Infrastructure projects are rarely easy to implement anywhere in the world because of all the social and environmental issues that have to be accommodated, in addition to basic business considerations. In India it can be even worse because of unclear and changing government policies, complex and ill-defined environmental and other rules, difficulties over vague land ownership, and resentment among those displaced who see others becoming rich.
Even when a project has started, it can still go wrong. Religious sensitivities also intervene – highway projects frequently have to cope with temples and sacred shrines located in their path – but rarely do issues of both religion and mythology come into play as they have on a shipping channel in southern India.
This is a story that shows how the cauldron of religion, politics, ethnic groupings and regional differences that are a part of daily life in India can spill over into business and infrastructure development. The project involves dredging a shipping channel along the Palk Straits between the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu and the island of Sri Lanka, and it has been halted by a dispute that turns on the arcane point of whether an ancient Hindu god is part of mythology or someone who actually built a rocky bridge, now mostly submerged under the sea (bottom of map), across the straits in the path of the channel.
Ram has also figured in modern politics and is a sensitive and important Hindu figure – though in southern India he is sometimes also regarded as a symbol of attempted northern (Aryan) domination of the Dravidian south. Defending the project, M. Karunanidhi, Tamil Nadu chief minister (and a declared atheist), said last weekend that the Ramayana was “only a piece of fiction that allegorically represented the conflict between Aryans and Dravidians.”
First mooted by a British engineer in 1860, and then by the Indian government in 1955, the $600 million-plus 167km (104 mile) Sethusamudram Canal, as the channel is called, has always had its skeptics and critics. Though its supporters like to compare it with the Panama or Suez canals, it will take coastal ships of only up to 30,000 tons and will cut just 24-30 hours off their sailing time round Sri Lanka.
Environmentalists have complained about destruction of coral and the rest of the local eco-system, including the loss of a barrier that can hold back tsunami waves, but sand dredging has been under way for two years and is about 25% complete, though no rock cutting has started. Local business will be the main beneficiary, and the project is being determinedly steered by T.R. Baalu, India’s Minister for Shipping and a member of the regional DMK political party that is in power in Tamil Nadu. Palaniappan Chidambaram, India’s finance minister and a Tamil Nadu member of parliament, has also spoken in favor.
High court petitions however have tried to block the project and have asked for the site to be declared an “ancient protected monument.” These petitions were transferred recently to the supreme court, and work was temporarily halted. Arguing that the project should continue, the government last week sparked the current row by saying in a petition that Adam’s Bridge could not be called a “man made structure” and consisted of “naturally occurring formations caused by tidal action and sedimentation.” It added that the Ramayana could “not be said to be a historical record.”
The BJP accused the Congress Government of questioning the religious beliefs of millions of people, which led to the law minister, H.R. Bhardwaj, to backtrack and declare that “the existence of Ram cannot be doubted.”
Since then, politicians and officials have been passing the buck and a government inquiry has been started into who – possibly DMK politicians – inserted the insensitive lines (which apparently were not in some drafts of the court submissions). But, as usually happens in India, this fracas will soon no doubt vanish from the front page headlines that it has dominated for much of the past week, and the canal will eventually be built – a monument to the vagaries of trying to do infrastructure projects in a country with such a vast mix of cultures, beliefs and interests.