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Massive protests against Sethu

US$ 600 m project will destroy holy bridge, say Hindu activists:

India: More than 35,000 Hindu activists are protesting plans to dredge the Sethusamudram Ship Channel between India and Sri Lanka, pledging to take their agitation nationwide in two weeks.

Wearing saffron robes, headbands and beating drums, religious groups and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party chanted hymns and shouted slogans in the temple town of Rameswaram, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu yesterday. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) also plans to hold road blockades across the country on September 12.

The channel will cut the travelling distance for larger ships by 424 nautical miles by avoiding having to go around Sri Lanka, and is part of India's plan to upgrade the maritime infrastructure in Asia's fourth-biggest economy.

Once operational, about 3,000 ships are expected to transit through the channel every year, Rakesh Srivastava, joint secretary in the federal government's Department of Shipping, said in a telephone interview from New Delhi.

The project, conceived when the British ruled India in 1860, wasn't implemented because of lack of funds. The 167-kilometre (104-mile) waterway, to be completed by November 2008, will connect the Gulf of Mannar and the Bay of Bengal through the Palk Strait and the Palk Bay and enable ships to travel within India's territorial waters.

The protesters say the US$ 599 million Sethusamudram Ship Channel project, for which dredging started in December, will destroy a bridge built in the waters by Lord Ram, one of the most important Hindu gods. Dredging a deeper channel will shave 30 hours off travel time between India's East and West coasts, according to the Department of Shipping.

"Ramar bridge is a heritage and holy site, we should not allow government to touch it... We have started the agitation even as the government is preparing to blast the holy bridge," VHP leader Praveen Togadia said yesterday.

"The Government says it's not a manmade bridge; then it is made by god," said

Togadia. "Why is the government particular about breaking the faith of millions of

Hindus? This protest is the start of a national movement." Stating that VHP was not against the SSCP, he claimed that the project could be completed by choosing another alignment, which was cheaper too, without damaging the Ramar Sethu.

"This (present) alignment has been chosen deliberately to hurt the Hindu sentiments, and Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh) and Shipping Minister T R Baalu should take complete responsibility for the same," he said. He also claimed both Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka were opposed to the SSCP. Ramar Sethu contained vast amounts of thorium, which could be used to generate four lakh MW of power, he claimed. "If the bridge is intact, the state (Tamil Nadu) could get more revenue.

They could also mine thorium and become richer." He also referred to a report submitted by an expert committee in Sri Lanka which said that Talaimannar, Trincomalee and Rameswaram would face severe drinking water shortage if the project was taken up.

About 95 per cent of India's trade by volume and 70 per cent by value is transported through the country's 12 major ports and 187 smaller ones, according to the Department of Shipping.

"By cutting down sailing time, the biggest beneficiary will be trade," said Srivastava. "A lot of investments from the public and private sector is going in to make ports, terminals and berths. The beneficiaries would be the four ports of Chennai, Kolkata, Vishakhapatnam and Tuticorin."

Hindu leaders cite the epic, the Ramayana, as proof Ram built the so-called Adam's Bridge in the waterway by anchoring rocks to the seabed to rescue his wife Sita from the demon Ravana.

Ram Sethu, or Ram's Bridge, as the Hindu groups refer to it, "was used as a bridge between India and Sri Lanka in the 14th century," Togadia said. "By destroying the bridge, they are hurting Hindus. There are alternatives available."


Sri Lanka's objections to the channel dredging are based on environmental and economic reasons.

"The area there is being disrupted and plates below the ocean are getting shifted due to dredging," Nihal Keppetipola, additional Managing Director Sri Lanka Ports Authority, said in a telephone interview. "It will damage natural marine resources and ruin fishermen's lives."

India will need to keep dredging the channel regularly to keep it viable as a sea lane, said the Lankan official.

"We want to know why this is being built," Keppetipola said. "We are not going to be the losers as we have the Colombo south hub extension project. We will maintain our hub status."

 

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