'Yo Ho Ho! And a bottle of Rum!' was a very famous song sung by the Sea-Pirates in the olden days. The sea pirates spend most of their lives in the sea and survive by robbing the merchant ships and passenger ships.
The UPA government at the centre is rather acting like sea-pirates in robbing the taxpayers and spending their hard earned money on the hopeless Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project. It is like throwing the taxpayers' money for a song! And the sea-pirates, or rather the bridge-busters of the UPA seem to have a song, 'Yo Ho Ho! Yet another committee!'
Yes! Only last October, the government constituted a committee of 'eminent' persons to conduct public hearing inviting objections and suggestions in favour, as well as, against the project. The Sethu Samudhram Canal Project has been in contention since the British period and many committees have been constituted to study the viability of such a project. The project has seen eight committees during the British period since 1860 and the first committee after Independence was constituted under the chairmanship of A.Ramasamy Mudhaliar in 1956. Since then, the project has been studied by six committees, the sixth being the 'Committee of Eminent Persons' constituted by DMK on behalf of the central government in October 2007.
If a project could not be implemented even after in-depth analyses made by more than a dozen committees comprising experts, then the project itself deserves to be dropped. Any sensible and straightforward government would do that. But, the Tamil Nadu political parties, which have been playing politics with this issue fully utilising the ignorance of the masses, have finally put their foot down and made the NDA government to lay the foundation and approve the project. Later, when the UPA came to power, the DMK, which is a part of it, speeded up the process and inaugurated the it in 2005 without proper environmental, economical, geological, archeological, marine navigational & coastal security studies. The Sethusamudram Corporation Limited (SCL) was set up, the UTI Bank (now Axis Bank) agreed to finance the project and the Dredging Corporation of India started the dredging works immediately.
In the meantime, the Hindu organizations have gone against the demolition of 'Rama Sethu' resorting to nationwide protests. Geological, marine archeological, economical and security experts & organizations have also come out against the project aided with well-analysed and researched studies and data. On the contrary, the government was not able to give a convincing presentation supported by facts & figures about the viability and worthiness of the project. Instead, it indulged in issuing vague statements like 'project is good for Indian economy', 'government will get good revenue', 'coastal districts will develop' and 'heavy employment opportunities will be generated', etc, under the assumption that the people of the state would blindly believe them.
The religious and environmental organisations approached the various courts of law and finally all the cases were transferred to the Supreme Court of India, where the UPA government repeatedly bungled during the submission of affidavits and went to the extent of even questioning the historicity of Bhagwan Rama. When the entire nation erupted in outrage in September 2007, the government shamelessly withdrew its affidavit accepting the historicity, reality and existence of Bhagwan Rama. Later, it submitted to the SC that it would constitute a committee to study the project inviting objections and suggestions from all concerned. As per the submission made at the SC, the 'Committee of Eminent Persons' was constituted. This committee of 'eminent' persons was mired in controversies such as, its chairman being subservient to the Tamil Nadu government, committee lacking experts from the relevant fields, public hearing not conducted properly, everything done in a hurried and haphazard manner and final recommendations were dubbed as 'pre-determined'.
The final recommendations made by the said committee of ‘eminences’ were that, the sixth alignment breaking the Rama Sethu was the only viable one; the other five alignments were not at all viable; the environment would not be disturbed as the normal productivity and biodiversity would not be affected; the Rama Sethu was not manmade and was a natural formation due to marine geomorphologic and coastal shoreline processes; livelihood of fishermen would not be affected as marginal increase in fish catch was noticed; coastal security would not be a matter of concern; project would provide social and economic benefits in the long run; no evidence pertaining to archeological remains of any manmade structure were known from this area and the project serves as a strong infrastructure leading to over all development. Each and every concern raised with validated studies by the experts opposing the project has been dismissed by the ‘eminences’ within a short span of forty days and the final recommendations were arrived at.
Captain (Retd) H.Balakrishnan, who has been consistent right from the beginning in his stand that the project doesn’t make any ‘nautical sense’, has again made an in-depth and detailed analysis on the economic viability of the project after the ‘report’ was submitted by the ‘Committee of Eminent Persons’ to the government of India. He has made his analyses based on (1) The Committee’s Report, (2). The website of Sethusamudram Corporation Ltd and (3) The ‘Information Memorandum of September 2005’ prepared by the UTI Bank (now Axis Bank), the lead bank for arranging the financial loan for the execution of the project. Captain Balakrishnan lists out the following facts:
1. The SCL says that, the project will lead to a saving of up to 424 nautical miles (780 kms) and up to 30 hrs in sailing time and that, the project will become self sustaining over a period of time and that, according to conservative estimates, about 3055 vessels will be using the canal annually and will go up further too.
2. The information memorandum of the UTI Bank, in its expenditure manual considers Operation and Maintenance Costs including Maintenance of Vessel Traffic, Scheme Management, Dredging Maintenance (continuous process), Civil Maintenance, Tugs and Launches, Plant Machinery, Administration and Staff expenses. It also includes the Contingency and Project Management costs.
The Bank manual also covers the details of financial loans (Rupee s well as Dollar) and Zero Coupon Bonds with details of interest rate, loan period, moratorium period and principal repayment..
3. We have already seen above the gist of the ‘vague’ submissions of the committee of eminent persons.
Making his calculations based on the figures given by the official records, Captain Balakrishnan comes to the following conclusions:
1. In the first year of operation the SCL makes a loss of Rs.55 crores. Considering the interest payments and the principal repayments in the following years, the loss making is expected to continue.
2. The Ship Tariff has not been mentioned for unknown reasons and based on the present tariff charges levied at Madras and Tuticorin ports, the fuel cost savings expected to be achieved by the Shipping Companies by navigating through the SSCP would be nullified.
3. The time saving (30 hrs) claimed by the SCL has also been clearly debunked taking into consideration the pilot embarkation and disembarkation and the speed of the vessel, etc.
4. If the SCL has to recover its expenditure and earn profit, it must charge a heavy tariff, which would make the shipping companies undergo a heavy loss and they may not opt for the channel. If SCL charges lesser tariff, it will run in loss.
5. So, the SSCP does not make any nautical sense at all.
Any person with basic knowledge of mathematics seeing the calculations made by Captain Balakrishnan will be totally convinced.. .
As the Supreme Court has not taken note of the eminent committee’s recommendations, the UPA government, after failing again in its attempt to falsify the historicity of Rama Sethu by distorting Kamba Ramayana and Padma Purana, has submitted to the court that it would constitute yet another committee to study the project. The government’s submission came based on the direction of the Supreme Court to consider an alternative alignment.
In this regard, there are three important points, which need to be known.
1. If a government (State or Central) "commits" before a Court (High or Supreme) that it would constitute an expert committee to review a particular project or a contentious issue, then the said committee and its recommendations must be approved by the concerned Court.
2. If a Court (High or Supreme) "directs" a government (State or Central) to constitute a committee to review a project or a contentious issue, again that committee and its recommendations must be approved by the concerned Court.
3. If at all there is a "Movement" (In the present case, The Rama Sethu Protection Movement) concerned with the ramifications of the concerned project, and if the movement comprises of credible & learned experts, the concerned Court would certainly appreciate and make note of the complaints, suggestions and recommendations of the movement. The best and apt example for this is the movement led by Honourable Justice Arunachalam against the attempted take over of Thiruvannamalai Annamalaiyar Temple by the Archeological Survey of India.
This is what has exactly happened in the case of the last committee, the ‘Committee of Eeminent Persons’ constituted by DMK.
The new committee headed by Dr.Pachauri comprises eminent men from relevant fields and it is expected to view the project and analyse it from all angles such as technical aspects, economical viability, cost benefit analysis, social and cultural impact, environmental impact, law and order aspect and any other related matters like security and naval defense etc. If the present committee works with genuine interest, it would certainly recommend for the scrapping of the project considering the religious sentiments, economic viability, environmental factors and security concerns.
The sea pirates of the UPA can sing their song ‘Yo ho ho! Yet another committee’ only for a few more months, as the next government is expected to declare Rama Sethu as a National Heritage monument. The latest development is good for the nation, good for the sea, good for the fishermen and it is bad only for the sea pirates of the UPA. So, be it!