Lord Ram built a bridge from India to Sri Lanka to reach his wife Sita, kidnapped by Ravan, the demon king who ruled the island, says Ramayana. Many believe that the Ram Setu still exists, and is under threat from a canal project called Sethusamudram. But this channel, if made, would provide a trade route, boosting business. It would also destroy marine life and cost fisherfolk their livelihood, point out environmentalists. JASON FULTS presents to you the debate that is raging over the epical bridge. Let’s first look at what the supporters of the project have to say…
For the motion
The ‘Rama Setu’ is actually chain of shoals running between northwestern Sri Lanka and southeastern India. It is a collection of sand resulting from natural geological processes, such as sedimentation. There is little, if any, physical evidence that links the shoals to the bridge depicted in the Ramayana. The benefits of the canal include:
Ensure movement without hindrance for the Indian Coast Guard and Navy;
Boost trade by providing a shorter route, which would reduce shipping costs;
Offer better and more diverse means of livelihood for the people who live in the coastal region. A retired marine biologist based in Chennai, Maravanpulavu K. Sachithananthan, has studied this project extensively and calls it “…viable, development-oriented, futuristic, and beneficial to both countries [India and Sri Lanka]”. This comment, as well as repeated references to Sethusamudram as the “Suez canal of the East”, also imply that the project has a lot to do with international prestige. The government is bound to earn kudos if a large-scale, technically-challenging development project is completed without a hitch here. So what do the opponents of the project have to say?
Against the motion
The project is disputed on religious, economic and environmental basis.
Religious: The debate over whether these structures were formed by nature or by divine intervention is meaningless, when faced with the unshakeable faith of the people. Colourful stories, customs and conventions related to Lord Ram’s heroic journey to save Sita are too firmly imprinted on the psyche of not only the locals but of Indians across the country.
Environmental: The channel would cause irreparable harm to the coastal ecology of Tamil Nadu and the fisher-folks whose livelihoods depend upon it. One of the biggest threats of the canal is its proximity to the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park, the core area of India’s largest Biosphere Reserve and the first of its kind in all of South and Southeast Asia.
Preservation of the region’s biodiversity is already a huge challenge due to the ports located within or directly adjoining it, and industrialisation of the coast. By allowing a dramatic expansion of ship traffic so close to the Park, the Ministry of Environment and Forests is violating the spirit of international agreements and its rules regarding species protection and buffer zones surrounding protected areas.
The project will also affect people living on the coast. Though the EIA of the project acknowledges that there will be “significant, adverse impacts” on fishing activities, and that displacement of current residents may occur, it says “…the extent of land acquisition, the need for resettlement and rehabilitation of affected population, if any, could not be assessed at this juncture”. Playing it safe, it seems.
Jesu Rethinam, one of the conveners of Coastal Action Network (a group representing fisher interests in Tamil Nadu), says “the one lakh fishing families who will be immediately affected by the SSCP will incur losses of Rs 24,000 crores in terms of household assets and loss of livelihood assets,”. The lives of the traditional fisherfolk, who are already fighting a losing battle against the giant commercial fishing industry that has intruded into their territory with mechanised equipment, would be completely disrupted. The project would affect at least six of Tamil Nadu’s 13 coastal districts, hundreds of fishing villages and lakhs of fisherfolk.
Economical: Is the project really worth as much as its proponents claim? Critics say that it is unlikely to remain on budget, because the costs of dredging (its primary expense), have been grossly underestimated. The revenues, too, may be less than the scale that is being projected. Jacob John, an economist based in Bangalore, is the author of one such analysis. He estimates that financial incentive for foreign ships to use the canal will be far less than what has been suggested. The channel’s limited depth will allow only ships with a draught (the distance from a ship’s lowest point to the water’s surface) of 10 meters or less to use it. This constraint is critical. Revenue from these ships was supposed to provide two-thirds
of the canal’s income. Also, if the industry pushes for deepening the channel it would be both economically and environmentally unviable.
Moreover, interest rates have risen substantially since the initial planning stages, meaning that the loans that would be used to finance the project will now be much more expensive to repay. Now, what if the canal project supporters decide to simply change the route of the canal?
There have been numerous proposed routes for the canal. An assessment done by NEERI, a premier research organisation says that from the ecological and livelihood perspective, the current route is the ‘least’ destructive. As CAN members assert, “there is no scientific justification for a realignment of the canal. The destruction will be the same or worse”. But if the canal were to utilise an alternate route, religious opponents would likely support the project, thus causing a split between those who oppose the canal on religious grounds and those who oppose it for environmental or economic reasons.
Yet reconsideration of alternate routes would at least delay construction and hopefully open the project up to a fresh round of environmental and economic assessments.
Entirely Inequitable Assessment
Sethusamudram’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), carried out by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), asserts that the canal will have “insignificant” impacts on the Reserve. But, opponents of the project claim that the EIA was biased, non-comprehensive in scope, and based on faulty data.
The EIA and Detailed Project Report (DPR) submitted in 2005 did not foresee the potential need for explosives to clear a path through Ram Setu
The effects of increased shipping and coastal development have been mostly overlooked.
The EIA repeatedly refers to the secondary environmental effects resulting from Sethusamudram as outside of its scope. For instance, they have not taken into account the significant port development being proposed for Thoothukudi, Puducherry and Rameswaram in tandem with the canal project.
Two and a half years after the official unveiling of the Sethusamudram shipping canal project, there are still no definitive answers to its environmental, economic, and livelihood outcomes. And we will likely never know whether the Ram Setu is a natural formation or one built by a deity thousands of years ago. For now, the coalition of fisher-folk, environmentalists, and other concerned citizens is waiting to see what the government will decide while continuing to amass evidence to support its cause.