November,23,2015: Ram Sethu, also known as Adam’s Bridge, is a continuous stretch of limestone shoals that runs from Pamban Island near Rameshwaram in South India to Mannar Island off the northern coast of Sri Lanka. Encyclopaedia Britannica says that geological evidence suggests that in the Ice Age, the stretch used to be a land connection between India and Sri Lanka.
There are different geological theories behind the origin of the ridge, one of which even says that Sri Lanka was a part of Indian landmass and that the calcareous rectangular blocks are testimony of Lanka breaking away from the mainland about 1,25,000 years ago.
Hindu believers hold it as the structure that Lord Rama and his army of apes and monkeys built to reach demon king Ravana’s Lanka.
The depth of the sea along the 30-km-long stretch varies between 3 feet and 30 feet, thus making navigation by sea-worthy vessels impossible in this stretch. Today, ships bound for India’s eastern coast have to circle around the entire island of Sri Lanka to reach Tuticorin, Chennai, Vizag, Paradip and other ports.
Therefore, a project titled Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project was mooted by the Government of India and a feasibility study ordered in the 1990s. In 1997, the Government decided to go ahead with the project but only finalised it in 2005.
Sethusamudram, a project to create alternative shorter route for ships to cross the Gulf of Mannar, is a wonderful idea — one which is more than 150 years old. The channel, originally an idea of a British commander named A D Taylor was put forth in 1860. In 1955, the Government of India set up the Sethusamudram project committee to look into the feasibility of the project and five routes were discussed till 2001 but nothing happened.
It calculated that successful completion of the project would cut travelling by about 350 nautical miles and will save 10 to 30 hours’ sailing time. Plans were also drawn up to develop 13 minor ports in India, and fishing harbours and other infrastructure in both India and Sri Lanka.
The project involves creating a 83-km-long deepwater channel that will link Mannar with Palk Strait by extensive dredging and removal of the limestone shoals that constitute the Ram Sethu. New Delhi thinks it will bring down shipping costs and add to India’s exchequer in the form of transit fees.
The project has been condemned and opposed by a wide spectrum of the Indian people. Religious right wing parties have come down on the plans to destroy something built by Lord Rama. Foreigners and Indians alike have described it as Rama’s bridge since ancient times in their maps and travelogues. The first time someone called it Adam’s Bridge was in 1804 by James Rennell, the first surveyor general of the East India Company. Even if the Government of India prefers to use the name Adam’s Bridge, it simply proves that not only Hindus but Muslims and Christians too have a reverence for the bridge it is going to destroy.
Environmentalists, many of them radical left, have opposed it as they hold it would destroy and destabilise the aquatic flora and fauna of the area.
There is another group which has criticised the project as economically unviable. They say while the canal will bring down sailing time for those ships which originate from Tuticorin or Kanyakumari by 10 to 30 hours, it will only lead to a 8-hour saving for those which originate in Europe, Africa or West Asia (these account for 65 per cent of ships sailing in these waters). Measured against the proposed tariff, they say, ships will lose more money by transiting through the canal. Lowering the tariff, they argue will make for miniscule return on investment (ROI), the levels of which are rejected even for public infrastructure projects.
Plus, they point out that only ships with tonnage up to 30,000 tonnes would be able to use the canal. Since most modern ships carry much higher loads, the project is doomed to fail, they feel.
Janata Party chief Subramaniam Swamy filed a petition in Supreme Court asking the Apex Court to order the government to declare Ram Sethu a national monument as it was a matter of faith. The government declined to take a stance in the Court.
The Supreme Court had, in 2007, restrained the UPA Government from going ahead with the project, and suggested that the Government examine an alternative route that does not dredge the Ram Setu.
Subramaniam Swamy had called for the Ram Setu to be conferred the status of national monument. Swamy also contended that the demolition of Ram Setu will amount to a criminal offence under section 295 IPC.
Supreme Court Case
The Supreme Court on Monday asked the Government to verify BJP leader Dr. Subramanian Swamy’s information that a Cabinet decision has been taken to “not touch” the ancient Ram Sethu or the Adam’s Bridge in the implementation of the Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project.
A Bench led by Chief Justice of India H.L. Dattu scheduled a hearing for November 26 to hear the government on the issue after Mr. Swamy urged that the apex court should verify the Centre’s stand and wrap up the litigation pending with it.
It was Mr. Swamy who had moved the Supreme Court seeking the project to be scrapped as the original route was to cut across the Ram Sethu.
He had requested the court for mandamus to direct the government “to follow any other alternative route or alignment without affecting or destroying or demolishing the historic and sacred place Rama Sethu.”
Acting on the suggestions of the Supreme Court, the government had then appointed a high-powered committee under Dr. R.K. Pachauri to study whether an alternative route to Alignment 6 (cutting through Ram Sethu) was feasible.
The committee was to consider if construction of the project was viable along Alignment 4A, an alternative route running on land north of Dhanushkodi, thereby avoiding any chances of affecting Ram Sethu.
The court had then reserved its judgment until such time the government got Alignment 4A evaluated and a report submitted to it.
The committee had referred the question of Alignment 4A to the Goa-based National Institute of Oceanography (NIO).
In 2009, Mr. Swamy had moved the Supreme Court alleging that the NIO had completed the study and handed over the report to the Government in March 2009.
He had voiced apprehensions that the report may never be submitted in the Supreme Court as the consequences may be to the scrap the project itself.
The Supreme Court had in 2012 also asked the government to make its stand clear on whether the ancient Ram Sethu could be declared as a national monument.