Massive protests against Sethu
US$ 600 m project will destroy holy bridge, say Hindu
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
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
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."