The Ram Setu, a land bridge between our southeastern coast in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, and a valuable civilisational heritage, is being endangered by the UPA coalition, which, frightened by Andimuthu Raja’s move to testify before the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the 2G spectrum scam, has revived the Setusamudram Shipping Canal Project to appease its DMK ally.
Indians who pretend that the Setu’s sacredness is a figment of the political imagination of a segment of society may note that the structure has fascinated non-Hindus for centuries. Al-Beruni in the 11th century noted, “Setubandha means bridge of the ocean. It is the dike of Ram, the son of Dasarath, which he built from the continent to the castle Lanka. At present it consists of isolated mountains between which the ocean flows.” The 13th century Venetian adventurer, Marco Polo, mentions ‘Setabund Rameshwara’, a bridge related to Ram.
Early European travellers have recorded that a few hundred years ago, at low tide, the Ram Setu still served as a land bridge to Sri Lanka. Temple epigraphs and travelogues recorded in the Madras Presidency Gazetteer of 1893 state that this was possible up to 1799, after which the choppy waters and changing tide patterns rendered it difficult. A 16th-17th century map shows a land-link between India and Sri Lanka.
In the 18th century, Sir William Jones observed that the Devanagri script held sway “from the borders of Cashgar and Khoten, to Rama’s Bridge, and from the Sindhu to the river of Siam…” Speaking of Rama and his quest to rescue his wife from the clutches of Ravana, Jones added, “He soon raised a bridge of rocks over the sea, part of which, say the Hindus, yet remains; and it is probably the series of rocks to which the Muselmans or the Portuguese have given the foolish name of Adam’s (it should be called Rama’s) bridge” (Discourses delivered before the Asiatic society)
Interestingly, the Sinhala people have always believed that king Ashoka’s son Mahinda and daughter Sanghamitra came over the bridge. Hence Colombo’s puissant struggle to save it.
NASA satellite images clearly show a broken bridge on the ocean floor with unique curvature and composition that reveals it to be man-made, about 1,750,000 years old. Archeological studies confirm that the first signs of human habitation in Sri Lanka date back to about 1,750,000 years ago, and that the bridge’s age is almost equivalent. In March 2012, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa urged the Prime Minister to declare the Setu a national monument on account of its “immeasurable historical, archaeological and heritage value”.
The idea of a shipping channel across the Palk Strait was first mooted in the British in 1860 as a short-cut for ocean-going ships sailing between the west and east coast of India. From 1956, the Government of India set up several committees to examine its feasibility. The Setusamudram project was formally launched in 2005; dredging began in 2006. The same year, Hindu leaders met the President of India to protest destruction of the Ram Setu.
Ram Setu falls within the Gulf of Mannar Marine Biosphere; an international campaign to save this unique and fragile ecology readily included the Setu as a cultural heritage of mankind. The RK Pachauri committee appointed to study the issue in 2012 noted that shipping lanes in the Gulf of Mannar could cause oil spills and marine pollution, and ravage the rare soft-coral reefs, marine turtles, and rare endangered sea animals such as Dugongs and Green Turtles, besides adversely affecting the livelihoods of fishermen. (The report was summarily rejected when it found the project economically and ecologically unsound).
In 1989, the Government of India established the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere as South Asia’s largest protected marine ecosystem. It has 3,600 species of plants and animals, including sperm whales and dolphins, 117 species of corals (in Indian territorial waters alone), besides many varieties of fish and crustaceans. Any damage to these violates India’s commitments under the UN Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (Bonn Convention).
The marine life on the Sri Lankan side, which is better protected, is even richer. The Bar Reef off the Kalpitiya peninsular alone has 156 species of coral and 283 of fish; there are two other coral reef systems around Mannar and Jaffna. There are extensive banks of oysters, as well as Indian Chank and Sea Cucumbers, especially in the seas adjacent to Mannar.
The ocean floor between India and Sri Lanka is too shallow for ships, so vessels sailing from India’s west and heading to Bangladesh or Indian ports on the east coast have to go around Sri Lanka. It was thought that a channel at Mannar would save nearly 780 km of sailing distance and 30 hours of sailing time for ships, and benefit the Indian Navy and Coast Guard.
But Sri Lanka’s National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency noted that this would increase the water flow from the Bay of Bengal to the Gulf of Mannar, disturbing the inland water balance and Mannar eco-systems. It would hurt fishermen, who are vociferously resisting the project as shipping and fishing cannot coexist in that narrow waterway.
Moreover, cyclone data from 1860 to 2000 shows that cyclones cross the region and its neighborhood once every four years and severely erode the coast. Tsunamis can be even more lethal; the 2004 tsunami has not even been factored in.
The project has failed to study the sedimentation pattern of Palk Bay, which would quantify how much sediment would need to be removed each season, which impacts feasibility. The Information Memorandum of UTI Bank (now Axis Bank) pegged dredging costs at Rs 200 million in the first year. Experts say it will be higher as the open sea constantly brings sand, which could keep the channel effectively closed much of the year. The Suez Canal was cut through land, but needs to be annually desilted.
Experts feel the channel will be unviable as it will involve reducing speed, switching fuels, and extra costs like canal charges and pilot navigation assistance to negotiate it. Also, for security reasons ships must keep a distance of 200 nautical miles from the Sri Lankan coast; the channel does not address this concern.
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the matter and may be our last hope.