if the Ram Sethu should be protected. The court passed this order on 31 August in response to a special plea filed by Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy, who told the court of a covert government plan to use explosives to blast the Sethu.

Work in progress

Sethusamudram Corp. Ltd (SCL), the government organization tasked with developing the channel, claims on its website that 43% of the dredging work stands completed and 24% of Ram Sethu or the bridge dredged. However, employees on board the dredger ships say this is not true. “It’s almost as if we have not been dredging at all," said one of them, who cannot be named because of the gag order.

A local fisherman on the Rameswaram coast. A dredger is seen in the background

Srinivas Kannan, general manager, operations, at the company, confirmed that absolutely no work was being done on Adam’s Bridge itself in accordance with the court’s order. “It would be a huge risk for us to do any work there," he added.

“We are only dredging the ocean bed at other parts of the channel," he said.

The three ships dredging the ocean bed every day are sucking up sand from the shallow bed below through huge pipes and dumping a full load of sand 50 nautical miles north into the Bay of Bengal, but with little progress. This area is a major ‘sedimentation sink’ of the world. “The whirling hot-cold ocean currents around Sri Lanka dump sand here," Kalyanaraman said.

The SCL website, which tracks the progress of the project, says that more and more work is being completed on the channel. Last month, about 19% of the work was marked “completed". As of today, according to the website, about 24% of the work stands completed. Kannan could not explain how the website said work was progressing, if no work was being done on Adam’s Bridge itself. Seemingly unable to see the contradiction in his statements, he said: “We are not violating any court orders. All data on the website is absolute fact."

Paying for delays

There are financial questions also being raised by DCI employees who allege that DCI has not been paid for its services for a year and that the project is causing it losses amounting to Rs40-50 lakh a month. People familiar with the industry say that internationally, dredgers are paid on the basis of work actually done. “It could be that since ocean currents keep dumping the sand back here, the DCI ships have not been able to make a dent in the ocean floor and so, are not getting paid," said Sudarshan Rodriguez, an independent expert who has done a technical analysis of the project with a team of other experts.

In addition to using its own ships for the dredging work, DCI has chartered two ships, for which it pays about Rs36 lakh a day: Russian ship Professor Gurjanov from Singapore Sintras Asia Pvt. Ltd, and Sagar Hamsa from a Netherlands-based company, Van Oord India Pvt. Ltd. When contacted, Van Oord director in India M.P. Meires refused to confirm the rental prices for its ship. “We have absolutely nothing to say about the contract. It is the privilege of the client (DCI) to reveal information. Not ours," he said.

DCI project manager at Rameshwaram S. Lakshmanan said he was not allowed to speak to the press, but as long as his salary was being paid, the matter of unpaid SCL bills was of no concern to him.

“It is something that one government agency owes another. The DCI’s bills will all be settled," he said.

“Who told you we are not getting money? We are getting the money," he added.

People are jumpy because everyone involved with this project has been ordered not to talk about any aspect of it, explained Kannan. “They are afraid to talk because their words might become sub judice in one of the many court cases filed against this project. The government could file a case of contempt against them. They might lose their job. It would mean the end of their careers."

DCI’s annual report said the company has become a stakeholder in the Sethusamudram project, investing Rs14.50 crore towards its equity for the project. It is not clear if it is normal procedure for a contractor to invest in the client company’s equity, even as its bills remain unpaid.

A more troubling question, project watchers say, is that if the DCI bills are still outstanding, what has the SCL spent hundreds of crores on?

“There is no transparency about the money," said Jacob John, an economist at Just Change India and the co-author of an independent report that looks into the economic, ecological and technical viability of the project.

At DCI, R. Rao refused to acknowledge the public’s right to know what was being done with their money. “So what if it’s a public company? We don’t owe anyone an explanation of our daily expenses or our balance sheets. I will not confirm or deny any numbers for you," he said.

Shipping minister Baalu refused to respond to several calls at his residence and office and did not answer any questions sent by fax. Shipping secretary A.K. Mahapatra’s office refused to acknowledge the receipt of hand-delivered letters.

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. The first part looks at the status of the project as well as the lack of information on all aspects of it including costs, the result of a gag order enforced by the shipping ministry.