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Fresh alignment hogs limelight again

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T. Ramakrishnan

EIA report does not give reason for not choosing 4th alignment

CHENNAI: Alternative alignments for the Sethusamudram project have again become the focus of attention in the backdrop of the “Ramar Sethu” controversy.

The Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies have been demanding a change in the present alignment, which, they say, will demolish the “Ramar Sethu.” However, according to the Sethusamudram Corporation, the executing agency, it is the Adam’s Bridge that will be cut across to form the channel.

A perusal of the history of the project reveals that ever since the idea was mooted for the first time in 1860 to form a continuous navigable route connecting the Gulf of Mannar with the Palk Bay, different alignments were identified by different experts. Between 1860 and 1922, nine proposals were formulated. Most of them envisaged cutting through the Pamban Channel. But, none of them materialised for want of financial resources.

After the Independence, authorities scrutinised five alignments before choosing the present alignment a few years ago. The project was launched in July 2005. Under the present scheme of things, the channel’s total length will be 167 km. It will be 35 km long in the Adam’s Bridge area; 54 km in the Palk Strait; and 78 km in the Palk Bay. No dredging is required in the Palk Bay as it has enough natural depth.

In the mid-1950s, the Union Government constituted the Ramasamy Mudaliar Committee, whose alignment was the first in the post-Independence period. According to this alignment (proposed in 1961), a crossing through the mainland was recommended. In 1968, the Venkateswaran committee suggested an alignment across the Rameswaram island. But neither of the alignments was pursued. Now, the chances of even considering them are ruled out for environmental reasons. Another reason is that they touch upon heavily built-up residential areas.

In 1981, one more alignment—cutting across Dhanushkodi, west of the Kothandaramaswamy temple—was proposed . It was suggested by the Lakshminarayanan committee. In all the proposals, the major factor influencing the final recommendation was economic viability with apparently no consideration to the environmental/ecological aspects. Those were the days when, even at the national level, environmental aspects of development projects were rarely addressed, according to the comprehensive environmental impact assessment report prepared in August 2004 by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) for the project.

In 1996, the State Government got the 1981 proposal updated for economic viability to seek approval from the Union Government.

Subsequently, the Steering Committee of the Union Shipping Ministry suggested that the Dhanushkodi portion of the alignment, popularly called the fourth alignment, be located east of the temple. In 1998, yet another alignment was proposed by the NEERI. It went around Dhanushkodi. But, this was rejected on environmental and navigational grounds.

The present alignment (or alignment No.6) was suggested by the Institute in its initial environmental examination and it would pass through Adam’s Bridge, circumventing the Pamban Island. In view of the ecological importance of the Gulf of Mannar region, the EIA report said the proposed route would be around 20-25 km away from it.

Rama Gopalan, founder-leader of the Hindu Munnani, and D. Kuppuramu, national secretary of the Rameswaram Ramsetu Protection Movement, prefer the fourth alignment. This, they argue, would reduce the canal’s length and the project cost substantially.

Mr. Kuppuramu says: “Though we are for the fourth alignment, we do not insist that the Government choose only this alignment. Any alignment, without disturbing the ‘Ramar Sethu,’ depriving the livelihood of the fishermen and causing damage to the environment, is acceptable to us.” Apart from the present alignment, the alignment no. 5 is also unacceptable as this will also cut across the “Ramar Sethu,” he says.

The EIA report does not give any strong reason for not choosing the fourth alignment. A multi-disciplinary team of experts should be constituted to select the appropriate alignment.

When contacted on phone, T. R. Baalu, Union Minister of Shipping, told The Hindu that the matter was before the Supreme Court. He did not want to comment.

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