ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 18, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 42

Sethusamudram hits rocky bottom

  • Adams Bridge — or Ramar Bridge — off the coast of Rameswaram holds up India’s dredging activity
  • It’s divine intervention say Hindu devotees; it’s nature’s way of protesting, say environmentalists

By K. Venkataramanan in Chennai- Exclusively for The Sunday Times

The controversial Sethusamudram ship canal project has hit a big physical barrier – and some may venture to comment that it is nature's protest, or even divine intervention.

Holding up dredging operations to deepen the sea in the Palk Straits is the rocky bottom in the Adam's Bridge area. Devout Hindus say it is actually 'Ramar Sethu', a bridge of rocks that the monkey army of Lord Ram had built to help the exiled god-prince cross over to Sri Lanka to rescue his wife, Sita, from the clutches of his demon-adversary, Ravana. Ramayana, the ancient Hindu epic is the story of Ram's adventures as he tries to rescue his abducted wife.

Some may dismiss it as mere mythology, and some others may say the 'Ramar Bridge' is nothing but a series of undersea rock formations across the Palk Straits, but the structure referred to in maps as 'Adam's Bridge' off the coast of Rameswaram in south-eastern Tamil Nadu is proving to be the hardest stumbling block that is holding up dredging activity for the ambitious Sethusamudram project.

Twice in the last week of January, dredging work suffered serious setbacks, first when the spud of a cutter suction dredger (CSD) broke, and later, when a tug-crane, brought to retrieve the broken spud, snapped and a part of the crane sank into the sea. The mishap occurred when the sea close to Adam’s Bridge was sought to be dredged.

An attempt to invoke Hindu belief and thus stall the project on the ground that the dredging may destroy the 'ancient' bridge built by Ram's devotees failed in a subordinate court, but dredging activity is at a standstill in the Adam's Bridge area ever since the spud broke. Officials say the spud is yet to be repaired.

The Rs. 24 billion Sethusamudram project involves dredging the sea to create a sea lane for large ships between the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Bay.

Project proponents claim it will cut down navigation time by more than a day and save fuel costs for ships intending to move from India's western seaboard to the east.

Environmental activists and marine conservationists opposing the project from day one may construe the rocky impediment to the dredger's efforts as nature's revenge against callous human intervention for commercial purposes. And the religious-minded contend that the Hindu god Ram is preventing the destruction of the 'Sethu' bridge constructed by his loyal Vanara Sena (Monkey Army).

A Hindu religious leader, Swami Omkarananda of Chidbhavana Ashram at Vedapuri in Theni district of Tamil Nadu, went to court with a plea for a restraining order against the continuation of dredging in the Adam's Bridge site on the ground that it would destroy the ancient bridge, hurt Hindu religious sentiments and also amount to a violation of the State's obligation to protect ancient monuments of religious, historical and archaeological importance.

The sentiment was backed by some political support. Former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa and the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) agreed with the swami that the heritage value of the Ramar Bridge made it worth preserving. Jayalalithaa is an opponent of the project, having listed environmental, ecological and economic feasibility arguments against the canal in the past.

Ramanathapuram Civil Judge S. Mohammed Abu Thahir was not sufficiently impressed by the swami’s argument.

He accepted the government lawyer's submission that a project involving high stakes for the government and huge investments could not be stalled. However, the judge suggested that the government take heed of the religious leader's claims and have them examined by archaeologists.

Swami Omkarananda had cited satellite pictures published by the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) to substantiate his claim that an ancient bridge, "30 km long, three km wide and 17 to 25,000 years old", had existed under the strait dividing India and Sri Lanka. However, experts say the satellite images merely showed the existence of a series of rock formations, and were no testimony to their age or antiquity.

Further, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist body that functions as the ideological guide of the BJP, recently passed a resolution at a conference opposing the destruction of ‘Rama’s Bridge’ in the course of the Sethusamudram project.

For its part, the Union government said it did not possess any evidence of any ‘bridge’ under the sea. There had been no explorations by the marine archaeology department in the Adam’s Bridge area, it said in a written reply tabled in Parliament.

Of more immediate concern to the Sethusamudram Corporation Ltd, the corporate entity spearheading the Sethu canal project, is the fact that dredging is excruciatingly slow, more difficult than expected and may prove more expensive than estimated.

As soon as the spud of its CSD broke, the Dredging Corporation of India (DCI), a state-owned company, flew in a team from the Dutch manufacturer of the cutter-suction-dredger to repair the damage, but the retrieval of its broken part itself proved to be a difficult proposition. A 150-tonne tug-crane named 'Thangam' was brought in to lift the broken spud from the sea, but the crane's locking key broke in the process.

As irony would have it, an even bigger tug-crane that was brought to retrieve the broken piece of the first crane was named 'Hanuman', Ram's foremost devotee and a monkey warrior himself. But Hanuman could not succeed against Ram's 'divine power', and the broken spud is yet to be retrieved.

By February 26, dredging in only one of the three sections had made some headway. According to figures made public by the Sethusamudram Corporation Ltd., out of the 13.55 million cubic metres of sediment to be dredged in one 13.5 kilometre stretch in the Palk Bay area, 10.81 million cubic metres had been dredged (79.85%) by March 13. However, in the Adam's Bridge area in the Palk Strait, the progress is a mere 1.28%.

Out of a total quantity of 48.05 million cubic metres to be dredged over a distance of 35 km, only 615,718 cubic metres had been dredged up to February 26.In another stretch of a little over 40 km in the Palk Bay, the longest, and with a quantity of 20.95 million cubic metres to be dredged, work has not begun at all. Thus, out of a total of 82 million cubic metres, only 11.43 million cubic metres have been dredged.

The Dredging Corporation of India was not originally slated to take up the entire dredging work. It was asked to kickstart dredging operations soon after the project was inaugurated in mid-2005, and subsequent stretches were to be awarded to international players on the basis of a global tender.

However, the prices quoted by some overseas companies were said to be of the order of over Rs. 40 billion, whereas the project itself had an outlay of only Rs. 24.27 billion. The DCI website says its 'capital dredging' assignment for the Sethusamudram canal is worth Rs. 21 billion.

Whether the DCI will be able to complete its mission within the stipulated time of three years (ending late in 2008) without cost escalation is anybody's guess.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.