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The Rediff Interview/O Fernandes, Co-convenor, Coastal Action Network

July 19, 2005

O Fernandes, co-convenor of the Coastal Action Network (CAN) had filed an unsuccessful petition in the Madras high court seeking issue of a writ to quash the March 31, 2005 order of the Central government granting environment clearance to the Sethusamudram Canal Project near Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu.

The Coastal Action Network and several other NGOs are relentlessly fighting to discontinue any action by the shipping ministry in the Palk Strait. What they are trying to do is garner public support against what they consider would be an environmental disaster.

The voice of the Coastal Action Network has reached far and wide -- Fernandes was being interviewed by BBC when rediff called on him. He spoke to Shobha Warrier on CAN's future course of action as far as the Sethu canal project is concerned.

Govt clears Sethusamudram Canal Project

Are you disappointed with the high court's decision to reject your petition seeking to quash the Centre's order granting environmental clearance to the Sethu project?

There were two high court orders. The first one was regarding the unscientific and undemocratic nature with which the public hearings were held. There, the high court said it was premature because the public hearings weren't completed. We had said that because of the tsunami, many fishermen were unable to come to the hearings but the court refused to entertain our arguments on merit, and dismissed it as premature.

The more recent high court petition which we had prayed for was for staying or quashing the clearance given to the project. The court did not go into the merits of the arguments. They asked us to look at the alternative, to go to the environment tribunal, which already exists.

The judges suggested that we go before the tribunal (The National Environment Appellate Authority). We said the tribunal should be headed by a Supreme Court judge; it has remained headless for the last five years. Hence, we said we cannot go before the tribunal. So, the judge ordered that within thirty days, such a head must be appointed, and we were given 30 days to file a petition there.

So, to that extent, the second order, since it hasn't gone into the merits of the argument, was another disastrous judgement or order. Still, it's open to us.

Are you not losing out on time? The project has been inaugurated.

No. Our entire strategy is not based on the legal case. It's also based on people's resistance to the project. You know in Madurai, Tuticorin, Rameswaram, Nagapattinam -- everywhere, people are resisting the need for this project. So, it's based on people's strength.

How do you plan to make people resist the project? How do you plan to unite them against the project?

As a representative of the Coastal Action Network, we are members of the movement against the Sethusamudram Canal Project. So, we jointly plan, though I am petitioner in the matter, with people's movements, scientists, environmentalists and lawyers, and co-ordinate our strategies.

How optimistic are you about creating a strong people's movement against the project? Will a people's movement be able to resist political power?

I am very optimistic. Increasingly, there is a growing awareness among a lot of fishing people and coastal people, and the awareness is growing in cities too. It's growing not only in Tamil Nadu but across India.

We are creating awareness that this canal is not going to benefit the people at all. The question then is, who is it going to benefit?

The shipping industry is not going to use this canal. The international shipping lines are not going to use this canal. So, then, who is going to use it and at what cost?

Our estimate is that for the 10 year period which we calculated, not less than 24,000 crore rupees of the wealth of fishing people will be destroyed. They have said publicly that it will take 10-13 years for the project to even get back what is invested. It will take 18-19 years to break even. It is a ridiculously, economically unviable project.

The argument from the otherĀ side is, it is a 135-year-old dream of the Tamils.

The first thing I want to ask these politicians is, which Tamils are they talking about? If they are really talking about Tamil people, they shouldn't be digging this canal. It's not going to bring in commerce.

Secondly, it is not going to bring any development or employment excepting during the construction period.

The real issue is [this] -- right now the coast is protected by the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ). They cannot dig a road through this coast because it is banned under the CRZ law. So, instead of digging the road, they are digging the canal. Once you dredge the canal, they are going to have stopovers, or small harbours. Once you set that up, you break the CRZ law. So, the real interest is to smash the CRZ law because they claim the CRZ law is not allowing them to put up projects along the coast.

For international and national big capital, the coast is the easiest dumping site you can get for all your wastes, whether you are looking at thermal plants, ports, chemical industries, petrochemicals or pharmaceuticals. All the big industries are trying hard to locate themselves on the coast, including tourism.

Since the CRZ law is there and since the fishing people have used the law to resist [it], they have not succeeded. So, you dig a canal a little outside and then you invade the inside. That's the strategy. But they are not telling this to anyone.

If you see the arguments of the former chief minister [K Karunanidhi] or Union Minister T R Baalu or the Tuticurin port authorities, every single argument of theirs is not based on any scientific report. They haven't quoted a single scientific report. On the other hand, I will name 40 scientific studies showing that it's not viable. Now, they have appointed five institutes to do the environmental studies. On what scientific basis did you give clearance when you say in the clearance order, you have to do 16 more studies? This is what I told the BBC also when they asked me the question.

We are carrying out a big international campaign. We have begun by asking all foreign companies to stay off this canal or face the wrath of the people.

Another thing I want to point out is, the Prime Minister's Office objected to this project first, and said there was no comprehensive Environmental Impact Analysis . The PMO has not answered our letters on how they cleared this project when they themselves raised objections in the first place. The PMO raised the same objections that we have raised. Within two months, it gets passed. How? We have politicians who are simply selling this country piece by piece.

Arguing your case, the CAN lawyer said you are not against the project per se. You only wanted a concrete scientific study before the project starts. Does that mean you don't object to this project at all?

Well, that's for the courts. We want the courts to appreciate that our arguments are scientific. Hence we want the court to recognise that here's a project going through without a scientific base. That's why we spoke like that. It's illegal and violates several laws of the land. Several aspects like fishing are state subjects. If the fishing people's access to the sea is going to be hampered by the canal, obviously it is the state government's job to examine the project.

If the project under a Union minister has violated so many laws, who is going to stop him?

In both the times of judgement, that's what we wanted to open up. We want to open up the discussion on merits. We would like to have the judges set up a scientific team to guide them.

So, what is your course of action?

One is, the people's resistance will go on. There's no doubt about it. We, and by we I mean the people, are not going to allow dredging. In the worst scenario, the fishing people are going to just log their catamarans in ports when the dredging starts.

Secondly, we are very grateful to the media for supporting us over the last 2-3 months in a very major way. So, we do like to communicate through the media as that is our only means of communication. From the litigation point of view, we have three options, one is going before the centrally empowered Supreme Court appointed committee which is looking at wildlife and environment.

The other is, we go to the Supreme Court, again looking at the clearance aspect and asking the SC to examine our argument. Number three is, we go before the Tribunal, the Appellate body.

Professor KNJ Katupotha of the Sri Jayewardenepura University said in a seminar that the project could upset the entire ecological system in the seabed of the fertile Indian Ocean. He also talked about the project causing earthquakes. Later, Union Minister T R Baalu said they have cleared Sri Lanka's [Images] fears.

It's a chain of fragile zone right from Kanyakumari up to West Bengal. The tsunami showed the mud and sludge that was thrown up had killed a lot of flora and fauna right from the Gulf of Mannar biosphere in the Palk Strait.

Tsunami [Images] is a good lesson which they are not willing to learn from. This is the only major biosphere you have in India. If this goes, it will totally affect fish breeding. Our calculation shows immediately, 70,000 families will be affected. It will soon be five times more than that.

A good part of the part of the Gulf Mannar biosphere is in the Sri Lankan territorial waters. Now, I think they are going to court to challenge this canal for violation of international law and the law of the sea.

The minister also says the project will help our defenceļæ½

That's the height of ridiculousness. No naval fleet will ever commit suicide by going through that 12m canal.

Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has raised several questions, though a bit late. Do you feel it is also a political game?

Whether it is politics or not, they were correct. The authorities had no business to clear the project without the Tamil Nadu government giving them the no-objection certificate from the TN Pollution Control Board.

But Union Minister Baalu has said in a press conference that he didn't have to get the NOC from TN Pollution Control Board.

He is not reading the law correctly. Mr Baalu can be challenged for illegality. We haven't yet challenged them on violation of several laws. The NOC is absolutely necessary.

There is no use of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa trying to say, I want the project but procedurally, environmental matters have to be followed. If you look at procedurally and scientifically, the project is unsustainable. She is only technically correct.

Are you optimistic about your fight becoming successful?

Very, very optimistic because the fight is not between Mr Baalu and us, or us and ministry of environment and forests. The fight is between sustainable development and destructive development, and that's the key issue.

Photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj; Design: Dominic Xavier

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