The Ram Setu Sutra
The Congress-led UPA Government has once again revived the controversial Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project which, if implemented, will cause the destruction of Ram Setu. In 2007 UPA 1 had kicked up a row by contesting the existence of Sri Ram in its affidavit on the issue to the Supreme Court. The uproar of protest forced the Government to withdraw the affidavit and set up a committee of experts headed by environmentalist RK Pachauri. In its report, the Pachauri Committee advised the Government against proceeding with the project.
Curiously, with the next general election looming on the horizon, the Government has once again decided to pursue the project whose cost runs into thousands of crores of rupees. Pushing through big ticket projects on the eve of elections is standard Congress tactics for more than one reason. The Supreme Court should stay the Government's hand and force it to retreat from its hideous decision which can only be termed as anti-Hindu, apart from being disastrous for the ecology of the region. There are several reasons why Ram Setu should be left alone. Here are some of them.
Legend has it, as any Indian child not born of deracinated parents would tell you, that the bridge was built by Hanuman's vanar sena to enable Ram and his army to cross the Palk Strait, march into Lanka, slay Ravan and rescue Sita. For those who believe that the Ramayan is not about Hindu myth-making but an elaborate rendition by Valmiki of what was till then oral history, the building of the bridge was an awesome feat. Images of the vanar sena carrying huge chunks of rock and paving a path across the sea, carved in stone, printed on yellowing oleographs or in Amar Chitra Katha comic strips, inspire both reverence and pride in a past that we tend to belittle. We are, after all, a nation that has no sense of history.
If the stalled Sethusamudram project is revived, dredgers equipped with cutters will resume badgering that past, literally and metaphorically, to create a channel for ships. Before work on the project came to a halt after the Supreme Court's intervention, unwilling to yield without a fight, as if summoning the Herculean strength of Hanuman, the remains of Ram Setu were found to be putting up a stiff resistance and proving to be difficult to be removed. Two state-of-the-art dredgers had to retire injured from the scene of battle.
The assault on Ram Setu is part of the ambitious, Rs 2,427-crore Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project to create a channel for large ships between the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay. The channel, if it is ever created, will reduce sailing time for ships moving from India's western seacoast to the east. They have to now circumnavigate around Sri Lanka, which means waste of time and resources. The project has been talked about since the 19th century, but it invariably foundered on the issue of the channel's alignment so as not to get stuck on the hard rock of Ram Setu, or, if you prefer, what British cartographers named Adam's Bridge. It was during the BJP-led NDA regime that the project took form and shape. But before a final view could be taken, the Government fell in the summer of 2004.
The UPA 1 Government's Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs cleared the project on May 19, 2005. As for the alignment of the channel, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute's (NEERI's) proposal was accepted. After rejecting alignments proposed by several experts since the 19th century on "technical grounds", NEERI has selected an alignment that runs through Ram Setu, which divides Dhanushkodi/Rameswaram island, travels through Palk Bay, and cuts through Palk Strait, linking the Gulf of Mannar to Bay of Bengal with a deep channel. The alignment runs close to India's maritime boundary with Sri Lanka. The dredged material will be dumped in Indian territorial waters.
» Shifting sandbanks in this area present a far more formidable problem – both at the stage of construction and during maintenance – than the sand dunes on the island site.
» Approaches to a channel would be far too open with no possibility of construction of protective works. A channel at this site – even if it can be made and maintained (which is unlikely) – would entail definite navigational hazard.
» The channel would be bordering on the Sethusamudram Medial Line.
"In these circumstances, we have no doubt whatever that the junction between the two seas should be effected by a Canal; and the idea of cutting a passage in the sea through Adam's Bridge should be abandoned," the report concluded.
Retired marine scientists and experts claim that if the Government persists with the project in its present form, India could be inviting an ecological disaster. They cite the 2004 experience of the coastline protected by Ram Setu escaping the fury of the Boxing Day tsunami.
Destroying the setu, they point out, citing tsunami expert Tad S Murthy, "Opens up serious potential damage to the entire Kerala and Tamil Nadu coast when the next tsunami occurs." The project does not factor in measures to protect the coastline from tsunamis after the existing barrier is destroyed.
Experts have pointed out that as a consequence of dredging and opening of Ram Setu, fragile coral islands will be "destroyed by sediments and turbulent tides of Bay of Bengal entering the tranquil Gulf of Mannar." They have suggested that the channel should be realigned towards Pamban and, like the Panama Canal, locks could be provided at the Palk Bay end and the Gulf of Mannar end to prevent disasters like tsunamis.
Murthy has written to the Prime Minister, suggesting that the alignment be changed northwest-ward to avoid the destruction of Kerala if a tsunami were to hit the southern coastline. "The Sethu Samudram canal has many characteristics similar to the Alberni canal, and this is the reason I am concerned. In the March 28, 1964, Alaska earthquake tsunami, outside of Alaska the largest tsunami amplitude was at the head of the Alberni canal well inland and not at the open coast as everyone expected. Later, I explained this was due to (a phenomenon known as) quarter wave resonance amplification," Murthy explained in his letter.
Experts also aver that thorium deposits in Kerala (Aluva, Chavara) and Tamil Nadu (Manavalakurichi), which have been critical in supporting India's indigenous nuclear programme, "will be desiccated". This could cripple the fast-breeder programme, already threatened by the India-US civil nuclear deal.
But what has led to an emotional upsurge among those who believe that what is under threat is Ram Setu is the manner in which the Congress-led UPA Government has ignored textual and scientific evidence about the structure's historical value. "Damage to Ram Setu is a violation of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act of 1958 since this is a monument which has remained in existence for over 100 years," one anguished critic points out.
On its part, the Congress appears eager to flaunt its "secular" (read callous towards Hindu sentiments) credentials and insists there are no archaeological studies that reveal the existence of Ram Setu between India and Sri Lanka. Not to be silenced so easily, scholars have dug out a NASA satellite picture that shows the existence of a stretch of rocks in the Palk Strait between the countries. This is claimed as evidence of a bridge having been built once upon a time.
The relevant information, taken from NASA's website, reads: "Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) of NASA aboard space shuttle Endeavour launched in February 2000. Sri Lanka is shaped like a giant teardrop falling from the southern tip of the vast Indian sub-continent. It is separated from India by the 50 km wide Palk Strait, although there is a series of stepping-stone coral islets known as Adam's Bridge that almost form a land bridge between the two countries."
Another NASA website entry reads: "Adam's Bridge between India and Ceylon, at the right, is clearly visible. A cloudless region surrounds the entire sub-continent. Differences in colour, green near the west coast, and brown inland, delineate regions of heavy vegetation and semiarid areas." The entries have satellite images attached to them.
As for textual references, there are plenty of them to bolster the case for protecting Ram Setu. Valmiki has described the construction of the setu in vivid terms: Vaanar having huge bodies, with mighty strength uprooted elephant-sized rocks and mountains and transported them. Ved Vyas refers to Nal Setu or Nal's bridge, "mountain-like, sustained out of respect for Ram's command".
Kalidas has written about how Ram, while returning from Sri Lanka, told Sita, "Behold, Sita, my setu of mountains dividing this frothy ocean is like the milky way dividing the sky into two parts." The Skanda Purana describes the installation of three Shivlings at the end, middle and beginning of the Ram Setu.
It's a heady mix, if you care to listen to those protesting against the project, of faith, science and history. This is not about politics or development, but ancient wisdom being sacrificed at the altar of commercial advantage. Even if you choose to disregard faith based on ancient texts, then look at it this way: Nature's protective cover is being destroyed because the project is a gravy train on which politicians, bureaucrats and contractors want a ride.
Should we allow that to happen?