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Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2007 > September 29, 2007 > Allow Public Debate and Review Sethusamudram Project

Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 41

Allow Public Debate and Review Sethusamudram Project

Friday 5 October 2007, by Ramaswamy R Iyer


The debate over the Sethusamudram project has gone completely off the rails. The debate thus needs to be brought back to good sense and relevance.

Let us start with the Ram Setu aspect as it has been the main subject of discussion. The question is not whether Ram was a historical figure; or whether he built the bridge; or whether he or the monkey army could have built it; or whether indeed the feature in question is natural or man-made. The crucial point is whether the site is sacred in the eyes of many people.

I am not sure of the answer to that question, but if it is ‘yes’, then that is a relevant factor in project-planning. Leaving the sea aside for a moment, let us ask ourselves what a government or other project authority would have done if, in the course of construction of a building or road or bridge, they had encountered a temple or mosque or church or burial ground. The planners or builders in such a case would surely go round that structure or feature rather than cavalierly build over it and damage it, if the option of avoidance were available. Exactly the same logic applies in the present case. If it is feasible to avoid touching the structure or feature in question (whether we call it Adam’s Bridge or Ram Setu or whatever), that would be the wisest course.

However, let us suppose that avoidance is not an available option, and that if the channel is to be built at all it will necessarily involve cutting across or otherwise damaging the ‘sacred’ feature. Then the question will be: how important is the channel?

SOME have suggested that the ‘national interest’ of all should prevail over the religious sentiment of some. There are two questions here. First, avoiding possible trouble by refraining from injuring the feelings of a group of people may also be regarded as being in the national interest, in which case we have to balance one form of national interest against another. Second, we cannot readily assume that building the channel is in the national interest; that proposition has to be established.

On the latter question, it has been argued that the project will have serious impact and consequences. The construction of the channel will involve violent disturbance of the sea-bed; and after construction, the maintenance of the channel will involve continuous dredging for all time to come; and of course, if the channel is successful, ships will be constantly passing through, adding to the disturbance. To put it very mildly, all this can hardly have a benign impact on coral reefs or on aquatic life. Prima facie, the project will have major ecological consequences. It is also likely to have an impact on the livelihoods of fisherfolk in the area; at any rate the people concerned seem to be very worried on this score. It has also been argued that the existing ridge, whether natural or man-made, affords a measure of protection to the coastal area from extreme events such as tsunamis, and that the project will destroy that protection.

Sri Lanka is not very happy about the project, for whatever reason. To cap it all, it has been stated that no big ship will use this channel; that they will continue to go round Sri Lanka; that only small coastly ships can use the channel; and that the channel will be economically non-viable. If that were true, it would be a coup de grace: why incur financial, economic, social and ecological costs to build a project which is not going to be used, and which evidently no one wants? This, if true, would be illogic of a kind that might have been appropriate for a Kafka novel.

It is not being argued here that the answer to all the questions raised above are necessarily unfavourable to the project. However, these are relevant and important questions and we need authoritative answers. The government may say that all these issues have been studied, that the answers are known, and that it was only after a detailed examination of the project that the decision was taken. If that is the case, all that materials should be put in the public domain for examination. It is not enough for the government to satisfy itself internally. It must provide all relevant information and enable the people of the country (and there is a great deal of expertise outside the government) to judge for themselves whether a sensible or foolish decision has been taken.

The plea of this article, therefore, is: stop work on the project, put all relevant material in the public domain, allow a public debate, and then review the project in the light of the comments received.

(Courtesy : The Indian Express)

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