Monday, May 26, 2008

Save Rama Setu; scrap Setu project -- Sandhya Jain

Save Rama Setu; scrap Setu project – Sandhya Jain
Saving the mangroves
Sandhya Jain (Pioneer, May 27, 2008)

India's eastern coastline and regions east of India have been suffering serious environmental degradation without any sincere efforts at mitigation. The Orissa super-cyclone of 1999 smashed through huge tracts of land, taking countless lives and wrecking incalculable damage to crops, cattle and property. The 13 coastal districts along Tamil Nadu's 255-km long coastline are regularly exposed to cyclonic fury, and the terrifying tsunami of 2004 is still fresh in public memory.

Summer 2008 has been kind to India; Hurricane Nargis, which shattered the lives of untold thousands in Myanmar, has spared this land; it could so easily have been otherwise. A grim earthquake has devastated China, raising the toll of human tragedy manifold. Delhi's unseasonal rains have also taken some lives, and the weather has been inexplicable enough for experts to seriously consider it a consequence of global warming and environmental degradation.

Resurrecting the mangroves, now almost extinct in our part of the world, can even now end this continuing legacy of human misery, this horrible haemorrhaging of the earth itself. Mangroves, literally dense forests on the shore, tolerate the salinity of sea water and protect inland water sources and soil from salinity and erosion; above all, they mitigate the impact of cyclonic winds. There is no more ecologically sensitive and cost-effective measure of saving the seacoast and continental shelf than mangroves; yet, we have seen least action in this direction.

Given the pulsating environmental instability in our region, it is astonishing a debate still persists regarding the desirability of the Rs 2,400 crore white elephant called the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project (SSCP). The plan to dredge a 300-metre wide channel through the land-link between India and Sri Lanka, to reduce the distance between the western and eastern coast ports, is opposed by environmentalists, economists and security analysts. Colombo has raised an alarm fearing human intervention on Ram Setu could threaten its very existence in the event of another tsunami, already predicted by Nature magazine (December 2007).

The historical-civilisational significance of Ram Setu is obvious. Sinhala scholar Prof Tissa Kariyawasam, former dean of the University of Jayawardenapura, Sri Lanka, says most probably Emperor Ashoka's son Mahendra and daughter Sanghamitra came to the island by walking across the Ram Setu. It symbolises the establishment and protection of dharma; the Skanda Purana prescribes worship of the Ram Setu and the Shivalinga installed in its middle with appropriate mantras. It is a popular place for offerings to pitrs (ancestors).

The proposal to hack a channel was publicly welcomed by the LTTE in Sri Lanka and Tamil politician Vaiko. The Indian Navy and Coast Guard warned of the possibility of facilitating militant groups! Capt H Balakrishnan (retd) of Chennai made an in-depth study of the SSCP's viability, particularly the claim that it would save ships nearly 424 nautical miles (780 km) and about 30 hours of sailing time, with commensurate savings in fuel, thereby becoming self-sustaining over time. An estimated 3,055 vessels were projected to use the canal annually.

But its economic viability alone is questionable from a study of the Information Memorandum of the UTI Bank (now Axis Bank), wherein dredging costs alone are pegged at Rs 200 million in the first year. This will actually be higher as the open sea will constantly bring sand, which may keep the channel effectively closed much of the year. It is pertinent that the Suez Canal was cut through land, though it too has to be annually desilted. Many international shipping companies have already stated that using the canal would involve reducing speed, switching fuels, and incurring extra costs like canal charges and navigation assistance to negotiate it; hence, it made better sense to go around Sri Lanka! With news reports suggesting cost escalation up to Rs 4,000 crore, the argument for economic viability of the project is certainly over.

The Kochi-based Centre for Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) has warned about the adverse effect on marine bio-diversity in the protected Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve, if the SSCP is implemented. Director NGK Pillai has affirmed that the 3,600 species in the biosphere would be endangered if the Gulf of Mannar was linked to the Bay of Bengal, in the manner in which the Kochi shipyard had caused loss of nearly 60 per cent biodiversity in the Kochi estuary. Worldwide, the phenomenon of vanishing wildlife is reaching endemic proportions, and unless strict measures are taken, biodiversity loss could touch 60 per cent to 70 per cent in the next three decades. In this regard, the practice of trawl fishnets needs an urgent rethink, as they cause immeasurable damage to non-edible biota.

The National Institute of Ocean Technology has affirmed that the Ram Setu is a man-made structure, dating back to antiquity, a view shared by the National Remote Sensing Agency of the Ministry of Space, which has even been tabled in Parliament. This is why, once it was forced to withdraw the controversial affidavit denying the existence of Sri Ram, the Union Tourism and Culture Ministry insisted only an archaeological investigation could determine if the Ram Setu is man-made, and a legitimate heritage site worthy of protection under the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904. With monsoons ruling out an early investigation, the project is virtually in a limbo for the present.

But the danger is far from over as the forces behind SSCP are resourceful and powerful, as reflected in the ingenuous argument of protecting the Ram Setu while continuing with the project through a different alignment! It needs to be understood that the Ram Setu is a single, somewhat winding, land track between Sri Lanka and India, wide enough for an army to cross over. Over the centuries, natural erosion in the turbulent waters there has cut natural channels into it, wide enough for shallow boats to cross over to either side.

Any move to preserve the pristine glory of the Setu must envisage filling these passages and restoring the 'Ram path' between the two countries. Stopping SSCP vandalism at a spot where dredging is difficult and attacking the structure at a more vulnerable point, in the name of realignment, is desecration in disguise. It is pertinent that the southern sands are rich in thorium, our nuclear future. India does not need unnecessary activity in this area.

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