In the following 4 part series (2 parts published as of Sept. 12, 2007), Priyanka P. Narain presents an impressive account of investigative journalism. The summary is clear and vivid: Rama Setu: setusamudram hey kaarasthaan (Setusamudram is the conspiratorial zone) with little concern for nation’s integrity and security.
- Posted: Wed, Sep 12 2007. 2:00 AM IST (livemint.com The Wall Street Journal)
Project a recipe for disaster, scientists say
Geologists, Ecologists and Mariners claim not enough study has been done before undertaking a project of such huge ramifications
The project to dredge a channel connecting the Bay of Bengal with the Gulf of Mannar, called the Sethusamudram project, is mired in controversy. In a four-part series, Mint looks at the real issues related to the project. Part 1 on Monday looked at the status of the project as well as the lack of information on all its aspects, including costs.
New Delhi: The sea came that morning of December 2004. The wave entered the sea strip between India and Sri Lanka, ready to gain strength and fury as it funnelled through the narrow straits. But it met something it did not expect: Adam’s Bridge (or Ram Sethu). This chain of coral islets made of rock and sand deflected the tidal wave back into open sea. The wave was forced to find a route around Sri Lanka and by the time it reached coastal Kerala on the other side, it had lost much of its potency.
“That chain of coral islets saved coastal Kerala that day,” says Tad Satyam Murty, former president of the International Tsunami Society and a tsunami consultant to the Indian government.
Murty has been looking at the Sethusamudram project since January 2005 and is disturbed by it. The project, which is about to break this bridge of islets to make way for a channel linking the Bay of Bengal to the Gulf of Mannar (saving 24 hours of passage for ships circumnavigating India), could be a dangerous one, he believes. He is not alone. Many scientists from different disciplines say not enough research has been done before starting this project.
Geologists say there are active volcanoes and moving tectonic plates in the region. Ecologists claim the bridge checks the rough seas of the Bay of Bengal to create a haven for marine life. Mariners argue the channel is a disaster management nightmare. If a ship runs aground, there is no system to extricate it and clear the channel. Scientists formerly associated with organizations such as the Geological Survey of India (GSI) and Indian Rare Earths are wondering why their organizations have not been consulted on this project.
Experts say the effect of the 2004 tsunami was cushioned by Adam’s Bridge (circled)
Scientists and non-governmental organizations are agitated because no detailed post-tsunami studies have been done. “This physical bridge saved thousands of lives in 2004,” says R. Gopala-krishnan, former GSI director, who says he spends his days poring over old maps, evaluating this project, and hassling scientist friends at his old workplace for more maps, data and numbers.
He recounts the history of the project. Just a week after the Sethusamudram Corp. Ltd (SCL) project was finalized, it ran into trouble: the tsunami came. Two months after the tsunami, SCL project authorities sent a registered letter to Murty, who lives in Canada and teaches at the University of Ottawa. The letter, posted sometime in early February, reached Murty in April. “They didn’t have the correct address. It went to two-three other places before reaching me. It asked me to give my opinion on the project by 28 February. The deadline had passed, but I had been thinking about the project since January. Within the hour, I emailed my opinion,” says Murty.
He wrote that if another tsunami strikes, this channel would cause devastation on the Kerala coast: “In the 2004 tsunami, no significant amount of tsunami energy travelled to Kerala through the waters between India and Sri Lanka. The water had to take a wide turn around Sri Lanka. In this process, the water missed southern Kerala. However, if the Sethu Canal is widened and deepened, this will provide an alternative route for the Indonesian tsunamis to funnel energy into the channel. My recommendation was clear: the threat is real, realign the channel.” He also offered his services to create a computer simulation of his theory. No one has taken him up on it.
N.K. Raghupathy, the former chairman of SCL who was asked to go on leave in July and was transferred from his post last week, says he had “taken Murty to lunch to hear out his concerns”. “When I left (in July), we had been thinking about forming a team to look into the tsunami angle,” he adds. No such team has been formed so far.
“How can these people take our lives for granted?” demands V. Vinod, a fisherman in Rameshwaram, who was told about the tsunami threat by social activists from the local church. Scooping his six-year-old daughter off the beach, he asks, “How can they put us at risk? We want to be sure the next tsunami will not come here. Why don’t they find out?”
In this file picture, a dredger is seen in the stretch near Adam’s Bridge
Only one detailed report on this subject had been commissioned by SCL. The report, compiled by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (Neeri), Nagpur, was based on raw data provided by S. Kathiroli, director of the National Institute of Ocean Technology (Niot). As it turns out, Kathiroli was also on the board of the Dredging Corp. of India (DCI) when he was director of Niot. After the project was approved, DCI got the contract for dredging the channel for the Rs2,600 crore project. Kathiroli refused to comment on the possible conflict of interest that his dual directorship may have created.
Kathiroli’s report said there was no rock on the Ram Sethu. Earlier this year, a dredger hit a rock bed and broke its spud.
Since it is impossible to simply cut through the rock layers of Ram Sethu, the solution the government came up with was to use explosives. Rumours grew of how the government had deployed Indian Navy divers to carry out reconnaissance for the best spots to place the explosives and how there was a whole scheme to blast the bridge overnight.
If there was any such plan, the government had to abandon it quickly. In the last week of August, the Supreme Court heard, through a petition filed by Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy, of the rumours and issued a special order asking the government not to damage any part of Ram Sethu until the next hearing on 14 September.
The bench is scheduled to decide a case filed by Hindu activists who say Adam’s Bridge is a heritage site built by Ram and should be declared a national monument.
Even if the Supreme Court issues a verdict allowing the the blasting, Neeri has threatened to withdraw its approval. “Our report cleared it without the blasting. The region is a marine biosphere. There are many Schedule-I species in the area. Any blasting will destroy its (the area’s) fragile ecology. We simply cannot, cannot risk it,” says S. Vate, one of the authors of the Neeri report.
Schedule-I species are endangered species listed in the Indian Wildlife Act. The list includes species such as the tiger and the chinkara deer.
An ecological problem
Ecologists and conservationists have also begun preparing arguments against the project. Areeba Hamid, oceans campaigner of Greenpeace India, says the Gulf of Mannar, with over 3,600 known species of fauna and flora, is home to rare and endangered species. “The biodiversity of this region is already under threat. We need to keep away threats like the Sethu project,” she says.
Seven years ago, the shipping minister would have agreed with her.
When he inaugurated the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve Trust in December 2000, T.R. Baalu, then the minister for environment in the Tamil Nadu government, said in his speech: “The Gulf of Mannar is of very special importance as it has rich variety of flora and fauna and is regarded as a biologist’s paradise. It holds tremendous genetic diversity in the form of sea algae, sea grass, coral reefs, fin and shellfish resources, mangroves and various endemic and endangered species. The Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve is the first marine reserve to have been declared as such, not only in India but also in South and South-East Asia.” He also highlighted the importance of protecting the area: “There are serious problems, which confront the region due to activities of human beings. This biosphere reserve was established for attempting an integrated approach to resolving the adverse impacts of human activities on the rich biodiversity of this ecologically fragile area.”
It seems he has changed his mind.
The minister and shipping secretary A.K. Mahapatra could not be reached despite repeated attempts. The ministry also seems to have placed a gag order on everyone working on this project. It has been impossible to talk to employees of SCL, who are afraid of losing their jobs. Suresh, the project’s new chairman, says he cannot respond to questions about his predecessor Raghupathy’s work. Packing up his home in Tuticorin, Raghupathy says he cannot talk, because he is no longer in charge of the project.
Posted: Mon, Sep 10 2007. 12:38 PM IST
Silence, controversy shroud Sethu project
The ministry calls this project the “Suez of the east” but the Sethusamudram project will save ships a maximum of 24 hours of journey time
Priyanka P. Narain
Mumbai: Few public projects have achieved what the Rs2,600 crore Sethusamudram ship channel project has: it has unified opponents as varied as scientists and politicians, Christian missionaries and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, fishermen and conservationists. None of them wants the project that seeks to cut through Adam’s Bridge (or Ram Sethu, to countless Indians who believe this bridge was built by Ram), a physical underwater chain of coral islets linking India and Sri Lanka, to go through.
The Union shipping ministry claims the channel thus created, which will link the Bay of Bengal to the Gulf of Munnar, will save a day’s journey for ships circumnavigating India and benefit the shipping industry as well as those dependent on the cargo these ships ferry. However, scientists, ecologists and economists say the government has begun work on the project without enough research.
Meanwhile, Hindu organizations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and its South Indian counterpart, Hindu Munnani, are protesting “the deliberate designs to destroy the most ancient relic of Hindu history.”
At the heart of this emotionally charged issue is a first-of-its-kind project to create a channel that the shipping ministry likes to calls ‘the Suez of the East’. But unlike the Panama and Suez canals, which are land-based canals, this is a channel that will be created not by hacking land but by dredging and deepening the shallow ocean bed. Unlike the Suez, which allow ships with a displacement of 150,000 tonnes to pass, the maximum displacement for this channel will be 30,000 tonnes. And unlike the Panama and the Suez that cut sea voyages of ships by almost half, the government claims that this channel may save ships 24 hours.
Local fishermen walk on the visible stretch of the Ram Sethu or Adam’s Bridge
Anywhere between Rs300 crore and Rs650 crore has already been spent with little work done, and as the controversy about its economic and ecological viability has deepened, protests have become louder, court cases have increased and the project’s estimated cost has spiralled from Rs2,600 crore to Rs3,500 crore.
These figures could not be independently verified because shipping minister T.R. Baalu has placed a gag order on all employees connected with the project.
Bogged down in sand
Experts blame a lack of research for the project’s woes. “There are two elements to this project. One is deepening the shallow ocean bed to 12m by dredging the sand. The second is to cut the Ram Sethu so ships can pass,” explained S. Kalyanaraman, chief scientist at the Sarasvati Research Centre, an independent research organization in Chennai, who has been studying this project since its inception.
When the project was started in 2005, though, it was with the assumption that there was no real bridge between India and Sri Lanka. Project authorities believed they just had to deal with heaps of sand, naturally deposited by the oceans. Ships with huge saw-like cutters and pillar-like spuds were employed to smash these sand bars and cut a channel through the bridge.
As it turned out, there were sand deposits, but these were wedged between hard rocks. An engineer onboard one of the ships said that workers encountered the rock bed at just three fathoms (15ft) beneath sea level. Scientists say this is the kind of information the government should have collected before embarking on the project. “You have to consult scientific organizations about the geo-physical structure. Digging two-three bore wells will not tell you the structure of the area. We have a marine geology division. Why was it not consulted?” asked R. Gopalakrishnan, former director of the Geological Survey of India.
Others asked similar questions when the dredger DCI Aquarius was badly damaged in May this year. Its spud, used to break sand deposits and soft rocks, shattered on impact with the hard rocks on Adam’s Bridge and had to be sent to the Cochin Shipyard dry dock, where it still awaits repairs. “We have not made any effort yet to acquire another spud so far and I don’t know how much these things cost,” said R.V. Rao, Visakhapatnam-based deputy general manager of the state-owned Dredging Corp. of India Ltd (DCI).
The Indian government had purchased DCI Aquarius in 1991 from the Netherlands and while DCI would not reveal its price, similar dredging ships cost about $200,000 (Rs81.2 lakh) in the market today.
According to local fishermen who spend days fishing close to the site, after the spud incident, ships have not done any work on Adam’s Bridge. That’s also in keeping with an order from the Supreme Court, asking that Adam’s Bridge not be damaged until 14 September, when the court will hear the case and decide if the Ram Sethu should be protected. The court passed this order on 31 August in response to a special plea filed by Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy, who told the court of a covert government plan to use explosives to blast the Sethu.
Work in progress
Sethusamudram Corp. Ltd (SCL), the government organization tasked with developing the channel, claims on its website that 43% of the dredging work stands completed and 24% of Ram Sethu or the bridge dredged. However, employees on board the dredger ships say this is not true. “It’s almost as if we have not been dredging at all,” said one of them, who cannot be named because of the gag order.
A local fisherman on the Rameswaram coast. A dredger is seen in the background
When this reporter visited Adam’s Bridge in the last week of August, there was no ship working on it. The sprawling SCL office in Rameshwaram was deserted that afternoon, except for the project manager and two clerks, who sat at empty desks sipping coffee and reading the newspaper.
Srinivas Kannan, general manager, operations, at the company, confirmed that absolutely no work was being done on Adam’s Bridge itself in accordance with the court’s order. “It would be a huge risk for us to do any work there,” he added.
“We are only dredging the ocean bed at other parts of the channel,” he said.
The three ships dredging the ocean bed every day are sucking up sand from the shallow bed below through huge pipes and dumping a full load of sand 50 nautical miles north into the Bay of Bengal, but with little progress. This area is a major ‘sedimentation sink’ of the world. “The whirling hot-cold ocean currents around Sri Lanka dump sand here,” Kalyanaraman said.
The SCL website, which tracks the progress of the project, says that more and more work is being completed on the channel. Last month, about 19% of the work was marked “completed”. As of today, according to the website, about 24% of the work stands completed. Kannan could not explain how the website said work was progressing, if no work was being done on Adam’s Bridge itself. Seemingly unable to see the contradiction in his statements, he said: “We are not violating any court orders. All data on the website is absolute fact.”
Paying for delays
There are financial questions also being raised by DCI employees who allege that DCI has not been paid for its services for a year and that the project is causing it losses amounting to Rs40-50 lakh a month. People familiar with the industry say that internationally, dredgers are paid on the basis of work actually done. “It could be that since ocean currents keep dumping the sand back here, the DCI ships have not been able to make a dent in the ocean floor and so, are not getting paid,” said Sudarshan Rodriguez, an independent expert who has done a technical analysis of the project with a team of other experts.
In addition to using its own ships for the dredging work, DCI has chartered two ships, for which it pays about Rs36 lakh a day: Russian ship Professor Gurjanov from Singapore Sintras Asia Pvt. Ltd, and Sagar Hamsa from a Netherlands-based company, Van Oord India Pvt. Ltd. When contacted, Van Oord director in India M.P. Meires refused to confirm the rental prices for its ship. “We have absolutely nothing to say about the contract. It is the privilege of the client (DCI) to reveal information. Not ours,” he said.
DCI project manager at Rameshwaram S. Lakshmanan said he was not allowed to speak to the press, but as long as his salary was being paid, the matter of unpaid SCL bills was of no concern to him.
“It is something that one government agency owes another. The DCI’s bills will all be settled,” he said.
“Who told you we are not getting money? We are getting the money,” he added.
People are jumpy because everyone involved with this project has been ordered not to talk about any aspect of it, explained Kannan. “They are afraid to talk because their words might become sub judice in one of the many court cases filed against this project. The government could file a case of contempt against them. They might lose their job. It would mean the end of their careers.”
DCI’s annual report said the company has become a stakeholder in the Sethusamudram project, investing Rs14.50 crore towards its equity for the project. It is not clear if it is normal procedure for a contractor to invest in the client company’s equity, even as its bills remain unpaid.
A more troubling question, project watchers say, is that if the DCI bills are still outstanding, what has the SCL spent hundreds of crores on?
“There is no transparency about the money,” said Jacob John, an economist at Just Change India and the co-author of an independent report that looks into the economic, ecological and technical viability of the project.
At DCI, R. Rao refused to acknowledge the public’s right to know what was being done with their money. “So what if it’s a public company? We don’t owe anyone an explanation of our daily expenses or our balance sheets. I will not confirm or deny any numbers for you,” he said.
Shipping minister Baalu refused to respond to several calls at his residence and office and did not answer any questions sent by fax. Shipping secretary A.K. Mahapatra’s office refused to acknowledge the receipt of hand-delivered letters.
The project to dredge a channel connecting the Bay of Bengal with the Gulf of Mannar, called the Sethusamudram project, is mired in controversy. In a four-part series, Mint looks at the real issues related to the project. The first part looks at the status of the project as well as the lack of information on all aspects of it including costs, the result of a gag order enforced by the shipping ministry.
Part 2 will appear tomorrow.