Thursday, February 7, 2008

Status of Sethu project remains hazy, RTI Act does not help

Project website has not been updated for three months; estimates on work completed range 25% to 75%, reports Priyanka P. Narain on Live Mint

Mumbai: Even as the government is expected this week to ask for more time to file an affidavit on the cultural significance of Adam’s Bridge (Ram Sethu), the exact status of the Sethusamudram project remains unclear.

The Supreme Court had earlier stayed work on Adam’s Bridge itself, a coral walkway between India and Sri Lanka, but the government had said that work on other parts of the project continued. Hindus believe the bridge was constructed by Ram.

The government’s secrecy and evasiveness have escalated with growing public interest in the project: the project’s website has not been updated for three months; estimates on the amount of work completed ranges from 25% to 75%; questions filed by former government officials and citizen action groups such as the Coastal Action Network under the Right to Information Act remain unanswered; and the shipping ministry, which is in charge of the project, has not lifted its gag order on all government-owned shipping organizations, port authorities and corporations, so few are willing to share any information.

The government’s secrecy and evasiveness has increased with growing public interest in the Sethusamudram project. Even those who are supposed to know give vague replies. For instance, the general manager of Sethusamudram Corp. Ltd, Srinivas Kannan, says he does not know how much money has been spent or exactly how much work has been completed. “We have not been able to update the project status on our website because of technical difficulty. But I know that we have spent at least Rs 360 crore. And then there are bills at Palk Straits that have been raised but have not been settled. But I don’t know what those figures are,” Kannan said.

The government is to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court by 16 January explaining the cultural significance of Adam’s Bridge.

It is now expected to ask for more time for the affidavit and the fate of the controversial project is unclear. Even if the government does resolve religious sentiments, it will have to address other issues: continuing financial woes, unanswered questions about economic viability of the project, the loss of livelihood for thousands of fishermen, and the environmental and ecological damage to the marine biosphere in the Gulf of Mannar.

It is anyone’s guess as to when, if at all, the government will be able to resolve these tangled questions.

Officials at Sethusamudram Corp.—the company executing the project which seeks to build a canal through the Palk Straits thereby reducing the time taken by ships to circumnavigate India—have continued dredging work in the area, where the 54km channel begins. According to unofficial estimates, Rs610 crore has been spent on dredging a channel that may never be used. Jesu Rethinam, convener of Coastal Action Network, an action group based in Tamil Nadu says it is impossible to get any kind of information. It does not help to file questions under the Right to Information Act, either.

“We have filed several questions under the Act, asked them to send us satellite images of the channel that they claim they have already dredged in Palk Straits and the area north of the Adam’s Bridge. We have not received any response so far,” Rethinam said.

Ossie Fernandes, co-convener of the Coastal Action Network, says officials claim “they dump sand in the high sea.” He said: “Well, if you dump several hundred million cubic tonnes of sand somewhere in the ocean, then it’s bound to show up as a mound in satellite images. But they will not even give us the latitude and longitude where they supposedly dump all this sand.”

Rethinam says that her group wanted satellite images of the channel because “till today there is no proof that a channel has been dug.”

Coastal Action Network has filed four appeals against the ministry for not honouring the terms of the RTI Act to Central information officer and requested intervention.
Fishermen in the region say the ocean current is too strong for divers to go in and verify the channel’s dept. But, other local fishermen such as F. Xavier say they have reason to believe that little has been done. “I have spent all my life fishing in the sea around Adam’s Bridge. What was done is probably filled up with sand again,” said Xavier referring to the sedimentation caused by the ocean currents.
“According to my sources, unless maintenance dredging is done in the seas here, the ocean currents will fill up whatever is dredged,” says V. Sundaram, an officer formerly with the Indian Administrative Service who served as the first chairman and managing director of Tuticorin port in Tamil Nadu. Until September, the Sethusamudram website said that 25% of the work was done. About a fortnight later, shipping minister T.R. Baalu told reporters that “most of the work on the channel is done.”
So what is the truth? How much work has really been completed? According to S. Murli, a national committee member in Rameshwaram of the Bharatiya Janata Party, “nothing has been accomplished.”

“Of course, for accounting purposes they may even say all work is over,” he said.
Murli says because the government is not forthcoming with images or any other data and if anecdotal evidence of local fishermen is true, then it is natural to ask, “Where has the money gone?”

Dredging is known to be one of the most corrupt industries in the world. Sundaram says that as the chairman of the Tuticorin port, he had to oversee dredging work all the time. “There are two basic ways people can cheat on dredging. First is to say there is hard rock surface below, where there is none. As dredging hard rock needs more work, you have to pay more. Or, (they can) cheat on the actual measurement,” he said.

“As you are not showing people where you are dumping the sand you are dredging, there is no one to verify. Either way, the contractor and the officials share the spoils.”

Captain Jagdish Khokhar, president of Abhay Ocean Pvt. Ltd, a dredging company in Mumbai, says that the Dredging Corp. of India Ltd, the state-owned company in charge of dredging the Sethu canal, approached him for a contract to dredge the channel for them since they did not have enough vessels to do the job. He says he toyed with the idea but changed his mind at the last minute. He says he is happy he did so given all the controversy around the project.

“I studied it closely. But I felt uncomfortable with some of the terms and decided not to get involved. I am so glad I made the right call,” he says.

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