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Lack of access to Sethu panel criticized

Lack of access to Sethu panel criticized

Mumbai: A committee appointed by the Union government to examine the controversial dredging of the Adam’s Bridge and hear from more stakeholders is itself drawing criticism.

As the committee began hearings this week, visitors describe a shroud of secrecy and hurriedness in its work, something they ironically liken to the planning of the Rs2,600 crore project that would destroy a coral bridge believed, by some, to be built by the Hindu king Ram.

Dubbed as a “public hearing" in an 13 October press release, the meetings have been closed to the public.

The plan to build a channel to shorten shipping routes around India has been attacked by Hindu groups and environmentalists, citing concerns ranging from the bridge’s religious roots to the sustenance it represents for fishermen.

Last month, after the Supreme Court said work must temporarily cease, the Union government told the court it would appoint a committee to “re-examine the Sethusa-mudram project". The committee was formed earlier this month and decided to hold hearings to better understand objections. Advertisements were placed in Hindi, Tamil and English newspapers to solicit feedback.

R. Gopalakrishnan, former director of the Geological Survey of India, went to meet the committee on Monday and said he did not have enough time with members.

He said signs posted outside the door read: “Do not take more than 10 minutes."

Gopalakrishnan, who has been vocal against the project citing environmental and geological reasons, said he had sent a 70-page document ahead of himself and taken a Powerpoint presentation to show. “But... there were no computers or projectors on which I could explain complex geological concepts to them," he said.

Others have been confused by details, such as the venue of the hearing changing. The dates of the hearing remain unclear; originally scheduled to end on 6 November, a press note on the website of the shipping ministry, which is managing the project, says hearings will end on 3 November. But S. Prabhakar, an information officer answering phones at the committee office, insisted the hearings would end on 6 November.

The media too have been barred. “It is the committee’s decision not to allow the press inside the hearings," said chief administrator Raju Krishnan. “If (a press release) calls this a public hearing, it is a mistake."

P. Binod, in the same office, said that although some of the press releases called the process public hearings, these were actually “personal hearings". Both he and Krishnan refused to define the difference or comment further.

Last week, when Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy alleged that the committee was biased, the Supreme Court said it could not do anything because it did not appoint the committee.

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