In a report made public for the first time,an expert committee formed under the chairmanship of environmentalist R K Pachauri has said its studies have found that an alternative route for ships,proposed to avoid cutting through the mythological Ram Setu,may destroy the ecologically fragile zone and is not economically viable.
The committees conclusions,highlighted by the government in the Supreme Court today,puts the spotlight back on the debate on religious faith versus commerce which had ensued after the finalisation of Alignment 6 (the original alignment for the ship channel which breaches the Ram Setu). It was the Supreme Court which had suggested an alternative route (Alignment 4A ) to avoid Adams Bridge while charting through a spit of land east of Dhanushkodi. The Pachauri committee,serviced by the shipping ministry,was given the task of examining the feasibility of Alignment 4A.
Both in ecological as well as economic terms,it appears questionable whether Alignment 4A represents an attractive or even an acceptable option. Given the doubts raised by the detailed analysis which has been carried out,it is unlikely that public interest would be served by pursuing the project on the basis of Alignment 4A, says the report.
The navigation channel,called the Sethusamudram project,was meant to link the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay through Adams Bridge so that ships moving between the east and west coasts of India need not go around Sri Lanka. The total cost of the project was estimated at over Rs 2,000 crore. The channel is proposed to be 30 metres wide,12 metres deep and 167 kilometres long.
While the report spoke for itself,the government played safe before Justices H L Dattu and C K Prasad,saying the Union Cabinet was yet to take a decision on it. This bought the government eight weeks time to consider and come up with a decision on the future of the project.
The court was hearing a batch of petitions,including one filed by Tamil Nadu CM J Jayalalithaa,highlighting the ecological threat that the Sethusamudram project poses to the region.
But the committee says even Alignment 4A would be a risk to the regions ecology,subject to further exhaustive tests to gauge the full impact of the proposed project. It points to global phenomena like rise in sea level,climate change and oil spills.
In other words,for infrastructure to be created in such a fragile ecological zone,a rigorous analysis of possible scenarios related to the impacts of climate change would be critical in decision making that aims to minimise risk both in economic as well as ecological terms, it says. On April 19,the government had refused to take a stand on the issue of declaring Ram Setu a national monument and had asked the SC to decide instead.
The government had said it would stand by an affidavit cleared by the Cabinet Committee of Political Affairs,in which it had submitted that it should not be called upon to respond to issues of faith,except in recognising their existence.