Rama Setu & the need to save ecosphere

Rama Sethu & the need to save ecosphere

S. Kalyanaraman

Tuesday, 13 November, 2007 , 01:28 PM (News Today Editions, 9 and 10 November 2007)

A huge environmental disaster in the making, the Sethusamudram project will cause irreparable damage to the fragile biosphere reserve. Moreover, the dredging project will lead to erosion in the coastal areas and also endanger marine species.

The ingress of the ocean submerging coast lands is an ongoing phenomenon linked to plate tectonics. Boats were tossed out like toys in Nagappattinam on 26 December 2004 when tsunami struck the Tamilnadu coastline.

.The Gulf of Mannar near Rama Sethu (Adam’s Bridge) is a fragile ecosystem and any short-sighed policy of the government of India will put the entire coastline at risk.

The marine region is also referred to as Rama’s hotspot, given the intensity of heat flows, apart from evidences for dormant volcanoes (Mannar volcanics are dated back to 105 million years), the region is riddled with fault lines.

The report in Nature magazine of issue dated 6 September 2007 points to the continuous movement of tectonic plates evidenced by a tsunami in 1762 and again in 2004 which pointed to the high probability of another tsunami which will be more devastating than the one which occurred in December 2004 when 260,000 lives were lost.

This impending tsunami is stated to put 60 to 70 million people along the coasts of Bay of Bengal at risk.
Professor CSP Iyer with whom I have been associated and who participated in an international seminar on Scientific and Security Aspects of Sethusamudram Project had pointed out that the project which cuts through Rama Sethu should be shelved.

The project would destroy the remarkable natural tsunami-protection wall — Rama Sethu with unpredictable consequences on ocean current flows and even climate systems, aspects which should be subjected to detailed multi-disciplinary and scientific studies.

Unlike the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, Rama Sethu has always been called a bridge since it connected India and Sri Lanka as a land-bridge across the Indian Ocean (Gulf of Mannar bioreserve which harboured a rich and unique ecosystem). Professor Iyer has now participated in the Centre for Innovation in Science and Social Action (CISSA), a Thiruvananthapuram-based group of scientists, technologists and environmental activists which urged the Central government to shelve the the shipping canal project

The canal project had the potential to trigger a series of ecological catastrophes along the Indian coast in the long run, apart from the adverse environmental impact which would be immense. The excavation of the region and effluents from ships will impact on the rich biodiversity all along the Indian coast. The panel led by Professor Iyer who is also former head of Centre for Marine Analytical Reference and Standards (CMARS) said the proposed realignment of the shipping canal to avoid the Adam’s Bridge was not a solution.

‘From 1961 onwards, four alignments were considered for a navigable route connecting the east and west coasts of India,’ the panel said. Iyer noted that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report for the Sethu project had failed to take into account the tsunami or the frequent cyclones hitting the east coast. Dr Rajendran of the Centre for Earth Science Studies said the EIA had not considered the high sedimentation rate of the Palk Bay.

Apart from navigational hazards resulting from a mid-ocean channel passage being subjected to periodic cyclones making it extremely risky to salvage a grounded vessel, continuous navigation is likely to trigger ecological imbalance, affect habitats of aquatic resources such as corals, sea-cow (dugong), green turtle and affect the lives of millions of coastal people whose livelihood is integrally linked to the marine biosphere with 24 marine national parks hugging the coastline of southern India.

Olive Ridley turtles which migrated between Setutirtha (India) and Mahatittha (Sri Lanka) would face extinction. The breeding grounds of over 3,500 aquatic species of flora and fauna would be lost when waters from Bay of Bengal rush into the Gulf of Mannar in a constant stream through a channel created by the Sethu project.

Sea grasses and manila reefs (algae) are photoplyktons accounting for the free oxygen of the ecosphere, mitigating the ill-effects of carbon dioxide. The reefs slow-down the waves and act as a natural protection against the onrush of sea currents and thus prevent erosion of the coasts.

It will be a travesty of development if such a situation is created by cutting a channel through a natural barrier of reefs, sand banks and stone constituting Rama Sethu. Over 80 Sri Lankan islands would be at risk of erosion and getting flooded. In fact, 34 Sri Lankan experts have warned that any damage to the limestone fresh water caves in Rama Sethu is likely to devastate fresh water supplies to Jaffna (Sri Lanka) and Rameswaram (India).

The last tsunami brought in a huge volume of sediments into the Palk Bay – Gulf of Mannar that in some places, the sea bed had risen by as much as 200 metres. It is a nightmare even to contemplate a scenario of oil spills if 30,000 DWT vessels carrying oil products were to pollute the ecosphere.

It will take millennia to restore the ecosphere to its natural state in the region if Sethusamudram project is put through without compassion and careful evaluation of all aspects related to the impact of the ecology and marine reserves.

What has taken millions of years to form corals like the turbinella pyrum will be destroyed in one shot by dredging and blasting in the area. What if a nuclear submarine sank there? What would the consequences be in such an eventuality? How many hundreds of years would it take to clean up the mess?


The coral reefs unique to the marine bioreserve at the Gulf of Mannar represent over 8,500- year-old industry that yields s’ankha (turbinella pyrum) which is considered sacred in the Hindu religion. The bangles made of the s’ankha adorn young brides in West Bengal.

Rama Sethu was mentioned in ancient literature and it was shortlisted for being labeled an international heritage monument by the World Heritage Watch List based in New York. The ongoing destruction is on the scale of destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha calling the monument a mere stone.
It is time for environmentalists of the world to come together and save Rama Sethu.

Sir A R Mudaliar Committee Report 1956 said: Choose canal, NOT mid-ocean channel passage. Reasons: Shifting sandbanks; no possibility of construction of protective works; and navigational hazard. Channel would border on the Sethusamudram Medial Line. ‘In these circumstances, we have no doubt whatever that the junction between the two seas should be effected by a canal; and the idea of cutting a passage in the sea through Adam’s Bridge should be abandoned.’

Breach of coastline security
Rama Sethu is a tsunami protection wall which saved the coastline of Tamilnadu, Kerala and west coast during the tsunami of 26 December, 2004. It is impermissible to damage such a protective structure impairing the integrity and security of the nation.

A report in scientific journal Nature on 6 September 2007 and carried in major newspapers of the world said there was an imminent threat of tsunami more devastating than the one in 2004. The report states that about 60 – 70 million people of the east coast of India will be at risk. In view of the seriousness of this scientific report, the Central government should immediately suspend all project works along the coastline which could be resumed only after a detailed, multi-disciplinary investigation of the threat to national security and integrity.

Rama Sethu should be deemed an ancient monument and a world heritage under UNESCO. The logo of Survey of India mentions aa setu himachalam, meaning: from Sethu to Himalayas as Bharatam. This is thus a national metaphor, defining the boundaries of ancient India.

Madras Presidency Administration Report, 1903 and a Travelogue, 1744 refer to the bridge; Glossary entry for Adam’s Bridge: ‘Called the bridge of Rama. It really joined Ceylon to India until 1480, when a breach was made through rocks during a storm. A subsequent storm enlarged this and foot traffic then ceased. Partly above and partly below water; but when covered has now here above three or four feet of water.’

Asiatic Society, 1799, Asiatick Researches: Or, Transactions of the Society Instituted in Bengal, P 52 refers to the bridge called Setband (alternative spelling, setuband like Allahband; setu-bandha), broken in three places. It also notes: ‘The people call it a bridge; or otherwise it appears to have wood growing on it, and to be inhabited.’ English word ‘bund’ comes from Bharatiya word: bandha as in setubandha.

Numismatic evidence

Ancient Sethu (Aryachakravarti) coins of Jaffna, 13th century and Parantaka Chola copper plate (10th century). Copper plate inscription of Parantaka Chola. The copper plates indicate that Aparajitavarman went to Setutirtha.

Rama Sethu in sculptures

Stone steles from the Ramayana wall carvings at Prambanan temple in Java, Indonesia, that were built during the 9 – 10 centuries; Setubandha venerated as sacred tirtha by Alwars and Nayanmars; and Rameswaram is one of the 12 jyotirlinga sthalams for the pilgrimage to Ganga river is complete only after the pilgrimage to Rameswaram and Setutirtham.

Court orders

Evidence for Rama Sethu accepted. Courts use the word Rama Sethu / Adam’s Bridge. High Court noted: Sir A Ramaswamy Mudaliar Committee expressly rejected the idea of cutting a channel through the bridge and said that the idea should be abandoned.

Ramanathapuram judge: ‘Final opinion could be pronounced only after subjecting their documents to thorough scrutiny with the opinions of experts in the field (archaeology and geology).’

Supreme Court order: ‘Till September 14, the alleged Rama Sethu / Adam’s bridge shall not be damaged in any manner. Dredging activity may be carried out so long as it does not damage Rama Sethu.’

Scientific results

Department of Earth Sciences noted in their report of March 2007, based on the report of a consultant that around Rameswaram there are raised Teri formations that supported a rich assemblage of mesolithic – microlithic tools indicating the presence of strong human habitation and activity in these areas as early as 8000 to 9000 years B P and as recent as 4000 years B P.

On Sri Lanka there are indications of human habitation extending to late Pleistocene (about 13,000 B P) based on bone and fossils of human and animal form. All these point to a flourishing human activity on both sides of Adams Bridge and probably when the sea levels were just right the link between India and Sri Lanka could have been established.

Rama’s hotspot

Heat flow in Rama Sethu 100 to 180 milliwatt per sq m comparable to Himalayan hot springs. Will dredging at Gulf of Mannar activate these heat zones? It is a criminal act of negligence that the work commenced without consulting the Geological Survey of India which is mandated to provide guidance for such projects.

If a land-based canal alignment is chosen, it will be possible to provide locks on either end of the canal to prevent disturbance to ocean habitats of aquatic resources mandated under the Law of the Sea. The protection walls against tsunami for any canal project should be provided: example, tsunami wall in Japan. The project does NOT include such protection measures. In fact, NEERI report did not even taken into account past history of cyclones and tsunamis.

Suez canal uses special bollards every 200 feet to salvage a grounded vessel. Such bollards are possible only if a land-based canal is used. According to Captain Balakrishnan, the saving in time from Kolkata to Tuticorin for a ship will be only 1.5 hours.

Is it viable to cross channel at six nautical miles paying pilotage charges (approx Rs 5 lakh per passage)? Even many small ships with only 30,000 DWT (dead weight tonnes) may prefer to navigate around Sri Lanka instead of using the channel.

Time is short and it is important for environmentalists around the world to join hands and prevent the damage to our planet.  




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