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``Ministry bulldozed into according clearance’’

Sunday 26 June 2005

Startling, unseemly haste to organise launch function of Sethu Canal Project: Jayalalithaa

Project should be implemented after environmental concerns are addressed Sea life, coral reefs and livelihood of fishermen need to be protected

This is the text of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s statement on the Sethusamudram Canal Project, issued in Chennai on June 25:

"Media reports indicate that the Sethusamudram Canal Project launch is to be held on 2nd July, 2005, as a major political road show at the behest of the `patriarch’ of the DMK Party Thiru M. Karunanidhi, who has to be seen in such functions organised at State expense to be in the limelight, whether in power or out of power. The unseemly haste with which this function has been organised, that too at Madurai and not at the coast where the project is to be executed, is indeed startling. Right from the beginning, the Union Minister of Shipping, Road Transport and Highways has shown scant regard for the environmental concerns relating to this project and has been intent on and content to merely have a grand show featuring his `patriarch’ so that he can continue undisturbed in the Union Cabinet.

Resolution in 1986

"I have always been in the forefront to secure major development projects for Tamil Nadu. I have thus recently ensured that Chennai gets a new International Airport. Everyone knows that I will never relent in my efforts to get major development projects for Tamil Nadu. It may be recalled that it was on the request of the late Puratchi Thalaivar MGR that a committee was constituted by the Government of India in 1981 to determine the feasibility of this Canal Project. While the committee did find the project feasible, it was not taken up due to financial reasons. I raised this issue as a Member of the Rajya Sabha in 1984 and again in 1986 and stressed that the project should not be viewed merely in financial terms, but should be taken up keeping in view the national security concerns also. On 10.5.1986, the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly moved a Resolution demanding the implementation of the Sethusamudram Canal Project without any further delay.

"In July, 1991, as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, I presented a memorandum to the then Hon’ble Prime Minister of India, insisting that the Sethusamudram Canal Project should be taken up. It was my Government which entrusted a new study to M/s. Pallavan Transport Consultancy Services Limited in 1994 to prepare an updated feasibility report. This was completed in 1996. It was on my insistence that the Sethusamudram Canal Project was taken up as a priority project in 1998 and an initial Environmental Impact Study was entrusted to the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) in March 1998. This report was also made available in August 1998.

"Thus, I have been instrumental in ensuring that the Sethusamudram Canal Project becomes a reality. At the same time, I have always maintained that extreme precaution should be taken before actually undertaking the project, in view of the fact that this is a unique ecologically sensitive zone with rich and rare biodiversity. Further, the zone where the Sethusamudram Canal Project is to be executed is a major fishing zone which provides livelihood to lakhs of fishermen of Tamil Nadu. I have always maintained that before taking up the canal project, it has to be ensured by careful studies that their livelihood is not affected in any way.

"Any canal project such as the Sethusamudram Canal Project involves massive dredging of the seafloor. It is elementary that in such an ecologically sensitive project, where disturbance of the seafloor is involved, maximum safeguards have to be provided after detailed evaluation. The impact on the fishing community has to be carefully evaluated and any damage to their livelihood prevented. Thus, there are very serious environmental issues relating to this project which need careful study. The whole point is that while the project is most important, it can only be undertaken after great care and preparation, paying attention to all the environmental concerns.

Concerns brushed aside

"Instead, we have a Minister, namely, Thiru T.R. Baalu, who is driven by the desire to have a mega function and for other reasons best known to him, is brushing aside all the environmental concerns with some big talk about some project allocations to address them. Thiru T.R. Baalu seems to have fully imbibed in his previous stint as Union Minister of Environment and Forests the techniques required to subvert the environmental clearance process. He has thus bulldozed his way through the environmental clearance process required for this project with another DMK Minister, Thiru A. Raja, conveniently in that Ministry. The travesty of this clearance process will be noticed as all the environmental concerns have been brushed away and simply put as conditions to the clearance by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India. This has raised genuine worries among fishermen and all the people in the coastal districts as to what really lies in store once the project work commences.

"The breakneck speed with which the environmental clearance process has been rushed through in respect of the Sethusamudram Canal Project has to be contrasted with the extraordinary delay in clearing the Pykara Ultimate Stage Hydro Electric Project which had no major environmental issues. Ultimately, I had to get the clearance only through the Supreme Court of India. When even for minor issues relating to the environment, Thiru T.R. Baalu would stall a project of the Government of Tamil Nadu, it is incredible how even the elementary precautions for such a large project with admittedly serious environmental impact are given short shrift.

Troubled by the `abuse’

"I am deeply troubled by this abuse of the environmental clearance process. Where is the transparency in so sensitive a matter involving the people? Where is the respect for the genuine concerns of the people? Who is to answer when the people ask and demand a reply? Thiru T.R. Baalu and his cohorts will vanish, flying away to Delhi and it is the Government of Tamil Nadu which has to face the people. We have also seen the controversy which was revealed in the media on the environmental concerns raised by the Prime Minister’s Office regarding the Sethusamudram Canal Project. Thereafter, there is a deafening silence with nobody having a clue as to how these concerns have really been addressed. What is shocking is that these concerns have been put down in the environmental clearance as conditions when what was really required was further detailed studies to establish the true impact of this project.

"As I have said before, it is the State Government which is that much closer to the people that will have to provide answers to the environmental concerns raised by people all along the coast. It is for this reason that the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board appointed an Expert Committee to go into all aspects of this project before forwarding the proposal to the Government of Tamil Nadu, to furnish the mandatorily required `No Objection Certificate’ to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India. The Expert Committee has just now submitted its report to the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. This Committee, with Dr. M. Ravindran, former Director of the National Institute of Ocean Technology as its Chairman and other eminent experts, has carefully gone into all aspects of the project and has come to certain specific conclusions. It has warned that further detailed studies are necessary before going ahead with the project.

Deficiencies in report

"This Committee has categorically concluded that the Environmental Impact Assessment Report prepared by NEERI has a number of deficiencies. It has highlighted the important actions to be undertaken to complete the Environmental Impact Assessment under different heads, namely, Baseline Studies covering three seasons, Scoping and Environmental Management Plan. The Committee has specifically recommended that several studies such as assessing the impact due to dredging and dumping with specific reference to the dumping areas, impact during operation of the canal, impact of oil spill, etc., should be undertaken using modelling tools which are available. These are all needed to ensure that proper management plans are drawn to protect sea life, valuable coral reefs and the livelihood of fishermen. The above studies have to be carried out to complete the comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment Report. The specific conclusions reached by the Committee are as follows: `Only when these suggested studies are carried out, the total impact of the project can be fully understood. This understanding is necessary to arrive at suitable decisions on the execution of the SSC project.’ This is the current status of the Environmental Impact Evaluation by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. This has to be considered in detail and the Board has to forward its recommendations to the Government of Tamil Nadu. Only thereafter, the Government of Tamil Nadu can decide on the question of furnishing the `No Objection Certificate’ to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India.

Process subverted

"The great tragedy is that the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, has been bulldozed into according the environmental clearance even without waiting for the `No Objection Certificate’ from the Government of Tamil Nadu, although this is mandatorily required under the Regulations framed by the Ministry itself. It is shocking to see how the entire environmental clearance process has been subverted in the pursuit of an immediate mega function and publicity organised as a political road show.

"What about the concerns of the Tamil Nadu coastal fishermen? Already there is restlessness among the fishermen that their entire livelihood would fall a prey to the dredger which will dig up the seafloor. It would appear that there is genuine risk that many of them will lose their livelihood. Even the so-called environmental clearance given envisages that such a situation will emerge. Should not the State Government be taken into confidence on what are the implications? I am greatly concerned by what might actually befall the fishermen in several coastal districts of Tamil Nadu.

Keen on project

"While there can be no second thought about implementing the Sethusamudram Canal Project, it is indeed most shocking that the genuine and significant environmental concerns relating to this project have been brushed aside with such callous abandon and a devil-may-care attitude displayed by Thiru T.R. Baalu. He ought to remember that he is playing with the lives of lakhs of poor people including the fishermen of Tamil Nadu. He ought to also remember that posterity will never forgive him for the extreme haste with which he has gone about the project launch, abandoning even a semblance of respect for the environment. While I am keen that the Sethusamudram Canal Project should be implemented, I have particularly insisted that this should be done only after all the genuine environmental concerns are properly addressed. The project launch can be taken up only thereafter. Subverting the environmental clearance process merely to have a grand function for political gain needs to be condemned. With this background, I am unable to bring myself to participate in this function on 2nd July, 2005, at Madurai."

See online : The Hindu

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