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Govt considered using explosives though project okay specified 'no blasting'

Govt considered using explosives though project okay specified 'no blasting'

Author: Priyanka P. Narain
Publication: The Wall Street Journal
Date: March 14, 2008
URL: http://www.livemint.com/2008/03/14000917/Govt-considered-using-explosiv.html

Fishermen were aghast at the report and said they feared their livelihoods may blow up with the bridge

A report by a government-appointed committee on the Sethusamudram project says adequate research has been done to understand the underwater geology and marine environment off India's southern coast, including one study to examine the "controlled blasting" of the Adam's Bridge and after-effects.
Independent environmental organizations counter that the studies have been a sham, while fishermen in Rameshwaram, where the India side of the walkway rests, already point to disappearing fish and conch species.

The report by the "committee of eminent persons", the Supreme Court-mandated group convened to study the controversial project, mentions an undated study by the Indian School of Mines to examine "the feasibility of underwater drilling and controlled blasting in the channel".

The reference essentially confirms that the government has considered using explosives in the fragile marine biosphere to blast the Adam's Bridge, also known as the Ram Sethu. That is a direct contrast to the environmental clearance originally given to the project on the condition that no blasting will be done while dredging the channel.

The government's Rs2,600 crore project intends to dredge the walkway to shorten shipping routes and times around India.

Independent research organizations, such as the Coastal Action Network, have been running their own environmental assessment and say that the current monitors-government-aided institutions as the Suganthi Devadasan Marine Research Institute in Tuticorin and the Centre for Advanced Study in Marine Biology at Annamalai University-do not have the equipment or the expertise to assess ocean dynamics.

"Right now, their monitoring is mainly research students following a dredging boat with an environment-monitoring machine that measures things like temperature and turbidity. When you are dredging the ocean, that is not enough," said Ossie Fernandes, convener of the Coastal Action Network, an environmental watch group in Tamil Nadu.

Fernandes, who has been fighting the project for the last two years, says a channel of such magnitude dug in the ocean requires monitoring agencies to study sub-surface changes in microseismic activity, salinity, toxicity, thermal zones and current movements. "To do this, they must be independent bodies with the right equipment," he said.

The phone rang unanswered at Suganthi, while a message left with the Annamalai University centre was not returned.

The Sethusamudram project, which plans to create a channel by dredging the bridge connecting India and Sri Lanka, has been mired in controversy over security, economic, environmental and social issues. The channel would open up the marine bioreserve of the Gulf of Mannar, home to many endangered species such as sea cows, seahorses and sea turtles, to traffic and ships loaded with coal, oil or other hazardous cargo.

Members of the committee have been asked not to talk to the media and calls to shipping minister T.R. Baalu's office were not returned.

In December 2000, Baalu, who oversees this project, had emphasized the importance of protecting the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve Trust during his inauguration: "This biosphere reserve was established for attempting an integrated approach to resolving the adverse impacts of human activities on the rich biodiversity of this ecologically fragile area," he had said.

Complains Fernandes: "This whole thing is a big hoax. These are not independent bodies and students are doing purely environmental monitoring." He said requests to examine the mineral composition of the soil being dumped in dredging have gone unanswered. "We have asked for photos or videos for the channel. But we have not received any new data," he said.

Some local fishermen in Rameshwaram say that over the last year, the number of fish appears to be depleting. K. Kuppuramaniam, spokesperson for the fishermen's groups in Rameshwaram observed: "Some varieties of fish such as "kumla" have not come since last year. It used to come to this area from deep seas, but it has stopped coming. A lot of fishermen dive under the water to look for conches but, even those are hard to find these days."

S. Kalam, who runs one of the largest conch businesses in the town, confirmed that his divers have to go deeper these days to look for conches that were freely available before.

Reports that the government has considered blasting the bridge came as a shock to some of the fishermen, who fear their livelihoods may blow up with the bridge if that indeed happens.

The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (Neeri) had given environmental clearance to the project in August 2004 on the condition that the marine bio-reserve would not be disturbed and no blasting would take place.

When word surfaced last August that the government was thinking of using explosives under the water, deputy director of Neeri and co-author of the project's environmental impact assessment S.R. Wate said he would withdraw clearance if the government tried to use explosives in such a fragile area.

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