Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Ms Jayaram Jayalalithaa on Friday demanded that the dredging work for the controversial $560-million Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project (SSCP) be halted immediately because she claims it has badly hit the livelihood of fishermen and endangered marine biology in the sea south of the southern Indian state.
In a strongly-worded statement issued in state capital Chennai, she declared: `Concerned with the welfare of the people, my government cannot permit this project completely ruining the fishermen`s lives. We cannot remain a silent spectator when the fishermen are being put to great suffering.
Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh had launched the dredging work for the project at a gala public function in Madurai on July 2. It was attended by the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, and leaders of UPA partners in Tamil, including Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) supremo Muthuvel Karunanidhi.
But Ms Jayalalithaa had boycotted that function on the ground that the project was being rushed through by her political rivals without proper environmental assessment. The bitter rivalry between Ms Jayalalithaa`s AIADMK (now in power in Tamil Nadu), and the DMK (which shares power in Prime Minister Dr Singh`s coalition government at the center) has converted the Sethusamudram project into a political football.
The DMK is trying to impress the state`s voters by taking credit for making the 145-year dream project a reality, and hopes to return to power in the assembly polls due early next year. By launching a tirade against the project, Ms Jayalalithaa is seeking to neutralize any advantage the DMK and its allies hope to gain from the project`s speedy execution.
The project is likely to be completed and thrown open to traffic in November 200.
On Friday, Ms Jayalalithaa alleged that the dredging, now going on to deepen the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka, has damaged fishing nets `worth lakhs of rupees` laid by fishermen, and badly interfered with marine life by destroying the sea vegetation under which fish used to lay their eggs.
She said: `Fishermen have written to me complaining that there is virtually no prawn catch in the region now, whereas they used to harvest prawns worth Rs 20,000 a day before the dredging.` Fishermen have also complained that larger marine species like dolphins and other rare fish have migrated out of the region after dredging began, she added.
Ms Jayalalithaa recalled that she had repeatedly pleaded that the project should be taken up only after the `justifiable` apprehensions regarding threat to marine biology and fishermen`s livelihood are answered, and accused the Central Government, DMK President Karunanidhi and his Shipping Minister TR Baalu of persisting with the project `just for gaining political advantage.`
The chief minister said these gentlemen alone should be held responsible for the sufferings of the fishermen because of this project. She then asked: `Will the Centre or Mr Karunanidhi compensate the fishermen?`
`Ultimately, it is the state government that has to face the consequences of this irresponsible project,` she pointed out.
It may be recalled that the Sethusamudram Corporation has awarded the contract for dredging for a length of 13.57km in the Palk Strait area to the state-owned Dredging Corporation of India (DCI), and floated tenders for the remaining three legs, two at Adam`s Bridge (across 11km and 20.05km) and one at Palk Strait (across 40.86km). The tender process will be completed anytime now, and work will begin in November.
The 167km-long, 12-metre deep and 300-metre wide canal will provide a shorter route between India`s east coast and west coat, by reducing the distance by 424 nautical miles, and save 30 hours of sailing. At present, ships commuting from the Indian east coast to the west and vice versa have to go round Sri Lanka.