Saturday, May 24, 2008

Setu project: mocking science (also archeology), devastating sea grass nurseries of fish stocks

Setu project:

mocking science (also archaeology), devastating sea
grass nurseries of fish stocks

SC bench asked a question of Advocate Krishnan. "Who says there will
be a channel connecting Palk Straits and Gulf of Mannar. The two seas
are already connected."

This shows pathetic lack of knowledge of
bathymetry of the sea in Setusamudram.

Bathymetry is topography of the
ocean. At the Pamban gap, where the Palk Straits meets Gulf of Mannar,
the depth of the ocean is very shallow, ranging from 4 ft. to 10 ft.
This shallowness makes the ocean in Agritirtham a mere oceanic lake.
This does NOT constitute an effective merging of the ocean-waters,
providing for free movement of aquatic species. Many aquatic species,
particularly of large-sized fishes thrive only in sea-depths deeper
than 10 ft. Thus, opening up a channel of 300 m. width and 12 metres
depth will effectively create a veritable ocean current moving such
aquatic species from one habitat to another. Habitat protection and
prevention of habitat migrations are mandated under the UN Laws of the
Sea and in international treaty obligations to protect the marine
ecosystem, endangered wild life and bioreserve. Sudarshan is right. SC
is mocking science by asking the stupid question.

Dr. Subramanian Swamy pointed out that both navigation and fishing
cannot co-exist. He was questioned by the SC Bench. The answer is
simple: The proposed channel will cut off over 2500 sq. kms. of the
bioreserve area from fishing activity since the channel alignment is
exactly 3 kms. west of the medial line between India and Sri Lanka
(that is a line which is only 15 kms. from Dhanushkodi). This means
that for a stretch of over 4 kms. (including 300 m. + buoys floatation
area), this ocean zone will NOT be accessible for fishing. Considering
that the biosphere close to the medial line is the nursery for fish
stocks, livelihood of coastal people dependent upon fishing will be
devastated. Does the Union of India want to see the impoverishment of
the coastal people, the fisherfolk, just to benefit a few vested
interests with trawlers in Port Blair? Dr. Swamy produced evidence to
demonstrate conflict of interest and asking for Hon. TR Baalu to be
made a respondent. The silence of SC Bench on this demand was

UOI senior advocate F. Narimaan mocked: "I have a problem with Rama's
date of birth cited by Dr. Swamy." Little does he know that even
Zarathushtra's dob may not be clear to the jurist. Jurists, Municipal
corporation's birth certificate ain't necessary. Not even
archaeological surveys for a divyakshetram visited by over 5 lakh
pilgrims evey year on ashadha amavasya day to offer pitru-tarpanam,
homage to ancestors.

So, who is mocking science? The justice system is expected to protect
the environment and also heritage. It is not competent to question
faith or sanction an ecological disaster in the making through a Setu
channel project, a mid-ocean channel passage unprecedented in the
annals of technological history of mankind.

Dr S. kalyanraman


A mockery of science, conservation and environmental laws

Sudarshan Rodriguez (The Hindu, 19 May 2008)

It is beyond doubt that the Sethusamudram project will have disastrous
consequences for the region's biodiversity.

UNCOMFORTABLE QUESTIONS: Dredging activity will result in the killing
of species protected under the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

The religio-political controversy and public debate surrounding the
Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project (SSCP) have overshadowed the original
arguments raised against this project, namely its environmental,
economic and social impacts.

Ecological significance

Part of the project area, specifically Adam's Bridge, falls within the
Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve (GOMBR). It is India's largest
biosphere reserve and has an area of 10,500 sq km, covering the
"Indian part of Gulf of Mannar between India and Sri Lanka." It is one
of India's major coral reef ecosystems with 3,600 species of flora and
fauna, of which 377 are endemic. It is famous for its chanks (conches
and other shells) which make Rameswaram one of the world's largest
shell trade and craft centres. The 21 islands that constitute the core
zone of the GOMBR form the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park, which
is India's second marine national park. UNESCO's Biosphere Reserve
concept is based on the idea of oneness of humanity transcending
national frontiers and recognises the need for conservation of
vanishing species and habitats. The canal at Adam's Bridge is a mere
20 km from Shingle Island, one of these 21 islands. With the
completion of the SSCP, ships will be navigating through the biosphere
reserve and close to the park.

The other part where most of the capital dredging is planned is the
Palk Bay, which is also ecologically sensitive and has extensive sea
grass meadows. Sea grasses serve as nurseries for fish stocks, and are
essential grazing areas for turtles and dugongs (also known as the sea
cow: a highly endangered species on the verge of extinction).

Rohan Arthur, an ecologist and a leading expert on sea grasses and
corals with the Nature Conservation Foundation, is of the view that
"the importance of the sea grass meadows of the Palk Bay and Gulf of
Mannar cannot be overstated, as they are a conservation hotspot of
regional and global relevance." (from Review of the Environmental and
Economic Aspects of the Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project, by Sudarshan
Rodriguez, Jacob John, Rohan Arthur, Kartik Shanker and Aarthi

Impact of dredging

The Palk Bay, known for its unusually high sedimentation rate, is one
of the five permanent sediment sinks of India, that is, sediments are
constantly being deposited in the Palk Bay and Palk Strait. The
sediment sink and transport mechanism in the region are yet to be
fully understood. Strangely, all the project documents summarily
ignore important knowledge of sedimentation, and the bibliography
stops at 1989 while some of the key papers were published in the late
1990s and since 2000. Dredging Adam's Bridge along a 300-metre wide
stretch to make the canal passage will have drastic consequences for
marine ecosystems in the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar. It will be
akin to opening the floodgates of a dam and will allow sediments from
the Palk Bay to flow freely into the Gulf of Mannar, thus affecting
the corals and fisheries in the Marine National Park and the whole
biosphere reserve. Both sea grasses and corals are sensitive to
increases in sediment levels. "The changed sediment conditions have a
range of effects on corals and sea grasses, affecting their basic
physiology, reproduction, recruitment, population and community
structure," says Rohan Arthur in Review of the Environmental and
Economic Aspects of the Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project (cited

Loss of wildlife

The project directly results in loss of wildlife, specifically
protected species. This is evident from its own documents (Section 1.3
and 3.2 of the Environmental Impact Assessment prepared by NEERI)
which acknowledges the presence of corals, sea fans, sponges, pearl
oysters, chanks and sea cucumbers along the canal. The EIA (Section and 6.6) report states: "Due to dredging, the bottom flora and
fauna on an area of about 6 sq km along the channel alignment in
Adam's Bridge and about 16-17 sq km in Palk Bay/Palk Strait area will
be lost permanently." Thus, the dredging activity for the canal will
result in the killing of corals, sea fans, sponges, and sea cucumbers,
all of which are protected species under the Indian Wildlife
(Protection) Act, 1972.

In fact, corals are Schedule I species, which means the government
accords it the same protected status as a tiger. It is shocking that
this aspect is being overlooked. According to the proponents of the
project, it is an acceptable price to pay.

Environmental laws

The EIA did not have a dredging management programme. This is also
pointed out in the L&T-Ramboll Detail Project Report (DPR) of the
SSCP, which recommends that this be done (L&T-Ramboll DPR, Section
12.9.2 on page 12-11, bullet point 2). The EIA of the project also did
not have a Disaster Management Plan (DMP), a mandatory legal
requirement. (Under Form A, Item 11 of the EIA notification, 1994 and
the Ministry of Environment and Forest's EIA Manual).

Till date there is no DMP for the project and the project authorities
have stated on various occasions that the Tuticorin Port Trust's (TPT)
DMP would be applicable for the project. The TPT's DMP was developed
only for the functioning of the Tuticorin port, where ships navigated
in the southern Gulf of Mannar (around Kanyakumari) to Tuticorin and
not further through Adam's Bridge and Palk Bay.

Many experts have pointed out severe shortcomings in the project's
documents and design in terms of data gaps with respect to basic
parameters such as sub-surface geology, bathymetry, and sedimentation
process in the project area. These have resulted in the poor design of
the project and inadequate assessment of risks, hazards and
environmental impacts. It is beyond doubt that it will have disastrous
consequences for the region's biodiversity, causing major and
permanent losses to fisheries and livelihoods.

The government needs to answer some uncomfortable questions on why it
ignored its own conservation and environment laws. The relegation of
the above-mentioned environmental arguments against the SSCP, and the
lack of scientific rigour in the design and EIA of the project,
represent a mockery of science, conservation and environmental laws.

(Sudarshan Rodriguez is a Senior Research Associate at the Ashoka
Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE). He can be
contacted at sudarshanr @ yahoo. com)

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