Rama Setu: project shrouded in silence — Priyanka Narain

  • Posted: Fri, Sep 14 2007. 9:02 AM IST

Channelling religious sentiment into rare political opportunity

Travellers walked to Sri Lanka on this 30km long and 3km wide bridge until 1480

Priyanka P. Narain

Mumbai: In a fire-fighting exercise, the government said on Thursday it would withdraw parts of an affidavit filed on its behalf in the Supreme Court that said there was no historical evidence of Ram having existed or built the Ram Sethu, a coral bridge that links India to Sri Lanka.

Law minister H.R. Bharadwaj said the government would withdraw the offending parts of the affidavit and file a supplementary one before the court on Friday. People close to the development said that Congress president and United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi had personally directed the government to do this, though Mint couldn’t independently confirm this. On Friday, the court will consider whether it should revise its own order asking the government not to do any work on the bridge.

The bridge has been at the heart of a controversy ever since the government decided to destroy it as part of a project to create a channel between the Bay of Bengal and the Gulf of Mannar, cutting a day’s passage for ships circumnavigating India. The project has been opposed by politicians, scientists, environmentalists and religious groups.

On Wednesday, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindu organization, organized protests in various parts of the country against the project to build the channel. The previously scheduled campaign became more strident after the government’s filing to the apex court with the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, sensing a political opportunity.

“It is likely that this issue will transform the Bharatiya Janata Party’s political fortunes,” predicts Mahesh Rangarajan, an independent political analyst.

Since Tuesday, Mint has been running a special four-part series—of which this is the last—on the so-called Adam’s Bridge (or Sethusamudram) project, a Rs2,600 crore effort by the government (see box above). The stories have examined the claimed economic benefits of the project and progress, or the lack thereof, on it.

The bridge at the heart of the controversy cannot be seen at all on most days. It is only when the tide is right that this coral formation that links India and Sri Lanka can be seen.

Travellers walked to Sri Lanka on this 30km long and 3km wide bridge until 1480. Then, a cyclone came and the waters consumed the bridge. Its existence passed out of common knowledge and became legend.

Hindu protestors—who believe that Ram built this bridge with the help of an army of monkeys, attacked the demon king Ravana in Lanka and rescued his wife, Sita—say that the project, which plans to cut through the Ram Sethu to create a channel linking the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, is a “deliberate design to destroy the most ancient relic of Hindu history.”

On 31 August, when the apex court was informed about an alleged government plan to blast the bridge, it issued a stay on all work on the Rs2,600 crore Sethusamudram project for two weeks. A two-judge bench will hear the arguments on Friday and decide if the stay should continue or be lifted.

It is for this hearing that the government filed the affidavit saying there is no proof that Ram ever existed. Belligerent Hindus say they cannot believe this assault on their faith. Pravin Togadia, the general secretary of the VHP, said: “Do they ask the Muslims to prove that the hair in Hazratbal mosque really belongs to Prophet Mohammed? We believe this bridge was built by Ram and the belief of millions of Hindus is enough.”

BJP leader L.K. Advani said in an earlier interview with Mint that the VHP should fight the project not on religious grounds alone. Last evening, after an emergency meeting with top leaders of the VHP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), another right-wing organization, he demanded that the government: withdraw the affidavit, filed on its behalf by the Archaeological Society of India, completely; apologize to the people of the country for offending their faith; and fix ministerial responsibility for the affidavit.

A political platform

The battle lines are drawn and positions have hardened, Ram Sethu watchers say.

The VHP, known to do ‘dry runs’ for the BJP in the past, has been conducting rallies, speeches and campaigns in South India over the past few months and such efforts seem to have reached critical mass.

On Wednesday, traffic came to a standstill in many parts of North India as the VHP Rasta Roko campaign forced cars and trains to stop for three hours in the morning. Many BJP and VHP workers, including key leaders such as Togadia and Ashok Singhal, were arrested.

The South remained relatively unaffected by the Rasta Roko campaign.

However, the VHP’s rally in Rameshwaram was more successful. About 50,000 people had gathered in Rameshwaram to attend the VHP’s ‘Chalo Rameshwaram’ rally in late August. Sadhus from North and South India and BJP workers from across India, including the four southern states, participated in the rally. As did, unexpectedly, Christian fishermen from the Tamil Nadu coastline, nuclear scientists from Mumbai and Chennai, and economists from Karnataka.

Vyankatesh Abdeo, all India joint secretary of the VHP, said they expected thousands to show up but “this was beyond our expectations.”

Pralay Kanungo, who teaches at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for Political Studies, said that this is the first time the VHP has received such mass response in South India. The fact this huge rally happened even though Ram has never captured popular imagination in the South shows that the VHP has touched a chord.

“They have been trying to achieve this for a long time now. They already have a huge Ram following in the North. This is an attempt to link North and South India through the symbol of Ram,” added Kanungo.

Kanungo said it was open to debate whether the BJP would benefit from this movement in the 2009 general elections. What is unquestionable is the importance of this movement, he added.

“They have been trying hard for a South India presence since the 1960s. Even if this movement fails, it will be an important one for the BJP,” said Rangarajan.

The real challenge for the BJP, though, is fighting the spectre of Ayodhya, where, in 1992, the party and its associates such as the VHP, were involved in the demolition of the Babri Masjid that allegedly stood at the site of Ram’s birthplace. “They lost credibility with that. To regain trust, once again on the Ram platform, among a people not particularly fond of Rama, is not going to be easy,” Kanungo said.

But it seems that at least some people are willing to give them another chance. In Chennai, C. Subramaniam, an electrical engineer, who started an SMS campaign to save the Ram Sethu, says this is about protecting something and so it is different from Ayodhya. “This is different. Who knows if there had been a Ram temple at the site (in Ayodhya) or not? Here, we know there is a bridge. What we don’t know is who built it. And until we don’t find an answer to that question, it cannot be destroyed.”

Janata Party leader Subramanian SwamyJanata Party leader Subramanian Swamy

The court’s stay came after Subramanian Swamy, a member of the Janata party, alleged that the government plans to use explosives to blast the bridge. When the government’s lawyer, additional solicitor general Gopal Subramanium, did not deny the allegation, the bench issued an injunction ordering the project authorities not to damage any part of the bridge.

“This victory in court also marks the return of the blue-eyed boy of the RSS into the fold,” Kanungo explained. Swamy, a Tamil Brahmin who teaches economics at Harvard, was one of the favourite mascots of the Sangh Parivar, until he went off on a political tangent. “But the fact that he is taking up a leadership role in this movement is a clear signal that he is back,” said Kanungo.

If he gets the stay to stay, Swamy will become hero to many in the VHP and the RSS. If he fails, and the court lifts the stay, VHP and RSS workers say it will be a fight to the finish. Abdeo said: “There will be Mahabharata in the name of Ramayana in India,” a reference to a coming ‘great war’.

PTI contributed to this story.


No one benefits from a Rs2,600 crore channel

Traffic came to a standstill in New Delhi. Similar disruptions were seen across the country following VHP’s protests against the projectWithout explaining, the project’s website says, “Substantial benefits will accrue to the national and Fisherman V. Vinod says he can’t understand how the mega project will help alleviate his community’s povertyregional economy.” Nobody, though, is sure how.

Priyanka P. Narain

On Wednesday, road and rail traffic in various parts of the country came to a halt on account of a bridge. The bridge is Adam’s Bridge, an underwater coral formation that links India to Sri Lanka. The Sethusamudram project is seeking to make passage of ships around India faster by dredging a way through this bridge and linking the Bay of Bengal to the Gulf of Mannar. Many Hindus believe this bridge was built by Ram to link India and Sri Lanka and consider it a holy relic. On Wednesday, matters came to a head with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindu organization, orchestrating protests against the project.

Traffic came to a standstill in New Delhi. Similar disruptions were seen across the country following VHP’s protests against the project

On the same day, the Union government told the Supreme Court, which will eventually decide on the fate of the Sethusamudram project, that there is no evidence to establish the existence of Ram or other characters in Hindu epic Ramayana. In an affidavit filed before the court, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) said there was no “historical record” of Ram or that the coral formation was actually a bridge built by him. Leaders of the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), termed the affidavit “blasphemous”. “This is an insult to the Hindu faith,” added Vijay Kumar Malhotra, a BJP parliament member.

The VHP’s protests, planned ahead of the affidavit, will likely intensify after the government’s court filing. It isn’t just political and religious opposition that is ranged against the project, which could shave a day off the passage of ships circumnavigating India. Environmentalists and scientists are opposed to it, too. According to Tad Satya Murty, the chain of coral islands (Adam’s Bridge) “saved coastal Kerala” from the wrath of the December 2004 tsunami by deflecting the tidal wave back into the open sea. Coincidentally, on Wednesday, an earthquake of 7.9 magnitude that struck southern Indonesia triggered tsunami warnings in Singapore and the entire Indian Ocean region.

In a four-part series, Mint has been examining the real issues related to the project. Part 1 that appeared on Tuesday looked at the status of the project as well as the lack of information on all aspects of it, including costs. Part 2, on Wednesday, looked at the scientific opposition ranged against the project.

Mumbai: “Look at the poverty we live in,” says V. Vinod, the fisherman, waving at the broken thatch-leaf homes and colourful wooden boats anchored in shallow water that mark this desolate, barren stretch of beach near Rameshwaram. Entangled in the bramble, multi-coloured plastic bags flutter in the breeze. Two women are digging in the sand, hunting for fresh water below. Some others are performing morning ablutions near the shore.

Fisherman V. Vinod says he can’t understand how the mega project will help alleviate his community’s poverty

Authorities of the Sethusamudram Corp. Ltd (SCL), the government company responsible for dredging a channel between the Bay of Bengal and the Gulf of Mannar, claim that the channel, which will shave 24 hours off the time it takes for ships to circumnavigate India, will change the lives of fishermen such as Vinod, and transform the entire coastal economy.

The project’s website makes a sales pitch about the economic growth of the region: “Substantial benefits will accrue to the national and regional economy. Actual payback period accumlated earnings due to implementation of the fishermen in the coastal districts.”

Mint could not get anyone to explain what that meant or if there was a number assigned to this. The website does not explain how this plan for economic progress will work. The project is supposed to cost Rs2,600 crore.

Vinod says that project authorities had told the fishermen it would help them earn a better living. “But how can it help us? How can ships passing by help us? Now these big, big ships will pass by us. How will we get fish?”

When asked about how this project was supposed to improve economic prosperity in the region, N.K. Raghupathy, former chairman of SCL and its most vocal champion, says: “Take a trip down the south coast and see the backwardness of the region. We have a plan for coming up with fishing harbours along the coast.”

Actually, the plan to come up with fishing harbours along the east coast of India is supposed to be an Oil and Natural Gas Corp. (ONGC) project.

Raghupathy corrects himself when this is pointed out: “Yes, that’s true. It’s not us actually, but ONGC does plan to have fishing harbours which will transform the fishing industry here.” He does not explain how this ONGC project is related to the Sethusamudram project.

L. Amalraj, vicar of the Sivaganga district, says he has been working with the local fishermen for the last four years. “Only a fisherman can understand what this project will do to them. The sea is their whole world. It is all they know. This project will benefit only the shipping companies. No one else,” he says.

Benefits for none?

It is unlikely that even shipping companies will benefit, says Capt. H. Balakrishnan, who left the Indian Navy in 1990 to join the merchant navy. He has put together a mariner’s report on the project. “I have been a mariner all my life. I have studied this project like a mariner and found that the project helps no one. To begin with, no ship of more than 30,000 tonnage will be able to use this channel because of its depth.

“Since this channel is just 12m deep, and you have to leave at least 2m space between the bottom of the ship and the seabed, only ships that sink 10m below the water can use it. Which means, the maximum weight these ships can carry is 30,000 tonnes,” Balakrishnan explains.

Until about 10 years ago, 30,000 tonnes would have been a good-sized ship, says Brian Alexander, an agent for foreign cargo ships, who has worked at various ports across the country for the past 25 years. “Now, I don’t know of any foreign ship that tiny. Even coal ships that come from Indonesia and Africa weigh at least 45,000 tonnes. In international shipping, the bigger the ship, the lower the freight. So you see, there is no incentive for small-sized cargo ships. I don’t think I know of any one who would even consider using that channel.”

It seems unlikely that Indian shippers will benefit either, says Anjani Sinha of the Multi Commodities Exchange, because negligible domestic trade is carried out on ships from coast to coast. Pressed for a ballpark estimate on the commodity trade that does happen by sea, he says, “Really, it is practically nothing.”

Indian shipping companies are equally sceptical. the country’s shipping firms have 725 ships that are small enough to be able to use this channel, but ship owners say they will not use it. “The whole thing is a waste of money, I think,” says Arun Sharma, president of the Kolkata-based India Steamship Co and member of the Indian National Shipowners Association. “Firstly, little domestic trade happens on the sea. Second, I don’t have ships that small. Third, even if I did, I would not use the channel. It is a security risk.”

The security issue comes from the proximity of the channel to Sri Lanka’s Jaffna coast where the insurgent group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), has been fighting for an autonomous Tamil state. LTTE members are reportedly active in the southern part of India as well, especially Rameshwaram. The government has issued a warning to all ships to steer at least 50 nautical miles clear of Sri Lanka’s Jaffna coast.

“Now they want us to go within a 15-mile distance, turn our propellers off and become sitting ducks for the LTTE? I don’t think so,” says Sharma.

Who’s the channel for?

“If international ships cannot use it (because they are too big) and domestic ships don’t need it, who exactly is going to use this channel?” asks Jacob John, an economist at Just Change India, who has compiled an economic viability report on the project. The SCL website says about 3,500 ships are expected to use this channel in the first year.

Some people at the Indian National Shipowners Association, who do not wish to be identified, disagree. “Who is going to use this channel?,” says one person.

“We are not sure how many shipowners will use it. We are not sure it makes economic sense for the ministry to go ahead with this channel. But it is our minister, and when he is facing so much criticism, we have to stand with him.”

He admits, however, that the channel will save time.

Some experts are not even sure about that. While the SCL website claims ships will save 24 hours of shipping time, Balakrishnan says this is not true: “If you could travel through the channel at the same speed as on the high seas, maybe you save that much.

“But the truth is that when ships have just 2m of water beneath them, they will be forced to turn off their propellers. If they try to use propellers in that channel, they will run aground. In fact, they will need piloting.”

“Getting a pilot for a ship is not easy. It takes a couple of hours to get a pilot on board. Then another few hours to slowly navigate the hulking ship through the 300m-wide channel.

“Add another couple of hours to off-board the pilot. After all this, they would be lucky if they saved a couple of hours,” says Balakrishnan.

Shipping minister T.R. Baalu and shipping secretary A.K. Mahapatra continue to maintain their silence on the project.

PTI contributed to this story.



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