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Sethusamudram and its impact on Sri Lanka

9 May 2012 06:01 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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HOW I SEE IT - by DULIP JAYAWARDENA
An article I wrote on the above subject nearly a year back and published in the Business section of the Daily Mirror gave a summary of the above project and invited the attention of the readers the dramatic turn of events the project took in May 2007 when Dr Subramanian Swamy of the Baratiya Janatha Party (BJP) challenged in the Supreme Court of India (SCI) the dredging of the Adam’s Bridge as a part of the Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project (SSCP) on the grounds that Adam’s Bridge or Sethu is a manmade structure going back to 1.5 million BC and was built by Rama to bring back Sita imprisoned in Sri Lanka by Rawana described in the Ramayana the sacred book of the Hindus.

However the above theory was dispelled by both the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) and Geological Survey of India (GSI) that conclusively proved that Adam’s Bridge is a natural series of atolls formed by shifting sea sand.
In spite of scientific evidence presented to the Central Government of India (GOI) by ASI and GSI it was compelled to withdraw its official submission to SCI in July 2008. SCI issued a stay order on the suspension of dredging in the Adam’s Bridge. However the Court did not halt the dredging commenced in 2005 in the Palk Strait which was completed about 3 years back on July 27, 2009.

Expert panel
I also reported earlier, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appointed an expert panel headed by Pachauri Director General of the Energy Resources Institute and former Chairman of the United Nations Inter- Government Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC) to study and report on a viable and environmentally safe alternative alignment of the channel for the Project. The SCI then requested the panel to report its findings in 3 months.

However the contention of Pachauri was that due to the variation of the ocean currents and wind patterns related to sedimentation as well as the weather, it would be incomplete to arrive at a conclusion including an EIA if not on the basis of information collected on an annual cycle of one year. It is interesting to note that the panel headed by Pachauri after nearly 3 years has failed to submit its report and it is not known as to how much of work has been completed. However even before the Pachauri Report was finalized a dramatic turn of events were reported on May 08,2012 where the Supreme Court informed the Central government to explore the possibility of taking an alternative route to complete the US $ 460 million SSCP so that Ram Sathu is not damaged. The three judge bench headed by the Chief Justice also told the government to inform the court whether any scientific study has been undertaken by the ASI to ascertain whether the 25 kilometre long Ram Sethu also known as Adam’s Bridge is a man made ancient monument of national heritage as per the directions of the Madras High Court.

Authoritative pronouncement
Former Union Minister and President of the Janata Party Dr Subramanian Swamy in his plea to the three member bench requested to refer the petitions submitted to a five-judge constitutional bench for an authoritative pronouncement on the issue. Dr Swamy also told the court that “the Central government had not taken any permission from the Sri Lankan government for completing the canal which would connect Ramashwaram coast in Tamil Nadu to Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan Government could go to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on this issue” Dr. Swamy concluded by informing the court “that the Centre was ignoring the advice of its own committee and also overlooked the concerns expressed by ex-Naval Chief Admiral Suresh Mehta an ex Director General Coast Guard about national security according to whom “this canal would facilitate LTTE activities in India and the LTTE may set up its base in Kochi in Kerala” The court while adjourning the hearing till July 22, told the Central government “you can explore the possibility of an alternative alignment for the canal.

By this the government would like to avoid the controversy” The SSCP proj e c t i nvo l v e s dredging a 167 kilometre long, 300 metres wide shipping lane connecting the Gulf of Mannar and the Bay of Bengal via Palk Straits and Palk Bay cutting through Adam’s Bridge. It required dredging 82.5 million cu. metres of sand and rocks from the sea bed. When the work was stopped in 2009 only 33.9 million cu. metres had been dredged but the earlier estimated cost of US $460 million has now been revised to US $ 872 million.

Environmental impact assessment
I would also like to highlight that the environmental impact assessment (EIA) carried out by the National Engineering Environmental Research Institute (NEERI) in 1998 and the Technical Feasibility Report carried out on behalf of the Tuticorin Port Trust (TPT) had not taken into account the recent studies carried out by a number of specialist groups on sedimentation dynamics of the project area (Palk Bay) and have totally neglected the major risk factor namely the cyclonic disturbances.

The EIA has partially analyzed the sedimentation dynamics of only the Adam’s Bridge area of the Palk Bay and has totally ignored the sedimentation in other parts of the Bay especially in the Palk Straits area where the northern part of the canal is to be dredged. There are other major shortcomings in the EIA namely the character of the material excavated to plan safe sand disposal sites. These studies are mandatory to plan a stable channel design, navigation course dredged dump and auxiliary structures. In view of the recent developments it has been suggested that the NEERI and the TPT should embark on a revised EIA and TFR on an alternate channel trace avoiding the Adam’s Bridge if feasible.

Conclusion
In conclusion, I wish to draw the attention of the Government of Sri Lanka especially to the recent decision of the SCI on the SSCP. It must be stressed that we have not conducted recent studies especially on sedimentation dynamics in our waters with changes in bathymetry and how the SSCP project will impact on our maritime activities with emphasis on security, fisheries, marine mammals, biosphere reserves and off shore oil exploration.

Attention is also drawn to the relevant authorities of the government of Sri Lanka on the dangers posed by the SSCP project in terms of the violation of specific Articles of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that has been ratified by both India and Sri Lanka. Accordingly it is recommended that an intergovernmental panel of experts carry out joint studies and exchange relevant technical information on the impact of the SSCP on maritime activities and come to a mutual agreement on how to avoid negative impacts on coastal and land based activities within the territorial waters and coastal zones of both countries. Accordingly I wish to reiterate my recommendation about a year back that the technical panel constituted in 2005 be reactivated and a fresh assessment of the SSCP project made in view of the Indian Government looking at a new channel trace avoiding the Adam’s bridge. The matters raised by Dr Sawmy on security and the ICJ warrant the attention at the highest level of GOSL.
(The writer is a retired Economic Affairs Officer United Nations ESCAP and can be reached at fasttrack@eol.lk )

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