BJP’s Shallowness in the Deeper Ocean Politics

SOROOR AHMED sees high political gimmick in the much ado about Ram’s bridge and apprehends that, unlike Ram Temple, the BJP’s bridge to power may collapse in the middle.

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SOROOR AHMED sees high political gimmick in the much ado about Ram’s bridge and apprehends that, unlike Ram Temple, the BJP’s bridge to power may collapse in the middle.

After the Ram Temple it is turn of the Ram’s Bridge to grab headlines. When the BJPmen were in power, they initiated work on the ambitious 89-kilometres long two-lane Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project (SSCP), which once completed, will shorten the distance between the west and east coasts of India by 570 nautical miles – in time by 36 hours. The plan is to dig a two-lane canal in the middle of the 48 kms wide stretch of extremely shallow water between India and Sri Lanka. The sea between the two countries is just between three and 30 feet deep, therefore, navigation by big vessels is virtually impossible. Today the same Ram-bhakts are on the warpath protesting against the very project set in motion by them.
Unlike the Suez Canal or Panama Canal, this project will benefit the Indians more than the international fraternity as the ships from the Middle East and Africa to East and South East Asia, Australia or the western coast of the North and South America may prefer to go by the southern side of Sri Lanka as it falls on their established route. Not only that, the canal route will be longer and more complicated for the international ships; besides, they will have to pay port toll too.
When the Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance government took the initiative, the hardliners among them, especially those associated with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, raised some meek voices as they said that the dredging of canal would seriously harm, what they believe, the Ram’s Bridge – generally known as the Adam’s Bridge –connecting the two countries. The issue was even dragged to the court.
When in power the BJP was on the other side of the VHP – in fact the project was its brainchild. But once on the street it deemed it fit to utilise this mythical bridge to return to power at the Centre. But will the same Ram card click once again remains to be seen.
As in the case of opening of lock of Babri Masjid in 1986 today too the Congress, out of panic, withdrew the affidavit the Archaeological Survey of India filed before the Supreme Court. The affidavit said that there was no historical and scientific evidence of the existence of Ram or other characters of the Ramayana. It also denied that the Ram Setu or Adam’s Bridge is a man-made bridge as the hardliner Hindus believe. They are of the view that the bridge was built by Ram. The government not only succumbed to the pressure of the Sangh Parivar but even of many average north Indian Hindus, who consider that Ram is a respected figure and not just a mythical character.
Whether the ASI was right or the government wrong would certainly be debated in the days to come but one issue which got drown in this cacophony is the opposition to this project by some independent economists, environmentalist groups and even those involved in the world of navigation. They are of the view that it is cheaper for the ships to take the much longer route round the southern coast of Sri Lankan as the heavy vessels will have to navigate at a much slower speed and spend much more fuel while passing through the proposed canal. The SSCP cannot be equated with Suez and Panama Canals as their construction saved several thousands of kilometres and many days, even weeks of travelling.
Besides, they say that ships displacing more than ten metres cannot use this proposed canal. Unlike Suez and Panama Canals, where ships weighing three lakh tonnes can pass, vessel heavier than 30,000 tonnes cannot pass through this water-way. At the same time it will be difficult to tow damaged ship from the canal.
Environmentalists also argue that once the big ships enter this water-way, it will destroy the burgeoning fishing industry in a big way and would render thousands of people jobless. It is also argued that the Adam’s Bridge is a natural defence against storms and tsunamis.
The government on the other hand said that the removal of silt will not be too expensive an affair and the route will save 570 nautical miles. To begin with the artificial channel will provide transit for nine ships a day. The plan is to transform Tuticorin port into a nodal hub, and 13 minor ports will be built in the next few years. But the big question is what will be its use if the heavy international ships refused to take this proposed canal and opt for the traditional route round Sri Lanka.
But this is not the first such over-ambitious project initiated by the then National Democratic Alliance government. Many experts feel that these projects are nothing more than white elephants. The Rs 5,60,000 crore Linking of Rivers Project, once shelved by the Indira Gandhi government in 1970s, was also revived during the Vajpayee regime. Though the present government had gone slow on the Linking of Rivers Project – it seems that it is being abandoned – it remains a mystery as to why the same government is feeling shy in giving a second thought to the SSCP.
Perhaps the Manmohan government is not abandoning the Canal Project out of fear of being branded as pro-Hindutva, when the fact is that more than Sangh Parivar it is the independent groups of experts, who are opposing it.
The other aspect which needs to be taken into account is related to security. The government may argue that ships going along our own coast have something to do with the security, especially for our naval vessels, yet it needs to be borne in the mind that the proposed canal region is known for the activities of the Liberation Tiger of Tamil Elam. Before the advent of LTTE terrorism in 1980s motor-boats used to ferry people on this shallow sea route. However, the ferry service between the two countries had to be stopped later on. There is no guarantee of LTTE not increasing its activities. It can target the vessels in this proposed narrow canal much easily than elsewhere.
Shipments and transportation of goods from India’s western to eastern coast had always been a big challenge. From Surat or Kandla to Chennai, Vishakapatnam or Kolkata a ship had to go via Sri Lanka’s southern tip. Till the 15th century, it is said, the 48 kms wide divide between the two countries was all too shallow and people used to even walk through it. It was after repeated storms that it became slightly deeper, but still not deep enough for navigation.
The SSCP issue has once again exposed the BJP’s double-speak and weak-kneed response of the Congress towards any issue even remotely involving religion. But the BJP seems to be in troubled waters this time as, unlike north India, there is hardly any Ram-bhakts in South India, where it wants to play the game. In fact South India is known more for its mythical opposition to Ram. Unlike Ram Temple, the BJP’s bridge to power may collapse in the middle.