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Muslims say it’s our heritage, but develop it for nation’s sake

Muslims say it’s our heritage, but develop it for nation’s sake

Mumbai: And, now, Muslims say it’s their bridge.

Even as the government is expected to ask for more time next week to explain the cultural significance of the Adam’s Bridge (Ram Sethu), the claims on the coral walkway linking India and Sri Lanka continue to mount.

But this latest claim comes with a twist: the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK), generally seen as a front for the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), says it wants the planned dredging of the channel to continue—in the name of national interest and local development.

“Now, it seems that the project might stop," says T. Ali, TMMK president in Rames-waram. “Muslims believe this is Adam’s Bridge. Thousands of years ago, Adam walked from Colombo to Saudi Arabia over this bridge."

There are twin graves in Rameswaram called the Habil and Qabil dargah; Habil-Qabil are the Islamic names for Abel and Cain of the Old Testament. The 60-foot long graves are maintained by relatives of former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

While Muslims and Christians both believe in the Old Testament, it is not clear if local Christians also believe that Adam’s Bridge belonged to Adam, the first man according to Christians.

Ali, for one, says that though this is a part of Islamic faith, “we are not selfish. We are presenting our heritage for national development. If progress means we destroy Adam’s Bridge, it is okay for us".

Few public projects in India have seen themselves morph as much as the Rs2,600 crore Sethusamudram project. It has already created unlikely allies and enemies. It has become a rally cry for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad that called the government’s project an attack on Hinduism; some Hindus believe Ram built the bridge. Then, it rammed into financial troubles, becoming an acute embarrassment for the UPA government.

On Thursday night, after high-level meetings among Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, shipping minister T.R. Baalu, culture and tourism minister Ambika Soni and external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee, the government decided it will ask the Supreme Court for more time to present its affidavit detailing alternatives to dredging the bridge and its cultural importance.

In some ways, the government’s stalling of a decision or reaction has all but ended the project. Already, long before Hindus marched or declared strikes in the name of Ram, the project was described as one in financial dire straits.

Today, a lone watchman stands outside Sethu Samudram Corp., the firm set up to oversee the dredging, but its offices are empty. All contracts with local boatmen have been cancelled, and the hulking dredger ships that dominated the gulf until last October are gone. In Rameswaram, where the India side of the bridge rests, locals have already been spending much of their time discussing their fate.

“We are telling those who are upset to think of the story of King Solomon. When two mothers came with one baby, the king asked to cut the baby in two. The real mother could not bear it and protested, but the other woman did not say a word of protest. It’s like that," says S. Murli, member of the BJP national committee in Rameswaram.

Murli says some locals are in favour of the project because it brought them jobs and money. Since all local contracts have been cancelled, small boat owners such as N. Bose say they lost an opportunity to earn three times their salary.

Bose says Dredging Corp. of India Ltd (DCI) rented three boats for dredging inspection work. “They offered Rs1,000 as a daily rent. I make Rs300 now," he laments.

S. Lakshmanan, deputy general manager of DCI in Rameswaram, says he had no idea if the work would resume or if the contracts would be renewed.

“We have stopped all work pending the Supreme Court verdict. Until the verdict, we will not make any decisions," he said in an interview before the government decided to seek more time.

The Supreme Court’s verdict was to hinge on the government’s new affidavit, ordered by the court in August, then again in September. The Prime Minister has said he wants to personally look at all submissions to the court.

Already, a report by the committee of eminent persons says there is no evidence to suggest that Adam’s Bridge was man-made, and the project must continue as planned. However, the report also cautions the government about the religious emotions lined up against the project.

This committee of eminent persons was formed to examine the Sethusamudram project and began hearing objections of the people against the project on 31 October 2007.

The panel, headed by Madras University vice-chancellor S. Ramachandran, was criticized for several reasons such as including biased members, being inaccessible to general public and conducting hearings only in Chennai where most locals could not travel.

The chairman of the panel, Ramachandran, was accused of bias because he had given clearance to the project as the chairman of its environmental impact committee. One of the members of the committee, historian R.S. Sharma, was reportedly absent during the hearings for several days. He declined to comment to Mint about his absence.

The project’s financial woes linger. Even before dredging began, costs had escalated to Rs4,000 crore last year and loan terms with lenders lapsed.

According to a banker close to the fund-raising who requested anonymity, project authorities will have to go back to the drawing board and draft a fresh strategy to raise debt for the project. No new attempt has been made by the project authorities to do so.

Srinivas Kannan, general manager of Sethu Samudram Corp., says dredging was going on in two areas—the Palk Strait, where the channel begins, and at Adam’s Bridge.

“We have stopped dredging at the Adam’s Bridge, but we are still working on the Palk Strait." He says the bills were being paid by equity from the Union government and stakeholders’ contributions from companies such as DCI and Shipping Corp. of India Ltd. “We don’t need loans right now. That is the last stage. We will raise money from the market only when we have to."

When asked about the ramifications of the government’s decision to defer filing the affidavit, Kannan says: “As far as I know, the affidavit is ready and available in the office of our (ministry) lawyers in Delhi. I don’t know about any change of plan."

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