Centre submits report of expert panel headed by R.K. Pachauri in apex court

The alternative alignment (4A) for the Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project without cutting across the Adams Bridge or Ram Setu is not economically and ecologically feasible, according to a report of the expert committee headed by R.K. Pachauri submitted by the Centre in the Supreme Court.

The committee was constituted to consider whether the project could be implemented through the alternative alignment (4A) that would cut through the spit of land just east of Dhanushkodi. Work on the present alignment (No.6), which cuts through the Ram Setu, was stayed by the Supreme Court in the wake of considerable opposition to the project.

On Monday, Solicitor General Rohinton Nariman told a Bench of Justices H.L. Dattu and C.K. Prasad that the expert committee had, in its report, stated that the alternative alignment was not economically and ecologically feasible. The Union Cabinet was yet to consider the report and take a decision, he said and sought 12 weeks’ time. The Bench granted eight weeks for the Centre to place the Cabinet’s decision before the court and adjourned the proceedings. It also granted eight weeks’ to the Tamil Nadu government for filing its response to the expert committee’s report.

Oil spills

In its report, the committee said: “Important aspect of risk management relates to the possibility of oil spills; even with the most stringent measures and precautions it will be difficult to rule [them] out completely. The study clearly finds that oil spills could possibly pose a risk to the biosphere reserve, which needs to be protected under all conditions.

“A number of measures have been identified for minimising the impacts of possible oil spills, but it will not be possible, under any circumstances, to conclude that oil spills can be eliminated or prevented completely and that in the event of an oil spill there will be no threat to the biosphere reserve.”

It said: “The project, including the possibility of adopting alignment 4A, could potentially result in ecological threats that could pose a risk to the ecosystems in the surrounding area and, in particular, to the biosphere reserve. It is concluded that the benchmark return of 12 per cent is not met for the range of scenarios examined in the case of alignment 4A.

“It is also concluded that a more realistic set of assumptions will impact viability adversely even further. The economic analysis also brings out the fact that the assumptions used are somewhat optimistic and obviously do not take into account the possibility of adverse effects of delays, engineering surprises and other factors that could affect the cost of the project upwards.”

It said: “On the basis of the analysis and the importance of observing a risk management approach, 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 will be served by pursuing the project on the basis of alignment 4A.”

The report, however, made it clear that the committee had not conducted a study on the impact of climate change. “One important factor that was not possible to be covered in this study for a variety of reasons, but which will very likely prove relevant to the operational viability and the very design features of the project, will be the impact of climate change. This requires rigorous analysis using global climate models suitably down-scaled to come with some range of estimates on projected cyclonic activity.

“For infrastructure to be created in such a fragile ecological zone, a rigorous analysis of possible scenarios related to the impacts of comate change will be critical in decision-making that aims to minimise risk both in economic as wells as ecological terms.”