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Vasan's intent on Sethusamudram project stirs up a hornets' nest

Vasan's intent on Sethusamudram project stirs up a hornets' nest

Author: Mihir Mishra
Publication: Business Standard
Date: June 3, 2009
URL: http://www.business-standard.com/india/news/vasan%5Cs-intentsethusamudram-project-stirs-uphornets%5C-nest/359970/

As the new Union government takes its place in the saddle, the initial statements of intent by ministers have begun to create ripples. First up is Shipping Minister G K Vasan, who said upon taking charge that the United Progressive Alliance government should complete the Sethusamudram Shipping Channel Project, as it was beneficial to the country and Tamil Nadu.

The statement by the minister, who represents the Congress, has raised the hackles of non-government organisations, as well as the main Opposition party, the BJP.

"The matter is pending before the Supreme Court and nothing can happen before the apex court's verdict," said BJP spokesperson Prakash Javdekar.

There is also the Pachauri Committee that is examining the project and is expected to come out with a report soon.

"The Sethusamudran Project, by any stretch of science, or environmental compatibility, is not good for the people," said Ossie Fernandes, convenor, Coastal Action Network, a Chennai-based NGO opposing the project. "Dredging does not mean there is a canal."

Subramanian G, executive-director of Manitham, another NGO, said: "We are opposing the project on environmental grounds."

India has a peninsular coastline of 7,517 km studded with 12 major ports and 185 intermediary and minor ports. The Sethusamudram Project, which envisages dredging of a ship channel across the Palk Straits between India and Sri Lanka, plans to provide ships sailing between the east and west costs of India a straight passage through India's territorial waters, instead of having to circumvent Sri Lanka.

The project is facing oppositions on environmental grounds. There is the fear that the project may result in tsunami waves hitting south Kerala more fiercely. The dredging of Ram Sethu, a mythological bridge built by Lord Rama in the Palk Strait, has made the BJP oppose the project.

There is a view that the project will disturb the ecological balance and kill corals. It is also an important fishing ground in Tamil Nadu. The trade in shells, which has a turnover of Rs 150 crore a year, will also die, it is feared. "We challenged Baalu (Vasan's predecessor) and challenge Vasan to read the reports and then come out with any such claims," said Fernandes.

Subramanian is less strident. Questioning the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (Neeri) report, he said he would not oppose the project if it got clearance from an international agency.

"We are not totally against the project. We want another survey by an international agency, because the Neeri report lacked facts about the tsunami and cyclones. If that international agency clears it, we will let it happen," he said.

Both Fernandes and Subramanian said they would meet the minister. "Yes, we will meet the minister and show him that this is not feasible and so work on the project should be stopped," said Fernandes.

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