Ram Setu Centre Sticks To Its Guns
The UPA government’s insistence on going ahead with the proposed Setusamundram project despite its disapproval both from the economic and ecological points of view by a committee headed by RK Pachauri, is more surprising than shocking. It is surprising as one fails to understand why the Centre is hell bent upon hurting the Hindu senstivitives as carrier of Indian beliefs which believes that the sea-bridge connecting India and Sri Lanka was constructed by Lord Rama and his army. The Centre has rejected the report of the RK Pachauri Committee that has refused to approve the project. The Pachauri Committee had submitted its report to the Supreme Court. However, the government has made it clear once again last fortnight that it intends to go ahead with the project as it does not accept the conclusions and recommendations of the Pachauri Committee.
What is a matter of sensitive faith and a kind of mythological construct in the minds of the Hindus has been underlined in the writings and comments of great travelers, explorers and even contemporary historians. Al-Beruni, the great medieval scholar and historian who visited India in the 11th century remarks, “Setubandha means bridge of the ocean. It is the dike of Rama, the son of Dasaratha, which he built from the continent to the castle Lanka…” The 13th century European adventurer Marco Polo mentioned about this area as “Sethubandha and Sethubandha Rameswaram.” Maps prepared by a Dutch cartographer of the mid-18th century, shows this area as Ramancoil, a colloquial form of the Tamil Raman Kovil, that is, Rama’s Temple. A map of Mughal India prepared by J Rennel in the later half of the 18th century called this area as “the area of the Rama Temple”, referring to the temple dedicated to Lord Rama at Rameswaram. The western world first came to know about it by the “historical works in the 9th century” by Ibn Khordadbeh in his Book of Roads and Kingdoms dated 850 AD, which referred to it as Set Bandhai or “Bridge of the Sea”. In India, its reference was made for the first time by Valmiki in his Sanskrit epic Ramayana. Sir William Jones, one of the founders of the ‘Asiatic Society Of Bengal’ has been more vocal about the sensitive Hindu faith by making it abundantly clear in his one of discourses that “Lord Rama soon raised a bridge of rocks over the sea, part of which, say the Hindus, yet remains; and it is probably the series of rocks to which the Muselmans or the Portuguese have given the foolish name of Adam’s (it should be called Rama’s) bridge.”
The rich scholarly works of diverse areas, eras and ethos have accepted the fact that faith of the people of this region in Rama is eternal and enduring. The Hindus in India and elsewhere strongly believe that Rama built his setu in order to rescue his beloved wife Sita from the demon king of Sri Lanka, Ravana, by constructing the bridge across the sea with the help of apes and their technical experts- Nal and Neel, who had the reported expertise of putting the stones in sea in such a way that they could float on water. The brothers could do it by merely touching the stones which, otherwise, were likely to sink in waters. It is here that Lord Ram worshipped Lord Shiva to seek his blessings before he started his Lanka campaign by installing Shivlingam.This site which is commonly known as Rameshwaram, was subsequently established as one of the four peeths of Hinduism by the Shankracharya.
Setusamudram is the sea that separates India from Sri Lanka. It encompasses the Gulf of Mannar, the Palk Strait and a shoal of islands which separate them called Ram Setu—also known as Adam’s Bridge. Setusamudram was the site of the proposed Setusamudram Shipping Canal Project by the government of India for dredging the entire straits to make it easily navigable for large ships and create fishing and shipping harbours in the coastal areas. Advantages of this project is stated to lay in its proclaimed benefits of creating a navigable sea route close to the coast, reducing traveling distance and time between the western and the eastern coasts of peninsular India by about 350 nautical miles that is about 758 km and in terms of time by 30 hours. At present, in order to travel from the eastern to the western coast, a ship has to circle about the island of Sri Lanka. The project was expected to potentially transform Tuticorin into a nodal port. The idea of a shipping channel across the Palk Strait was first mooted by the British in 1860 as a short-cut for ocean-going ships sailing between the west and the east coast of India. Probably the shrewd British did not want to invite trouble. However, beginning with1956, the government of India set up several committees to examine its feasibility. The Setusamudram project was formally launched in 2005 and dredging began in 2006. But, the protests across the country drew the attention of the apex court and later with the its intervention, an expert committee headed by R K Pauchari was formed. Rajendra Kumar Pachauri has been serving as the chairperson of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change since 2002, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.
According to Pachauri, the head of government- appointed eight-member committee, not only the present proposed alignment of the Setusamudram Ship Canal Project (SSCP) is “economically non-viable”, but some of the assumptions made by the government about the economic returns of the project are also “over optimistic”. This was emphasised by Pachauri after the UPA government submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court citing the project’s “economic, navigational and strategic advantages,” as the chief reasons for pursuing the controversial project despite the panel’s objections. The Centre through senior advocate Fali S Nariman, cited the ninth-century Ramayana of Kamban and also the “Padma Purana” to disclose the story to the apex court that if Lord Rama constructed Ram Setu, he had also destroyed it. Neither the government representative nor its well-versed senior counsel felt it necessary to differentiate between fact and value. However, Pachauri sticks to his stand and defends his team’s “purely scientific findings.” He also dismissed the government’s proposal as outdated. Defending his team’s findings, he has reportedly remarked, “As for our scientific study, our dedicated team did it for a period of over one year, taking into account different factors and circumstances. ….We considered two parameters in the study – the project’s impact on ecology and economy – and no one can find any fault with it whatsoever.” The panel report concludes saying, “From the foregoing, it can be seen that the project, including the possibility of adopting the alignment 4A, could potentially result in ecological threats that could pose a risk to the ecosystems in the surrounding area and, in particular, to the biosphere reserve.”
The report also ridicules some of the key economic claims of the government. It states, “Benchmark rate of return of 12 per cent hasn’t met for the range of scenarios examined in the case of alignment 4A”. Pachauri states, “We found it economically unviable. Assumptions of the rate of return and other economic parameters were much too optimistic.”
The report concludes, “Given the doubts raised by the detailed analysis, it is unlikely that the public interest would be served by pursuing the project on the alignment 4A.”
Pachauri has also warned against other variables like risk of oil spills, cyclones, tsunamis and other natural threats. “There was a massive cyclone at the very spot in 1964. One has to take into account the impact of such natural phenomena. Besides, we also have to keep in mind climate change, its impact on the (rising) sea levels and their relation to the project,” he emphasises. About the breach of the ‘Ram Setu’, Pachauri argues: “The 4A alignment that we surveyed will require cutting through ‘that’ which is called the part of ‘Ram Setu’ by some people… but of course, our study has entirely been based on science and has got nothing to do with any religion.”
The controversial project has been a bone of contentinon between Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa and her bête noire DMK’s Karuna Nidhi. Mention must also be made of Dr Subramanian Swamy, who had in 2008 revealed to the Supreme Court that national security may be compromised if Setusamundram project is completed overlooking the security concerns expressed by the navy chief and the director of coast guards, who fear the canal would facilitate the LTTE’s activities in India. Dr Swamy had told the apex court bench comprising then Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan, Justices R V Raveendran and J M Panchal that the canal project may encourage LTTE to shift its base to Cochin as they will have easy and direct access from Zafna, its stronghold in Sri Lanka, to Cochin in Kerala. Swamy had also emphasised that cutting of the Ram Setu for this project would be a violation of section 295 of the Indian Penal Code. According to him, damaging Ram Setu would violate the fundamental rights of Freedom of Religion of the Hindus guaranteed by Article 25 of the Constitution.
It is unfortunate that the Centre has not yet heeded to the views expressed by the experts over the issue. Before the situation turns ugly, it should review its decision over the issue pertaining faiths of the majority community of the country.
By PC Singh