Environmentalists urge immediate action on India’s controversial Sethusamudram project

By Maheesha Mudugamuwa

Local environmentalists have called for an immediate joint Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) by Sri Lankan and Indian authorities on the proposed Sethusamudram project, as the Congress-led UPA government in India has decided to go ahead with the project after ignoring opposition by experts.

Reiterating their strong opposition to the Sethu project, they blamed the Sri Lankan government for its inability to conduct a proper study of the controversial project. 

According to Indian media reports, the Dr. R. K Pachauri Committee, which was constituted on a directive of the Indian Supreme Court, submitted its report last Friday, suggesting that the entire Sethusamudram ship channel project was unviable economically and ecologically. However, the Congress-led UPA government has rejected the Pachauri Committee report and submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court stating its intention to pursue the project cutting through the Adam’s Bridge, popularly known as Ram Setu.  

Environmentalists alleged that the government had done nothing significant regarding the proposed construction neighbouring the Sri Lankan territorial waters in the Northern Sea.  

Leading environmentalist Jagath Gunawardene said that Sri Lankan authorities should immediately initiate a dialogue with their Indian counterparts on the issue before it is too late.  

Some reports published by Indian environmentalists and NGOs have warned of possible environmental degradation if the Palk Strait is dredged to implement the project.

Gunawardane said that the $400 million Sethusamudram Ship Canal project involved digging a 152km-long and 300m-wide channel through the Palk Strait. If it was created, it would threaten the rich marine ecology in the tropical seas of the Palk Strait and Mannar Gulf.

He said that according to the Law of Sea Convention, Sri Lanka should have the right to ask for a joint EIA as the two countries had signed the convention.

He stressed that the area was home to rare and endangered species of sea turtle, dolphin, dugongs and whales. Corals and ecologically significant plants and algae were also found there.

The canal would destroy the natural barrier between the Bay of Bengal and the shallower waters of the Palk Strait, he said.

Furthermore, dredging the Ram Setu will result in the destruction of fragile coral islands in that area and there is the religious aspect which cannot be ignored.

A senior official of the Marine Environmental Protection Authority (MEPA) said that the proposed Sethu project would cause heavy damage to the marine environment but the country should take steps to mitigate the damage from the project. 

He also said that the impact management programme should continue to monitor the environment impact and the dumping.

Newly appointed Environment Minister Susil Premajayantha, however was not available for comment as he was out of the country.

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