Legal and planning issues

(Extracts from an article by V Sundaram, Retd IAS Officer)

In 2002, Tuticorin Port Trust appointed NEERI as consultants for carrying out Rapid & Comprehensive Environment Impact Assessment Studies along with assessing Techno-economic viability of the project. The objective of the study was to obtain Environmental Approvals from the concerned local, state, and central government authorities. The terms of Reference issued by TPT to NEERI comprised of two sections viz. Techno-economic viability & other related to Environment Impact Assessment.

In the latter half of 2002, NEERI presented a report on the status of the marine environment which was established by drawing on the data collected during the IEE in 1998. The data presented for the Marine Environment covered the Physico-chemical and biological status. The assessment covered the marine water and sediment. The analysis given for the various marine environmental components was laudable and confirmed the biodiversity richness of the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay.

NEERI completed its work long before South India was struck by tsunami in December 2004. All the Geologists, Earth Scientists, Oceanographers, Marine Biologists and other Ocean Scientists are categorically of the view that the marine environment in Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar was radically altered and transformed after the tsunami. The evaluation report prepared by NEERI in the light of field data collected or observed before the tsunami in December 2004, cannot form the correct basis for according final sanction for the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project (SSCP).

What is interesting to note is that sixteen (16) detailed queries were raised by PMO (Prime Minister's Office) on 8 March 2005 on various aspects relating to the environment impact, viability, dredging and other repercussions following tsunami in December 2004. These queries were sent to the Office of the Chairman, Tuticorin Port Trust on March 8 2005. The Tuticorin Port Trust, perhaps sent its detailed reply to the PMOs Office only on 30 June, 2005 (this is the date on which the information was posted on the government website by Tuticorin Port Trust.)

The People of India in general and the people living in the costal areas of Southern Tamilnadu and more particularly the fishermen, have a fundamental right to raise the following public issues before the Government of India:

1) Why did the PMOs Office refer the matter only to the Office of the Chairman of Tuticorin Port Trust and not to Government of India agencies like NEERI and several others for further detailed study, analysis and report? Was not the PMOs Office aware of the unprecedented damage caused by the tsunami disaster in South India in December 2004? It is strange that Tuticorin Port Trust was asked to respond to PMO's queries. The correct agency should have been NEERI under the agreement entered into between Govt. of India and NEERI.

2) Did the Office of the Chairman of the Tutcorin Port Trust refer the matter to the NEERI for its detailed analysis and comments in the light of the new environment and field situation created by the tsunami in December 2004? There is no indication if NEERI was asked to review its 2004 environmental impact analysis taking note of the post- tsunami field situation in December 2004.

3) The Office of the Chairman Of the Tuticorin Port Trust sent their final reply to the PMOs Office only on 30 June 2005. The timing of the response by Tuticorin Port Trust is significant. After two days, the SSCP (Sethusamudram Canal Project) was inaugurated by the de jure Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and the de facto Prime Minister Sonia Gandhi who air dashed to Madurai for the inauguration on July 2 2005.The people of India have smelt a rat in this sequence of stage managed events to cover up many shady facts relating to the SSCP.

The haste with which Tuticorn Port Trust was asked to respond to PMO's queries raises serious questions on the violation of the due process instituted by the Government in conducting an unbiased and objective evolution by a competent agency. The competence of Tuticorin Port Trust in answering all the 14 queries raised by PMO is unclear. This violation of due process raises serious questions on the viability of the entire project.

The answers of the Tuticorin Port Trust which formed the basis for inaugurating the project on 2 July, 2005 were apparently prepared by a private company, Dr P Chandramohan of Indomer Hydraulics Pvt. Ltd., Chennai. The possible conflict of interests in engaging a potential contractor/consultant in making such an evaluation is a matter of serious public concern impacting on the impartiality and objectivity of the answers provided on the serious issues raised by the PMO in March 2005.