Back in limelight, Sethusamudram still a bone of contention

There appears to be no remedy for the decade-long battle over the controversial Sethusamudram Shipping Canal project as the dispute is likely to erupt once again between political parties in Tamil Nadu with the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre trying to revive the scheme.

The Sethusamudram plan, regarded as the pet project of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) led by its chief M Karunanidhi, was launched during the Congress-led UPA-I regime in 2006. The project was aimed at providing small navigational route for ships from east and west coasts of the country instead of going around Sri Lanka. The route will be provided after dredging a ship channel across the Palk Straits.

Soon after the inauguration, the multi-crore project came under heavy protests by various political parties including TN’s ruling AIADMK in led by its general secretary J Jayalalitha, who opposed it on environmental and economic grounds. Dredging of the historical “Rama Setu”  had received strong criticisms from the RSS and the Hindu Munnani here, which had come out openly against the breaking of the ancient bridge as it would hurt the sentiments of Hindus.

Initially, the Centre made an allocation of Rs 4,000 crore to carry out the dredging works for the new shipping canal. So far, it has spent more than Rs 800 crore for the finished works. After the dredging was met with opposition, in 2008, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appointed a six-member committee, headed by Rajendra K Pachauri, to look at an alternative alignment avoiding the sensitive Rama Setu stretch. In 2013, the committee released its report calling the project “not feasible both from the economic as well as ecological angles”.

However, the government rejected the committee’s report and decided to go ahead with the project in its present form. The committee said “the basis of the analysis and the importance of observing a risk management approach, both in ecological as well as economic terms, it appears questionable whether Alignment 4A (east of Dhanushkodi) represents an attractive or even an acceptable option.”

Opposing the project, Jayalalitha recently said it will not benefit the people or the state while also affecting the fishermen’s livelihood and the environment. On the delay in implementation of the project, DMK leader Karunanidhi – who is known to be an atheist – said these superstitions have come as a barrier in implementing such welfare schemes.

Jayalalitha alleged that the dredging work carried out in the Palk Straits had destroyed the habitat of breeding fishes and many rare marine species had shifted to a different area. She claimed that the channel would have a depth of only 12 metre making it a struggle for the big ships to pass through it. During 2012-13,
the number of ships that called on the Tuticorin port had come down to 1,294 from 1,492 in 2011-12 due to increase in the number of big ships in the market, she added.

However, the Left parties here asked the Centre to take measures for speedy implementation of the Sethusamudram project as one of the key issues in their manifesto. The Supreme Court, in 2008, stayed the work of the Sethusamudram project on a case filed by BJP leader Subramanian Swamy. He alleged that
former Union Transport Minister and DMK senior leader T R Baalu and his family members had business interests in both the fishing and the shipping sectors, and the building of a shorter sea route around India’s southern peninsula would greatly benefit them.

Gadkari’s visit
After inspecting through aerial route and sea way near Rameshwaram area of Ramanathapuram district of TN, Union Surface Transport and Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari said the project will be undertaken without disturbing the present environment. “It (Rama Setu bridge, which was believed to have been constructed and used by Lord Rama to reach Sri Lanka) will not be demolished while carrying out construction and dredging works,” he said.

Though former chief minister Jayalalitha – who was convicted in an assets case this September– did not comment on Gadkari’s statement during his visit, AIADMK sources said the party will once again oppose the NDA’s proposal to take up the project. “The environment will be spoiled even if the Centre finds an alternative route in this project. We will launch protest if the Centre goes ahead with the project,” a senior AIADMK leader seeking anonymity said.

Karunanidhi’s younger son and his political heir M K Stalin alleged that while the project was stayed at the “instigation” of the AIADMK, his party’s arch rival Jayalalitha had initially supported the project before changing her stand. NDA ally Pattali Makkal Katchi founder S Ramadoss said that there was no scientific proof on the existence of a man-made Rama Setu, as claimed by some people. He alleged that some external forces were attempting to stall the strategic project and some, in a bid to help them, were inciting religious sentiments.

Interestingly, to keep BJP’s ally intact, MDMK leader Vaiko – one of the strongest protesters of the Sethusamudram project – had recently changed his track, saying he has decided to reconsider his party’s stand on the Sethusamudram project on environmental issues.

In addition to the general ecological questions, the neighbouring Sri Lankan government recently expressed concern about the fact that more than 70 per cent of the fish stock in the Lankan side comes from coral reefs. Following Gadkari’s visit, political parties in the state are gearing up for a battle.

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