Many key issues centred on Tamil Nadu have come up repeatedly in the Supreme Court over the years. The SC has heard cases involving the liberation of seven Tamils, the Cauvery Management Board issue, etc. All of Tamil Nadu’s political parties have a stance on these cases, while the Centre has a different one. However, the Sethusamudram project is a unique scenario. Despite numerous attempts to resolve the issue, the Centre and the state’s positions on it remain united. The Supreme Court late last month adjourned a plea by senior BJP leader Subramanian Swamy to declare the Ram Setu a national heritage monument, while asking whether this wasn’t a matter for the executive. So the issue is still in limbo.
Ram Setu/Adam’s Bridge
The region is known as ‘Ram Palam’ or ‘Adam Palam’ since it is situated halfway between the Indian city of Rameswaram and the Mannar Islands of Sri Lanka. The limestone-based bridge is 48 kilometres long. Meanwhile, the Ramayana is viewed from a mythological angle by many followers. They believe that this bridge was constructed so that Rama could go to Sri Lanka and find Sita, who had been kidnapped by Ravana. As a result, it is revered by those who closely adhere to Hinduism. According to legends, the Ramayana, which Valmiki wrote, also includes information concerning the Ram Setu.
Although this region is referred to in mythology as Ram Setu, it is still unknown how this bridge was created. According to the Central Archaeological Survey, the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), and the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) had requested permission to examine the Ram Setu Bridge. However, those studies’ findings are still unpublished.
The ‘Sethusamudram Canal’ is the canal cutting across the Adam’s Bridge or Ram Setu connecting the Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar. So far, ships going to the Gulf of Mannar, Indian Ocean, from Palk Strait have been going around Sri Lanka. The canal project is an initiative to bypass travelling around and directly reach the Bay of Bengal.
Meanwhile, ships leaving the Tuticorin VO Chidambaranar Harbour for east coast ports including Chennai, Ennore, Visakhapatnam, Paradeep, and Kolkata must circumnavigate Sri Lanka. This would necessitate travelling an additional 254-424 nautical miles. As a result, travel time will increase by 32 hours, where India is suffering a significant economic loss. If the project is carried through, the distance between India’s east and west coasts will reportedly be cut in half from 424 nautical miles, which results in a 30-hour reduction in travel time.
AD Taylor of the Indian Navy came up with the idea for the 300-metre-wide, 167-km-long, and 12-metre-deep canal project in the 1860s. Later, for Rs 9.98 lakh in 1955, during Jawaharlal Nehru’s tenure as Prime Minister, and for Rs 282 crore in 1983, when Indira Gandhi was PM, teams led by Lakshminarayan and Ramasamy Mudaliyar made attempts. Following that, the programme was launched by the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on July 2, 2005, in Madurai, for which Rs 2,427 crore had been earmarked. However, due to various controversies, it has not been completed.
Apparently, the Sethusamudram project was a big dream of late Tamil Nadu chief minister CN Annadurai. After him, late CM M Karunanidhi also made efforts to implement this project. However, that did not happen even though the DMK was a ruling ally at the Centre from 2004 to 2014.
Karunanidhi vs Jayalalithaa
After the Congress administration with DMK as an ally took power at the Centre in 2004, the Sethusamudram project was given a budget of Rs 2,427 crore in 2005. However, this initiative was fiercely opposed by J Jayalalithaa, who was in charge of Tamil Nadu at the time. Moreover, Jayalalithaa brought a petition against this project before the Supreme Court on behalf of the AIADMK after the DMK took control under Karunanidhi’s leadership in 2006. The project was later prohibited in 2008. After she returned to power in 2011, Jayalalithaa spoke out against the Sethusamudram project on behalf of the Tamil Nadu government. She also contended that the project would have an effect on the area’s ecology. Karunanidhi though believed that Tamil Nadu would greatly benefit economically from the project.
Environmentalists and fishermen protest
The main opposition to the Sethusamudram project came from religious believers. Additionally, protesting the project were fishermen from the Rameswaram region. They objected, claiming the project’s implementation would harm their livelihood. Environmentalists have also proclaimed the Gulf of Mannar region a protected biosphere reserve and marine national park. Subsequently, fishing is prohibited here. They objected on the grounds that the project would have an impact on the region’s biodiversity because it is home to numerous rare marine species.
Accusations against project
The Supreme Court order was the main reason the Sethusamudram project could not be realised, despite numerous objections to it. It is noteworthy that BJP’s Subramanian Swamy had initiated the case. Hindus believe that Ram Setu is located on the Sixth Sea Route, which was planned to implement the Sethusamudram project. Thus, in 2007, he filed a lawsuit against it.
Late CM Jayalalithaa also filed a case in the Supreme Court with the same demand. The SC subsequently prohibited the implementation of the Sethusamudram project on the sixth route in 2008. Later, the implementation of the project through an alternate route was explored. Subramanian Swamy then brought a claim to have the Ram Setu designated as a national heritage before the Supreme Court. The lawsuit had been pending for a while. In this situation, Swamy recently filed a petition that the case should be investigated quickly. The Supreme Court, apparently, has taken up the case and directed the Centre to provide a response soon. If Ram Setu is acknowledged as a national heritage, say experts, Sethusamudram may become a “dream” project forever, that cannot be fulfilled.