Ram Setu: The ecological argument against the Sethusamudram project
Science and discourses claiming the authority of Science routinely make their appearance in order to settle contentious issues in the domain of politics. The invocation of Science is meant to establish the truth of one position over another, even when, as often happens, conflicting views are expressed by different sets of experts all claiming the authority of Science. The Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project is a recent example.
This project aims to reduce the shipping distance from the southern tip of the east coast of India to the northern parts of the coast, by constructing a route through the Gulf of Mannar to the Bay of Bengal. Ships will then be able to go northwards directly through the narrow Palk Strait between the east coast of India and the west coast of Sri Lanka, rather than swinging around Sri Lanka as at present. It is claimed that this project will save time and money for shipping companies, and is expected to radically increase the volume of traffic in that region.
In order to build the canal, an underwater bridge connecting India and Sri Lanka along the Palk Strait would have to be destroyed. Depending on your point of view this bridge is either a natural formation of limestone shoals (Adam’s Bridge), which linked Sri Lanka to the Asian continent in the last Ice Age, or it was built by Hanuman’s army to cross over to Sri Lanka to rescue Sita (Ram Setu as it tends to be referred to in English and North Indian media, but known locally as Ramar Sethu, in Tamil).
Three petitions filed in the Madras High court by the Hindu Munnani, were transferred to the Supreme Court in 2007, which stayed dredging by an interim order in August 2007. The petitions argued against the Sethusamudram Project because the planned route would cause damage to the Ram Sethu, and demanded that an alternative route should be adopted. There was also a demand to declare Ram Sethu a ‘national archaeological monument’ (Singh, 2007). In response, the government filed an affidavit from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), stating that the so-called Ram Sethu was in fact a natural formation. Further, the affidavit said that the ASI is a ‘science and technology department’, and that while ‘due deference may be given to the feelings of the petitioners’, the issue has to be approached in ‘a scientific manner’ (Sinha 2007). Therefore, mythological texts could not form the basis for government policy:
The Valmiki Ramayana, the Ramcharitmanas by Tulsidas and other mythological texts, which admittedly form an ancient part of Indian literature, cannot be said to be historical records to incontrovertibly prove the existence of the characters or the occurrence of the events depicted therein. [i]
In the uproar that was created by Hindutvavadi formations including the BJP opposition in parliament, two officials of the ASI were suspended, the controversial passage withdrawn from the affidavit, and the government went into over-drive to limit the damage. Said the Law Minister HR Bharadwaj
Ram is an integral part of our history and culture. Ram ki vajah se saari duniya exist karti hai. [The entire world exists because of Ram]. It is an article of faith and cannot be made a matter of litigation (Nagi 2007).
‘Natural or ‘man-made’? Secularism v. Hindutva
The entry of secularists in this debate was inevitable, given the framing of the question in terms of the religious faith of one section of Hindus. The title of one of Praful Bidwai’s first writings on the issue set up the two sides with crystal clarity: ‘Spineless secular government retreats when fundamentalists invoke mythology’. Defending the withdrawn statement in the affidavit, Bidwai said that it is crucial to refute the contention that Ramcharitmanas provides clinching evidence that the Ram Sethu is man-made. Otherwise, it means ‘giving in to the idea that faith must always trump history, archaeology, even geology – which explains the existence of natural formations like Adam’s Bridge – and accepting that the project must be scrapped because of myths and scriptures, not fact’ ((Bidwai, 2007).
Thus, the ‘secular’ argument justifying the destruction of the limestone formation was that the bridge is not ‘man-made’ but natural. As Bidwai noted approvingly, the ASI affidavit quotes studies by the Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad, which ‘conclusively’ show that the Sethu formation is ‘purely natural’. Claims by Hindutvavaadis that the imagery collected by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) proves that the structure is ‘man-made’ were refuted by the ASI, backed by a statement from the NASA, with the argument that remote visual images are not sufficient to establish the origin of the structure. Further, a study conducted by the Geological Survey of India around Adam’s Bridge, is cited by the ‘secular’ side, which, based on drilling holes into submerged rocks, found ‘no evidence’ of man-made structures. It revealed rather, that the reef consists of three cycles of sedimentation of clay, limestone and sandstone – a natural phenomenon that occurred thousands of years before humans settled in peninsular India (Bidwai 2007)
The discourse of science was thus effectively mobilized by the ‘secular’ camp to establish the true ‘history’ of the formation as natural, therefore not made by human beings (or ‘men’ as they are popularly known); as opposed to the ‘myth’ that a real living Ram, and real living beings, made it with their hands. The equation here appears to be Scientific History (the limestone reef as natural formation) versus Religious Myth (the reef as a bridge created by humans).
The contestation continued with the tabling in Parliament in December 2008, of a government publication. Images India, published by National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA) that comes under the Department of Space, says that satellite images have revealed
an ancient bridge between India and Sri Lanka in Palk Strait…Its structure suggests that it may be man-made…This has an echo in the ancient Indian mythological epic, the Ramayana…Studies are still on but the bridge is seen as an example of ancient history linked to the Indian mythology (IANS 2007)
The revelations in the book, with a foreword by Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chairman G. Madhavan Nair, are of course, contradictory to the government stand. The BJP was jubilant.
‘Finally, science has prevailed upon the politics of Congress. Now they have to accept the scientific evidence and…must accept not only Lord Ram but also Ram Sethu,’ a party spokesman Prakash Javadekar told a news agency (IANS 2007).
On the website of Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, three kinds of arguments are given for why Ram Sethu should not be damaged:
‘spiritual’- the divine origin of the bridge;
‘physical’ – (a) the reef acted as a barrier to the tsunami and (b) according to naval officers, the canal will not be deep enough for large vessels;
‘social’ – (a) trampling on Hindu sentiments and b) it is the oldest man-made structure in the world, older than the Pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China.[ii]
In this narrative, the divine origin of the bridge is not seen as contradictory to the physical and social aspects, which emphasize ecological factors and the “man-made” character of the reef.
(For a loony fringe voice from this side, see Mahakaal ka ling kiya hain?)
Now, what is at stake for secularists in insisting that the project be permitted to continue? The claim is that the canal will increase shipping traffic through the Palk Strait, and save ships time and money in moving from the west coast of India to the east. Why should a commitment to secularism entail a commitment to this goal? We must seek an answer to this question in the link between Science, the modern Nation State and its agenda of Development that was noted by Ashis Nandy, Shiv Visvanathan, and other scholars over two decades ago. Nandy traced the idea of science as a reason of state to a speech made by John F Kennedy in 1962, which declared one of America’s national goals to be the scientific feat of putting a man on the moon. A state for the first time thus sought “to outrival another state not in the political or military arena, nor in sports, but in science redefined as dramatic technology” (1988/1998: 3). The Indian state too, in the early years after independence, and the political elites it represented, chose to see science as a responsibility of the state, and ensured that “the scientific estate had a direct privileged access to the state” (1988/1998: 4-5). Modern science has since then established a secure relationship, says Nandy, with the “philosophy and practice of development in India” (1988/1998: 9), and Development is the goal of the Secular state. Thus, according to Shiv Visvanathan, “It is not accidental that when the first protests against the Narmada dam took place, the protesters were arrested under the Defence of India rules. The dam became a reason of state” (1997: 11).
I have argued elsewhere that ‘Secularism’ in India went much further than the state-religious community relationship. It has been the term which stands in for the entire modernizing project of the Indian elites. Within this configuration, secularism’s role in creating the mobile citizen unmarked by community identity is the key factor in the project of the Indian elites to effect capitalist transformation of the Indian economy (Menon 1998: 266). This project was based on Science – as Gyan Prakash points out, planning was seen by Nehru as the scientific instrument of social change, in which nature was a resource to be utilized (1999: 234).
These unexamined linkages underlying the triad of Science-Development-Secularism are responsible for the initial implication, even by a writer as sensitive to ecological issues as Bidwai, that if a structure is merely natural, built up over millennia, it bolsters the ‘secular’ claim that it can legitimately be destroyed. (Very soon afterwards, his signature was on a statement by civil society organizations protesting the project on ecological grounds, which I discuss below.) It is clear that once the political grid of ‘secularism’ descends on a contested field, certain fixed equations come into play – Secularism implies Science and Development; Communalism can claim only Myth and Faith.
But what is striking in this case is that while the Indian state, invoking secularism, continually counterposed ‘religious belief’ to ‘scientific facts’, the Hindu Right as we have seen above, far from invoking ‘faith’ and ‘belief’, was in fact insistent that the structure is ‘man-made’ and therefore amenable to historical proof, precisely that it is not mythical; that it is not natural, made by God. Thus both secularists and Hindutvavaadis claimed that Science would determine whose version of history is the true one.
‘Natural’ or ‘man-made’? Environment v. Development
While Science has been invoked by both sides (the competing interpretations of the data produced by NASA, for example), another voice from within the field of science was initially marginalized and ignored. For example, in a national daily, on the same day as a set of stories was published titled ‘Ramayana no basis for Ram Sethu: ASI’, ‘Faith versus necessity’, ‘Lord Ram is back on BJP agenda’ and ‘Nervous government chants Ram Naam’, there was also one titled ‘Recipe for disaster: scientists’.[iii] This last story quoted tsunami experts warning that the destruction of the millennia-old limestone shoals would be disastrous for the ecology of the coast. Adam’s Bridge is held to have deflected the fury of the tsunami in 2004, forcing it back into the open ocean. This story stands independently by itself, and none of the other stories, each one about the interrelation between religion and politics, refers to it. This perspective did not come up before the Supreme Court till much later.
Thus significant alternative voices from within the field of science now tell us that the Sethusamudram Project would be an unmitigated ecological disaster. More importantly, this alternative reading of the history of the reef as a natural formation, gives the reef greater value, not less.
An instance of a position like this is a website, sethusamudram.info, which has as its tag – ‘No Ram – no Ram Sethu – let’s save our environment.’ This site says it is
dedicated to bring out an unbiased version of information related to Sethusamuthram shipping canal project (SSCP). It is not about Religious Sentiments or Economic projections. It is the Ground Reality, Environmental aspects and Livelihood of thousands of Fishermen and the Benefit of the People of Tamil Nadu that should drive the Project.
This website takes a clear stand on myth as distinct from history, deplores the caving in of politicians to the communal BJP and offers Tamil versions of the Ramayana in which Ravana is the hero, but is firmly opposed to the Sethusamudram project.
Apart from privileging local interests (Tamil Nadu) over the national, the site additionally, highlights another neglected aspect – the concerns of Sri Lanka. In addition to general ecological questions, Hemantha Withanage expresses concern about the fact that 35% -70% of the fish stock for the Sri Lankan side comes from these coral reefs (Withanage nd).
Thus this site represent a coalition of voices that invoke Science to put environment-with-people first, as opposed to bourgeois environmentalism in which “Environment” refers only to ‘nature’ devoid of people. These voices refuses national borders, and offer an alternative secularism detached from state-craft, the nation-state, and Development.
Arising from this position, a statement by civil society groups, people’s movements, human rights organizations and concerned individuals put out a statement in September 2007 which said:
The Sethusamudram Project was introduced by the BJP while they were in power at the centre without considering the ecological and human problems. The Sethusamudram Project will endanger a rich biosphere reserve with 400 endangered species, including sea turtles, dolphins, dugongs and whales. The project will destroy the livelihood of 15 lakh people who depend on fishing and allied areas in the waters where the canal will be dug. Several fisher people’s organisations and human rights groups had protested against the project for a long time without getting any recognition from the mainstream political parties (Statement 2007).
In an email message on the WaterWatch list, retired Major-General SG Vombatkere, formerly with the Corps of Engineers of the Indian Army and an activist on environmental issues, wrote:
It is piquant that those who now oppose the Sethusamudram Project on religious grounds have gained media attention and those who have from the outset been opposing it on grounds of human displacement, ecological reasons and even on economic viability grounds have been side-lined and forgotten. The displacement of thousands of fisher folk and their loss of livelihood and the undoubted environmental damage that will occur due to dredging the channel to create a canal do not need elaboration, except to say that if these costs are taken into consideration, the project may actually prove economically unviable.
He points out that no economic feasibility report has been submitted to the public domain, and outlines a number of factors due to which the project is unlikely to be economically viable (Vombatkere 2007).[iv]
Religious Belief and Science on trial
Despite a long history of hesitation about the project (the idea was first mooted in the 19th C by a colonial official), and strong views expressed against it in Sri Lanka and India on the sorts of grounds outlined above, over decades as well as with greater urgency over the past few years, all that was permitted to be visible in public discourse for some time, was the debate over the belief in the existence of Ram, in which Science was mobilized on both sides.
However, as far as the courts were concerned, both in the Madras High Court and in the Supreme Court, the question being considered was of religious belief. In April 2008, the question being pondered in the Supreme Court was about whether the Ram Sethu is actually a place of worship, as claimed by the petitioners – ‘Who does puja in the middle of the sea?’ the Bench at that point remarked skeptically (Mahapatra 2008). In May 2008, a report of proceedings in the Supreme Court on this issue paraphrased the submission of Soli J. Sorabjee, appearing for the Hindu Munnani, as follows:
The issue before the Court is not whether this belief [in Ram] can be historically and scientifically established. The Court cannot sit in judgment over that belief. The Court’s role is to determine whether the aforesaid belief is genuinely or conscientiously held over a period of time by Hindus and if that be so it falls within the ambit of the freedom of religion guaranteed by Article 25. The right to worship and make offerings and perform rites at Ram Sethu is in pursuance of the integral belief of the adherents of Hindu religion; therefore, any State action which results in impairment or even partial destruction of Ram Sethu and leads to extinction or diminution of the right to worship at Ram Sethu as at present is per se violative of the guarantee of freedom of religion…” (Venkatesan 2008).
In other words, the debate in Court was still being framed in terms of religious faith, whether it can be scientifically established, and whether the court’s role is to determine this or not.
After these submissions, the Supreme Court, before adjourning the hearing of the Sethusamudram case to July 2008, asked the Centre to consider an alternative alignment for the proposed canal, without damaging the Ram Sethu, and to consider whether an archaeological study could be conducted to declare Ram Sethu a ‘national monument’ (not, it may be noted, a protected ecologically diverse area like a forest). In other words, it was religious belief the Court asked the government to take into account while implementing development policies, and to alter the proposed project accordingly.[v]
Following court orders, the government set up an expert committee under the chairpersonship of engineer and environmental scientist R K Pachauri in July 2008 to examine the feasibility of the alternative alignment “keeping in view the technical aspects, cost benefit analysis, socio-cultural and environmental impact and law and order matters” (Mukherjee 2010).
Interestingly, the report of this committee, submitted in March 2009, has completely shifted the terms of debate to the ‘other’ voice of scientists emphasizing the ecological consequences of the project. The government took no action on the Pachauri Committee Report until Janata Party chief Subramaniam Swamy approached the Supreme Court in November 2009, claiming that the government was suppressing the court-mandated report because it expressed doubts about the feasibility of the alternative route proposed. When the government was asked by the Court to clarify its stand, Pachauri submitted a letter to the Court in February 2010, stating that a year-long Environmental Impact Analysis would be conducted by the National Institute of Oceanography to consider the environmental feasibility of the alternative route. The Supreme Court has decided to put off a decision on the case until this report is ready, in February 2011 (Express News Service April 2010).
Thus, in the controversial Sethusamudram project we see Science performing different roles in three completely different narratives.
In the secular developmentalist one, it comes to the aid of History by establishing the reef as ‘natural’, thus debunking Myth and enabling the endorsement of ‘development’ over ‘religious belief.’
In the second, Hindu Right narrative, Science is claimed to ‘prove’ that the structure is ‘man-made’, not a natural formation, and this fact is taken to strengthen the claim of religious belief with the added legitimacy of History (since their claim is that Ram is a ‘historical’ figure, not mere ‘myth’.)
In the third, environmentalist narrative, Science is mobilized to use the ‘natural’ status of the reef to reject both the others – denying religious belief/myth on the one hand and endorsing ‘ecology’ over ‘development’ on the other.
It would be a mistake to read these contradictory narratives as the ‘misuse’ of Science by some parties as opposed to its correct utilization by others. Rather, what we see here is Science’s ability to establish something as ‘Nature’, counterposing it to ‘created by humans’, in order to produce specific political effects. In one kind of scientific discourse, the demarcation of something as ‘nature’ opens it up to human intervention as passive, inert material whose sole purpose is the furthering of human good. In another kind of scientific discourse, the marking of something as natural on the contrary, protects it from human intervention in the long-term interests of survival of humans on the planet.
Following Bruno Latour, we need to recognize that the speech of scientists is not indisputable. In the face of this impossibility of producing incontrovertible facts, we should, Latour suggests, replace “matters of fact” with ”matters of concern”. All we can do is publicly defend our assertions against other assertions. After all, we expect complex procedures of agreement in politics; there is “no unmediated access to agreement” in politics. Well then, says Latour, “If politics is earthly, so is science” (Latour 2008: 3314-315).
We will have to evolve general protocols of agreement in science too, where we recognize the “voice of the scientist” as not unitary, but fractured, and reflective of a deeply political debate within the field.
[This is a section of a forthcoming paper "Cooking up Nature: Science in the Laboratory of Politics" in Menon, Nigam and Palshikar eds. Critical Studies in Politics, Orient Blackswan].
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Express News Service (2010) “Sethu order not for a year, SC to wait for panel report” Indian Express April 22
IANS (Indo Asian News Service) (2007) “Ram Setu ‘man-made’, says government publication” December 8.
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Mukherjee, Sharmistha (2010) “Shipping ministry to double cost estimates of Sethusamudram project”, Business Standard January 5
Downloaded October 9, 2010
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) Downloaded on October 9, 2010
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Downloaded October 9, 2010
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Downloaded on October 9, 2010
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Downloaded on October 9, 2010
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Downloaded on October 9, 2010
[i] ‘Scholars divided on Sethu issue’ Times of India September 18, 2007
[ii] “Save Sree Ram Sethu” Hindu Janajgruti Samiti http://www.hindujagruti.org/activities/campaigns/religious/ramsethu/ Downloaded October 9 2010.
[iii] Hindustan Times September 13, 2007
[iv] Others too have argued that claims about the economic benefits of the SSCP are exaggerated. See John (2007)
[v] It seems very likely, given the recent history of court decisions, that had the appeal against the project been made on environmental grounds in the first place, it would have lost. The trend over the 1990s to the early years of the 2000’s has been that the Supreme Court consistently took distinctly different stands on two kinds of PIL, with Environment trumping People, but Development trumping Environment (See Menon forthcoming “Environment and the Will to Rule. Supreme Court and Public Interest Litigation in the 1990s” in volume edited by Mayur Suresh and Siddharth Narrain)