Setusamudram concerns, expressed in 2004

Sethusamudram concerns (Editorial in The Hindu, Sept. 20, 2004)

THAT A MEGA scheme such as the Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project (SSCP), which is bound to change the face of regional shipping and affect the lives of thousands of fishermen, should not be put through without an informed and many-sided debate is a rule of developmental prudence. For whatever reason, politicians and the Government seem to be in a great rush to execute a project that was conceived not less than 144 years ago. There may be unanimity among political parties in Tamil Nadu on the need for the SSCP; and a sense of righteous indignation that it has taken so long for the Centre to clear it. But that does not justify the way in which the public hearings are being handled in the coastal districts, and opposition to the project is being dealt with. There may be a host of advantages flowing from the SSCP for the State, yet the centrality of the social and environmental concerns is undeniable. Fortunately, a technically competent Environment Impact Assessment done by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) is at hand.

By its very nature, the mega project involves massive dredging, an estimated 84.5 million cubic metres of sand and spoil that will need safe disposal. The Sethusamudram Canal will stretch to a length of about 260 km — from Tuticorin port to Adam’s Bridge in the Gulf of Mannar (GoM) and extending northwards to the Bay of Bengal. The Gulf of Mannar has been designated a National Marine Park in order to conserve and protect the wealth of the seas. The M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), an institution of world renown, is engaged in a unique promotion of alternative options for livelihood security in the region, including community-owned small industrial units and a community-managed artificial reef programme. Time and again, the Environment and Shipping Ministries have offered the assurance that the proposed alignment of the SSCP will steer clear of the biosphere reserve and there will be no threat to the coral reefs and marine wealth of the Gulf of Mannar region. But nobody, it seems, knows how and where the dredged material will be disposed of. This issue must be addressed transparently. An equally vital question is the livelihood of some 20 million fisherfolk in the coastal districts. The fishing communities are already under tremendous pressure arising from disputes over fishing rights and specific problems involving Sri Lanka, not to mention overexploitation and bad fishing practices that have led to “the near extinction of several marine species unique to the GoM” (to quote from an annual report of the MSSRF).

When it comes to handling mega projects, notably big dams such as the Sardar Sarovar, the Indian experience has exposed the gulf between promise and practice. The relevant State Governments have failed miserably to deliver on the commitments they made for resettling the large numbers of people displaced by the project. In the case of the SSCP, the series of public hearings in the coastal districts has thrown up a hot potato: fisherfolk have challenged the contention that their livelihood will not be affected. Predictably, conspiracy theories have surfaced alleging that `outsiders’ are out to sabotage the SSCP. The challenge before the State Government and its agencies is to face the livelihood concerns of the fisherfolk sympathetically. Engineers from NEERI and fisheries experts must be allowed to engage seriously with these issues. Nor should questions relating to the economic benefits of the SSCP be dodged. Another important task is for the Government of India to brief the Government of Sri Lanka in a friendly way on the SSCP to rule out any kind of bilateral problem. New Delhi must also keep in perspective the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which both Sri Lanka and India ratified and acceded to in the mid-1990s.


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