Centre set to go slow on Setu project?

Centre set to go slow on Sethu project

Nidhi Sharma | New Delhi (Pioneer, 16 Jan. 2008)

Ahead of the crucial Supreme Court hearing on Wednesday, the UPA Government seems to have decided to go slow on Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project (SSCP). In the first indication that it is not ready to take a direct political call as yet, the Government has relieved some dredgers hired for the project despite knowing that there is an international waiting time of at least a year to acquire them again.

The Supreme Court stay on dredging activity around Adam’s Bridge area had turned these dredgers idle. According to well-placed sources in the Shipping Ministry, the Government had been incurring heavy expenditure towards renting and docking them. Sources said that internally the Government has decided to seek more time from the Supreme Court to study the report of an expert panel, formed after the apex court’s directives to hear objections on the projects. After this indication, the dredgers have been let go.

The project cannot be made operational till dredging is completed. As per Sethusamudram Corporation Ltd records, only 2,77,87,772 cubic metre out of 8,25,50,000 cubic metre of the canal — 33.67% of the canal — had been dredged till October 2007. The official said: “It is a tall task to achieve the target now.”

By relieving the dredgers and seeking more time from the Supreme Court, the Government has almost sent an indication that it would postpone the matter for some time till it has taken a political call on it.

A senior official said: “Dredgers are not simple machines that are available in India readily. These are complex equipment that are hired from international firms. For each dredger, the Government has to pay lakhs of rupees. After the Supreme Court stay on dredging activity around Adam’s Bridge some dredgers were lying idle and we decided to relieve them.” Sources said that the dredgers have to be booked at least a year in advance.

The official said: “Internationally, canals and seas are being dredged for better navigation, so there is a long queue for these machineries. So we have to book in advance. These are too expensive to be bought and are always hired. We have no other option but to relieve them now and continue dredging work on other parts of the project.”

If the matter is adjourned on Wednesday allowing the Government to study the report, the stay on dredging around Adam’s bridge area would remain and the dredging activity would not be resumed. The project envisages linking the Palk Strait with Gulf of Mannar between India and Sri Lanka through a canal. At present, Palk Strait is shallow and this prevents large vessels from navigating through it. SSCP will dredge the sea bottom along India and Sri Lanka’s maritime boundary to a depth of 12 metres to enable larger ships to go through the Palk Strait.

The project is fast becoming a political hot potato for the UPA. The Government is not only facing a problem from the Opposition but also from within the alliance. The DMK has been pressurising the Congress-led coalition to implement the project because of the former’s known hard stance on the issue. The project directly affects DMK’s political fortune as AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa is inching towards a new alliance with BJP in Tamil Nadu.

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