Sunday, May 18, 2008

Setu project: mocking science, devastating sea grass nurseries of fish stocks

Setu project: mocking science (also archaeology), devastating sea grass nurseries of fish stocks

SC bench asked a question of Advocate Krishnan. “Who says there will be a channel connecting Palk Straits and Gulf of Mannar. The two seas are already connected.” This shows pathetic lack of knowledge of bathymetry of the sea in Setusamudram. Bathymetry is topography of the ocean. At the Pamban gap, where the Palk Straits meets Gulf of Mannar, the depth of the ocean is very shallow, ranging from 4 ft. to 10 ft. This shallowness makes the ocean in Agritirtham a mere oceanic lake. This does NOT constitute an effective merging of the ocean-waters, providing for free movement of aquatic species. Many aquatic species, particularly of large-sized fishes thrive only in sea-depths deeper than 10 ft. Thus, opening up a channel of 300 m. width and 12 metres depth will effectively create a veritable ocean current moving such aquatic species from one habitat to another. Habitat protection and prevention of habitat migrations are mandated under the UN Laws of the Sea and in international treaty obligations to protect the marine ecosystem, endangered wild life and bioreserve. Sudarshan is right. SC is mocking science by asking the stupid question.

Dr. Subramanian Swamy pointed out that both navigation and fishing cannot co-exist. He was questioned by the SC Bench. The answer is simple: The proposed channel will cut off over 2500 sq. kms. of the bioreserve area from fishing activity since the channel alignment is exactly 3 kms. west of the medial line between India and Sri Lanka (that is a line which is only 15 kms. from Dhanushkodi). This means that for a stretch of over 4 kms. (including 300 m. + buoys floatation area), this ocean zone will NOT be accessible for fishing. Considering that the biosphere close to the medial line is the nursery for fish stocks, livelihood of coastal people dependent upon fishing will be devastated. Does the Union of India want to see the impoverishment of the coastal people, the fisherfolk, just to benefit a few vested interests with trawlers in Port Blair? Dr. Swamy produced evidence to demonstrate conflict of interest and asking for Hon. TR Baalu to be made a respondent. The silence of SC Bench on this demand was defeaning.

UOI senior advocate F. Narimaan mocked: "I have a problem with Rama's date of birth cited by Dr. Swamy." Little does he know that even Zarathushtra's dob may not be clear to him. Jurists, Municipal corporation's birth certificate ain't necessary. Not even archaeological surveys for a divyakshetram visited by over 5 lakh pilgrims evey year on ashadha amavasya day to offer pitru-tarpanam, homage to ancestors.

So, who is mocking science? The justice system is expected to protect the environment and also heritage. It is not competent to question faith or sanction an ecological disaster in the making through a Setu channel project, a mid-ocean channel passage unprecedented in the annals of technological history of mankind.


A mockery of science, conservation and environmental laws

Sudarshan Rodriguez (The Hindu, 19 May 2008)

It is beyond doubt that the Sethusamudram project will have disastrous consequences for the region’s biodiversity. PHOTO: K.GANESAN

UNCOMFORTABLE QUESTIONS: Dredging activity will result in the killing of species protected under the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

The religio-political controversy and public debate surrounding the Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project (SSCP) have overshadowed the original arguments raised against this project, namely its environmental, economic and social impacts.

Ecological significance

Part of the project area, specifically Adam’s Bridge, falls within the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve (GOMBR). It is India’s largest biosphere reserve and has an area of 10,500 sq km, covering the “Indian part of Gulf of Mannar between India and Sri Lanka.” It is one of India’s major coral reef ecosystems with 3,600 species of flora and fauna, of which 377 are endemic. It is famous for its chanks (conches and other shells) which make Rameswaram one of the world’s largest shell trade and craft centres. The 21 islands that constitute the core zone of the GOMBR form the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park, which is India’s second marine national park. UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserve concept is based on the idea of oneness of humanity transcending national frontiers and recognises the need for conservation of vanishing species and habitats. The canal at Adam’s Bridge is a mere 20 km from Shingle Island, one of these 21 islands. With the completion of the SSCP, ships will be navigating through the biosphere reserve and close to the park.

The other part where most of the capital dredging is planned is the Palk Bay, which is also ecologically sensitive and has extensive sea grass meadows. Sea grasses serve as nurseries for fish stocks, and are essential grazing areas for turtles and dugongs (also known as the sea cow: a highly endangered species on the verge of extinction).

Rohan Arthur, an ecologist and a leading expert on sea grasses and corals with the Nature Conservation Foundation, is of the view that “the importance of the sea grass meadows of the Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar cannot be overstated, as they are a conservation hotspot of regional and global relevance.” (from Review of the Environmental and Economic Aspects of the Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project, by Sudarshan Rodriguez, Jacob John, Rohan Arthur, Kartik Shanker and Aarthi Sridhar.)

Impact of dredging

The Palk Bay, known for its unusually high sedimentation rate, is one of the five permanent sediment sinks of India, that is, sediments are constantly being deposited in the Palk Bay and Palk Strait. The sediment sink and transport mechanism in the region are yet to be fully understood. Strangely, all the project documents summarily ignore important knowledge of sedimentation, and the bibliography stops at 1989 while some of the key papers were published in the late 1990s and since 2000. Dredging Adam’s Bridge along a 300-metre wide stretch to make the canal passage will have drastic consequences for marine ecosystems in the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar. It will be akin to opening the floodgates of a dam and will allow sediments from the Palk Bay to flow freely into the Gulf of Mannar, thus affecting the corals and fisheries in the Marine National Park and the whole biosphere reserve. Both sea grasses and corals are sensitive to increases in sediment levels. “The changed sediment conditions have a range of effects on corals and sea grasses, affecting their basic physiology, reproduction, recruitment, population and community structure,” says Rohan Arthur in Review of the Environmental and Economic Aspects of the Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project (cited above).

Loss of wildlife

The project directly results in loss of wildlife, specifically protected species. This is evident from its own documents (Section 1.3 and 3.2 of the Environmental Impact Assessment prepared by NEERI) which acknowledges the presence of corals, sea fans, sponges, pearl oysters, chanks and sea cucumbers along the canal. The EIA (Section and 6.6) report states: “Due to dredging, the bottom flora and fauna on an area of about 6 sq km along the channel alignment in Adam’s Bridge and about 16-17 sq km in Palk Bay/Palk Strait area will be lost permanently.” Thus, the dredging activity for the canal will result in the killing of corals, sea fans, sponges, and sea cucumbers, all of which are protected species under the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

In fact, corals are Schedule I species, which means the government accords it the same protected status as a tiger. It is shocking that this aspect is being overlooked. According to the proponents of the project, it is an acceptable price to pay.

Environmental laws

The EIA did not have a dredging management programme. This is also pointed out in the L&T-Ramboll Detail Project Report (DPR) of the SSCP, which recommends that this be done (L&T-Ramboll DPR, Section 12.9.2 on page 12-11, bullet point 2). The EIA of the project also did not have a Disaster Management Plan (DMP), a mandatory legal requirement. (Under Form A, Item 11 of the EIA notification, 1994 and the Ministry of Environment and Forest’s EIA Manual).

Till date there is no DMP for the project and the project authorities have stated on various occasions that the Tuticorin Port Trust’s (TPT) DMP would be applicable for the project. The TPT’s DMP was developed only for the functioning of the Tuticorin port, where ships navigated in the southern Gulf of Mannar (around Kanyakumari) to Tuticorin and not further through Adam’s Bridge and Palk Bay.

Many experts have pointed out severe shortcomings in the project’s documents and design in terms of data gaps with respect to basic parameters such as sub-surface geology, bathymetry, and sedimentation process in the project area. These have resulted in the poor design of the project and inadequate assessment of risks, hazards and environmental impacts. It is beyond doubt that it will have disastrous consequences for the region’s biodiversity, causing major and permanent losses to fisheries and livelihoods.

The government needs to answer some uncomfortable questions on why it ignored its own conservation and environment laws. The relegation of the above-mentioned environmental arguments against the SSCP, and the lack of scientific rigour in the design and EIA of the project, represent a mockery of science, conservation and environmental laws.

(Sudarshan Rodriguez is a Senior Research Associate at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE). He can be contacted at sudarshanr @ yahoo. com)

Ram existed, so did temple

Marxist historians often talk about 'scientific rationalism' but give step-motherly treatment to archaeology, as it proves India's rich cultural heritage, says Sandhya Jain

Rama: His Historicity, Mandir & Setu
Author: BB Lal Publisher: Aryan Books Price: Rs 190
Archaeology, long given the step-sisterly treatment by Marxist historians, now finds itself at the high table of history, as it alone can deliver a credible verdict on whether the Ram Setu shows evidence of human intervention in the hoary past. The Supreme Court's direction to the Union Government in this regard is welcome to the extent that the UPA is made to depute only reputed archaeologists for this task, and not the type of academics accredited to the Babri Masjid Action Committee.

The Archaeological Survey of India has been without a proper head since the retirement of late MC Joshi over a decade ago. Reports delivered under the headship of an IAS officer will not have credibility; nor will a committee that does not include the iconic Prof BB Lal and Mr KN Dikshit, who was closely associated with the excavations of the Ramayan sites. Prof Lal's timely book addresses hard facts relating to Ram as a historical figure, the Janmabhoomi temple and the Ram Setu. The production values are high, and Prof Lal generously waived his royalty to bring the work within the reach of the people.

Lal began exploring western Uttar Pradesh as Superintending Archaeologist, Excavations, ASI, and found the distinctive Painted Grey Ware pottery at the lowest levels, far below material known to belong to the sixth and fifth century BCE. As many sites were associated with the Mahabharat, he excavated Hastinapur, Meerut district, and found that a sizeable portion of the PGW settlement was washed away by a heavy flood. This exactly matched the Mahabharat: "After the washing away of the site of Hastinapur by the Ganga, Nichaksu (the then ruler) will abandon it and move to Kausambi." Sure enough, the lowest levels at Kausambi begin with the same kind of material culture found at Hastinapur at the time of the flood.

Lal conceived the idea of the 'Archaeology of the Ramayan Sites,' but could actually take it up only after voluntary retirement from ASI in 1972, focussing on five major sites. At Ayodhya, human settlement began with a phase associated with the distinctive Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW) pottery. The findings included iron and copper tools that could be used for domestic chores, agriculture, even warfare. Gradually, weights of fine-grained stones appeared, along with coinage.

The NBPW-period weights were cylindrical, those in Harappa cubical. The coins were earliest in the country, silver or copper, with punch marks and no inscriptions. The structures were mud or mud bricks; and, later kiln-fired bricks. Writing began in the NBPW period, and settlements continued uninterrupted through the Sunga, Kushan and Gupta periods.

In the suburb Ranopali, a stone inscription datable first century BCE mentions the construction of a ketana (shrine?) by Dhanadeva, king of Kosala, sixth from Pushyamitra, who killed the last Mauryan king, Brihadratha, and seized the throne; thus, Ayodhya was the capital of the Kosala kingdom even in the early CE. Though deserted after the Gupta period, Hanumangarhi and Janmabhoomi were reoccupied in the 11th and 12th centuries. In the uppermost levels of a trench just south of the Babri Masjid, a series of brick-cum-stone bases were discovered, over which there evidently once stood stone pillars. Affixed to the piers of the Masjid were stone pillars bearing Hindu motifs and sculptures. (In 2002-03, under apex court mandated digging of the Babri area, the existence of a Hindu temple below the structure was vindicated).

Sringaverapura is a massive mound on left bank of Ganga in Allahabad district, heavily eroded by the river, but still offering remains of occupational strata. It is earlier than Ayodhya with Ochre Colour Ware (OCP) pottery in the lowest levels; also, found were harpoons, antennae swords and anthropomorphic figures, known collectively as 'Copper Hoards'. This cultural complex is datable circa 2000 BCE to mid-2000 BCE. But OCP-occupation was short-lived, and after a break in occupation, black-slipped and black-and-red wares were followed by NBPW. This period yields the same material culture as corresponding strata at Ayodhya, and was succeeded by Sunga, Kushan and Gupta periods. After a break, the site was reoccupied in the 12th century CE, as indicated by numerous coins of the illustrious Gahadavala ruler, Govinda Chandra.

The flat land associated in public memory with Bharadvaj Ashram revealed kiln-fired bricks, pottery, terracotta figurines and inscribed seals of Gupta era. There were no structures or regular occupational floors below, but lumps of clay with reed impressions, showing sporadic occupation with wattle-and-daub huts, consistent with an ashram. NBPW was found at Chitrakuta and Nandigram.

It is significant that Bharadwaj ashram did not exist when Valmiki composed the epic, between third century BCE and third century CE, though other sites associated with the Ramayan were occupied at that time. Valmiki's inclusion of the ashram at the site popularly associated with it suggests it did exist, and was probably recorded in a pre-existing ballad which formed the kernel of his narrative. There is evidence that Ganga flowed past the ashram, but the river has since been diverted by a bund.

Carbon-14 dating of the NBPW strata from Ayodhya's upper levels gave a date-range from sixth to third centuries BCE. But after excavations of the lower levels in Janmabhoomi area in 2002-03, the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany, Lucknow, gave a date-range of 970-810 BCE to 1980-1320 BCE. These excavations were a fallout of the December 6, 1992 demolition, which revealed much archaeological material from the walls of the masjid, including three inscriptions. The largest, in chaste Nagari script of the 11th and 12th century, clearly states that a beautiful temple of Vishnu-Hari was constructed in the city of Ayodhya, Saketamandala, by Meghasuta, vassal of Govinda Chandra. Lal dismisses the allegation that the slab was brought from elsewhere and sneaked into the masjid at the time of demolition as ferrying so much material to Ayodhya would require many trucks, and would have been detected by the print and electronic media and security personnel present in hordes there.

The book is such a mine of information that it is impossible to do it justice in a brief review. Lal concludes with a scientific examination of the landmass from Dhanushkodi on the Tamil Nadu shore to Talaimannar in Sri Lanka, noting the literary and other references to the Setu. He concludes that after the end of the last Glacial Period 10,000 years ago, the sea levels rose worldwide by a conservative estimate of two metres per 1,000 years. Thus, around 1000 BCE the sea level was possibly six metres below current levels, which matches the period ascribable to Ram. This means the land-mass from Dhanushkodi to Talaimannar would be exposed sandbanks, whose gaps could be filled with shoals and evened to facilitate the march of an army. It does not require an engineering degree at all.

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