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Ram Sethu: Will DMK's shipping channel dream sink?

After a lull of three months, the controversial Sethu Samudram shipping canal project is back on the front-burner for the Centre with an expert committee headed by RK Pachauri ruling out an alternative route for the project in the Indian ocean.

The Centre is in a real fix now.

The previous route for the Rs24,000 crore shipping canal project, called “alignment 6”, on which work was stayed by the Supreme Court, is almost impossible with the Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa, the BJP and a lot of others sternly opposing it for archaeological, ecological, economic and faith reasons.

The alternative that the Centre sought to explore was “alignment 4” which is now found to be unviable. What does it do?

If the Centre had sought to buy time by appointing the Pachauri committee to explore the alternative route, on Monday, it sought more time from the Supreme Court to take a decision based on the report. The Court has granted eight weeks.

Does it have the right options to choose from in eight weeks?

Unfortunately not. With an alternative route ruled out, the Centre will have to either decide in favour of “alignment 6” or scrap it. Either way, the Supreme Court will have the final say.

If the Centre decides to move ahead with the project, there will be a groundswell of opposition that will bring Jayalalithaa, the BJP and environmental activists on the one side; and the Congress, the DMK and the CPM on the other.

The Ram Sethu bridge. Image from Wikimedia commons.

Any progress on the project will also have ramifications across the country for reasons of faith. With 2014 at sight, Congress cannot take such a risk. The most practical option for the party will be to leave it to the Court to decide.

For the DMK, it is an image-issue and it will definitely put pressure on the Congress. But being on a very weak wicket; with issues such as 2G, criminal cases against its leaders, and an adverse state government to worry for; it may not be left with considerable blackmail-ammunition.

The Court has also asked the state government to file its response to the committee’s report in eight weeks. Given Jayalalithaa’s unequivocal stand on the issue, one doesn’t need to hazard a guess as to what her stand will be.

Ever since the project was announced, Jayalalithaa’s position has been that “Ram Sethu,” or Adam’s Bridge, through which the project was to be implemented is of “immeasurable, historical and archaeological heritage value.” In fact, she had moved the Supreme Court as early as 2007 asking for the declaration of the structure as a national monument.

She had also written to the Prime Minister, when the Supreme Court asked for the Centre’s stand, asking him to inform the Court that the government of India would take immediate steps to declare the site as a national monument.

A pre-independence idea, the Sethusamudram project, sought to create a shipping channel linking the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Manner between India and Sri Lanka that reportedly would allow large ships to get to the eastern coast of the country from the western coast without having to navigate through Sri Lanka, as they do now.

The proponents of the project said it would save considerable sailing time and bring big vessels close to the Indian shore. The project would dramatically transform the coastal economy of Tamil Nadu with Tuticorin as its nodal port and a string of 13 smaller ports across the state, they said.

The project was launched in 2005 by Manmohan Singh and had undertaken some work that sank about Rs 800 crores when it was stopped by the Supreme Court. The project was completely stalled in 2009 and the Pachauri committee was constituted to study an alternative alignment.

The main contention of the political opponents to the project was on “alignment 6” of the channel because it would cut the “Ram Sethu.” The then UPA-1 government had looked at different alignments and decided in favour of the “alignment-6,” with DMK, then an influential coalition partner, putting considerable pressure.

With an alternative “alignment 4”, also ruled out by experts, the possibility of any progress on the project is really remote.

Interestingly, so far 13 committees have conducted studies on this grand idea. Perhaps there could be a few more.