On the face of it, the ambitious Sethusamudram project to bridge the east coast with the west coast of the country seems a great idea. The prospect of not having to circumnavigate Sri Lanka and cutting short travel periods by 30 hours sounds as interesting as it did 150 years ago when a draft plan for the canal was first mooted (see box: Taking shape). A Tamilian dream is now beginning to take shape.
It is but natural for a project that has been in the pipeline for so long to be mired in controversies. Several areas of utmost concern relate to the welfare of fisherfolk living in the neighbouring districts and the biodiversity of the area, which is likely to be irrevocably damaged by the dredging that is currently taking place and is a pre-requisite to the deepening of Adam’s Bridge and Palk Straits for vessels to ply along the 167.5 km long canal. As always, the nitty-gritty has not been adequately thought through and local interests subverted in the name of grand ideas.
The problem of thinking the project through is compounded by the complex political weave entailed by federalism — in this case what the state government wants, what the Centre hopes to achieve and the interests of local people whose livelihoods are at stake. The fact that the political alignments in the state are often at odds with central imperatives does not help.
The project and its proponents have been excoriated by fisherfolk and environmental activists for not giving due recognition to issues concerning the welfare of the fishing communities and the ecological needs of the area. Despite all the scathing criticism and several public hearings, the project was officially launched by prime minister Manmohan Singh and United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi at Madurai on July 2, 2005. KUSHAL PAL SINGH YADAV toured the area to check out the ramifications of the Sethusamudram project.