Rama Setu: beleaguered Lanka

Beleaguered Lanka, besieged Rama Sethu

V Sundaram | Thu, 22 Nov, 2007 , 03:01 PM (NewsToday)

I fully endorse the view of Dr S Kalyanaraman that the government of India in its mindless and soulless approach to the hasty and foolish implementation of the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project (SSCP), should not lose sight of the adverse impact the project will have on neighbouring Sri Lanka which has been culturally and spiritually linked with India for centuries.

To quote  Kalyanaraman: ‘ the Gulf of Mannar and the  Palk Bay Straits waters are the common wealth of India and Sri Lanka. This  is exemplified by the Indira Gandhi-Sirimavo Bandaranaike declaration of June 1974 declaring these as HISTORIC waters under UN Law of the Sea 1958, enshrining the age-old rights of coastal people of both the coastlines north and south of Dhanushkodi and Talaimannar.

As a big brother, it is the responsibility of the government of India to take into account the concerns of its Sri Lankan brothers and sisters, coastal people of Sri Lanka, in particular,  and ensure that drinking water supply to both Jaffna and Rameshwaram is  not adversely impacted by the ill-designed Setu Channel project. Rama’s memory is cherished in Jaffna and also in Rameshwaram.

There is a Sita temple at Nuwara Eliya near Kandy, the only temple for Sita Devi in the world. There is a Tirukkedeeswaram temple in Mahatittha, just as there is a Rameshwaram temple in Setutirtha.  The  Ocean is one body of water, indivisible and an Indian Ocean Community should evolve on the lines of European Community.

In this IOC, both India and Sri Lanka shall be active partners for Abhyudayam jointly using the resources of the ocean. India should encourage the further development of not only the Thuthukudi port but also Colombo port and it will be folly to look upon Colombo as a port competing with Thuthukudi.’

K.T. Rajasingham is of the view that ‘the ambitious SSCP initiated by India would spell danger to Sri Lankan marine trade and that this threat may extend even beyond our marine trade’  Many geologists in India share Rajasingham’s  view  that the cutting of a canal in the Gulf of Mannar region would definitely create conditions and generate marine forces leading to the definite possibility of many islands in the West and Northern Coast of Sri Lanka getting submerged.

It is also feared that a portion of the Jaffna peninsula could also go under water once the Miocene Era limestone reefs are extracted  and their continuity forcefully terminated. Once the sea belt in the Gulf of Mannar is dredged on a continuing basis as planned, there will be an imminent danger of destruction of coral reefs in the region.

Coral reefs provide people with living sea walls against tides, storm surges and hurricanes and above all tsunami. In short, they act as ‘giant sand factories’, creating limestone in interminable succession from dissolved minerals in sea water and leaving behind sands and sand walls to protect the shoreline against erosion.

Against this background, it is a tragedy that India has decided to implement a catastrophic land subsidence programme without taking into account the serious environmental impact/implications it might have on a neighbouring country.

The United Nations Law of the Sea mandates that neighbouring States need to be consulted and sufficient safeguards and guarantees provided. The government of India, led by the anti-Hindu instincts of T.R. Balu, seems to have treated this UN law with indivisible Dravidian contempt.

In this context my attention has been drawn to the report of an experts committee set up by the Government of Sri Lanka to study the implications of the Sethu Project and which was submitted to the government  recently.  This committee was headed by  Secretary to the Ministry of Education Ariyaratna Hewage.

The committee consisted of experts drawn from various areas relating to marine sciences as well as a representative of the Sri Lanka Navy. One of the main concerns of the committee was the adverse environment impact the SSCP could have on Sri Lanka. This Committee of Sri Lankan Professionals has cautioned that the dredging project could have disastrous environment impacts, particularly maritime environment, on Sri Lanka.

The primary concern for Sri Lanka is that the initial dredging, the infinite maintenance dredging and subsequent shipping through the channel, could have negative impacts on Sri Lanka’s maritime and environment resources.  What is most disconcerting is the absence of any response from the Indian Government to Sri Lanka’s  concerns.

The Committee of Sri Lanka has also noted that the environmental impact assessment (EIA) carried out by India is inadequate for a number of reasons. Environmental analysts, like Sudharshan Rodriguez, are of the view that the EIA report furnished by NEERI, had used secondary data going back to 1976.

It is understood that the experts committee  has expressed the view that the NEERI never took the trouble of studying the increased turbidity in the ocean that would be caused by SSCP intervention nor has it  studied the dangerous possibility of a tsunami passing through the canal water flow, which will be made possible through the deep water channel linking the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal.

Mudaliar  C Rasanayagam  was the first  to write about the formation of the Jafna Penuinsula in his famous Tamil work ‘Yalpana Charithram’.  He stated that this peninsula with its sprout thrust into the sea, rests mostly on a limestone coral bed that spans the entire region and is over-topped with sand brought down by the tidal waves from the adjacent coast.  He noted that there is ample proof to show that several rivers that were earlier flowing on the island are still active and flowing through underground channels into the sea. 

This view has been upheld by S.U. Deraniyagala of the Department of Archeological survey of Sri Lanka who has observed:  ‘The present bed of the Palk Straits, which separates India from Sri Lanka, consists of miocene limestone, suggesting that the Jaffna limestone formation is a continuous one, extending from north-west Sri Lanka upto South India.’ 

Many oceanographers are of the view that a great part of the Indian Ocean is an ancient area in transition and has not yet completed its full formation.  This section of the Indian Ocean has the most complex relief and the earth crust is still in motion, as evidenced by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.  Sri Lanka fears that the SSCP will cause unforeseen and untold underwater disturbances leading to disastrous consequences for Sri Lanka.

Further, Sri Lanka is also seriously worried about the lack of concern on the Indian side about the unique, biologically rich resource areas linking two marine eco-systems in the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Bay. Unless accurate forecasts are made of the mitigation effects, it could eventually destroy this fragile marine ecosystem.

This is all the more significant in the light of the northern and north western communities in Sri Lanka being heavily dependent on the fisheries resources of this area. The concerns of Sri Lanka are about protecting the endangered species, protecting the fisheries resources, the coastal and maritime eco diversity system, integrity of the eco system in the seas around the Island and the paramount need for immediate and long-term ecological stability.           

According to research done in Jaffna, by Sri Lanka-born UNDP consultant Prof Ranil Senanayake, fresh water fishes such as Dandiya (Rasbora Daniconius), Tittaya (Amblypharygnodon Melenittus) and Amblypharygnodon Melenittus, migrate towards underground caverns and chambers, during dry weather and surface when it rains.

This also demonstrates the existence of massive underground freshwater caves off Jaffna, with which the salt water of the Palk Straits would mix  if the SSCP gets completed. Then  there will surely be continued and unabated dredging work in the channel. This will definitely lead to the total extinction of such species of fresh water fish  in that area, over a period of time.  

Moreover, as a direct consequence of maintenance dredging, rare species of mammals, dugongs and fish and invertebrates such as the guitar shark and cone shells would become extinct.
It has to be noted that one cone shell (Conus Zonatus and Conus Gloria Maris) is worth around US$ 3,500 a piece.  To sum up, dredging will also reduce the photosynthetic rate, resulting in the collapse of the fishing industry. 

Sri Lanka has proposed that a plan  be drawn  to  ensure that vessels that cause pollution and oil spillage are identified and necessary compensation mechanisms are put in place in an organized manner. Sri Lanka should, invariably, be involved in the preparation of contingency plans for oil spills, including modalities to work out the cost of marine pollution and other navigational emergencies and how they be met.

Finally, Sri Lanka has proposed the sharing of information on existing studies and collaboration on further studies and assessments and the setting up of a common database for India and Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government has also suggested that a joint environment management plan for impact assessment and monitoring of the project area be established.

The experts committee  has observed that  both Sri Lanka and India will benefit  tremendously if the recommendations are implemented to minimise the adverse environmental impacts of the SSCP.

In conclusion, in the context of our national security, the views of Subramanian Swamy are relevant.  He has said that the Dravidian movement which includes the  DMK, MDMK, PMK and DK support the demolition of Rama Sethu  ‘the bridge between Sri Lanka and India, which the Ramayanaya epic says was built by Hanuman — only to facilitate the movement of illegal brigand boats of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), to move quicker from Tuticorin to Chennai on the Palk Straits, and on international waters. At present the Rama Sethu Bridge comes in their way.  Swami says that the Indian government could proceed with the Sethu Samudram Project without demolishing the Rama Sethu Bridge.



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