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Lankan environmentalist body objects to Indian project

PK Balachanddran

A Sri Lankan environmentalist body has objected to an Indian project to dig a canal in the sea between India and Sri Lanka, to shorten the sea route between the eastern and the western coasts of India.

Vinod Munasinghe, spokesman of the Environmental Foundation Ltd, told Hindustan Times on Tuesday, that the Sethusamudram project, involving the digging of a canal in the narrow stretch of shallow sea between the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait, could create major imbalances in the marine environment, and have an adverse impact on the pattern of coastal erosion in Mannar and Jaffna in north Sri Lanka.

"Our primary objection is that the organisation which did the environmental impact study for the project, the National Environment Engineering Institute of Nagpur, did not consult the Sri Lankan government about the project's implications for Sri Lanka," Munasinghe said.

The Sri Lankan environmentalists case is that the waters in the Gulf Mannar and the Palk Strait around Adam's Bridge, the site of the canal, are very shallow. The sand bed of the sea acts as a natural barrier against water flow from the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal.

Dredging such a sea will lead to an increase in water flow and cause coastal erosion.

"It will also alter the balance of marine species in the area. For example, jelly fish will rush in from the Bay of Bengal and affect the marine ecological balance in the area," Munasinghe said.

"The Palk Strait area is already facing the problem of over-fishing. Pearl fishing, for which the area was famous at one time, was killed by over-exploitation. It is making a recovery only now. Greedy fishermen now use dynamite and disturb marine life. They have also taken to what is called purse-seine fishing, which involves using nets to scour the sea bed," Munasinghe said.

"Additionally, the dredging of the sea for a canal will lead to an increase in shipping traffic, which in turn, will have its own impact on the narrow area, " he added.

The Sethusamudram projects aims at cutting a canal 12.8 metres deep and 300 metres wide in Indian waters. Late last week, the Indian government approved the setting up of a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) for the project with an equity of Indian Rs 800 crore and a debt of Indian Rs 1,200 crore.

The project promoters say that the digging will entirely be within Indian waters. But this is of no consequence, the Sri Lankan environmentalists say.

"Whether it is in Indian waters are not, it will impact on Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka has to be consulted. Any Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) has to consult all the stake holders.Sri Lanka has not even been told about the project," Munasinghe said.

Asked what his organization planned to do now, he said: "We are consulting our legal and environmental experts on what can be done to get the Sri Lankan case heard.