The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- With colleagues like Soni and Ramesh, the PM needs no enemies

Since the Sethusamudram Ship Canal project has been hanging fire for 147 years, a little more delay will do no harm. What causes dismay is the scope it has provided for a despicable, if predictable, display of opportunism by political operators with an eye on the main chance. The antics of the likes of H.R. Bhardwaj, Ambika Soni, Praveen Togadia and Jairam Ramesh bring to mind the chaplain who, when asked to pray for the American Senate, said that looking at the senators, he would pray for the public.

Perhaps the only people who emerge creditably from this sorry saga are the Archaeological Survey of India officials who stated what their investigations had led them to believe without considering the public impact. Not for them any attempt to pander to popular sentiment, slip a knife into a colleague to advance their careers or to curry favour through noble exhortations and grovelling apologies. I am not venturing an opinion on their belief that Ram did not exist and that Adam’s Bridge is a natural formation. What I am affirming is that the ASI’s director (administration), Chandrashekhar, and assistant director (monuments), V. Bakshi, deserve respect for having the courage to express an unpopular opinion without pussyfooting like their political masters. Similarly, right or wrong, M. Karunanidhi, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham president, merits a prize for his dogged consistency. India is waiting for Lal Krishna Advani’s response to his challenge.

Even a cursory look at this proposal for a Suez of the East at once brings one face to face with another unpalatable reality of Indian life: like West Bengal’s Farakka canal and barrage, which Sir Arthur Cotton first mooted, the dream of a shipping canal round the southern coast also goes back to the 19th-century British whom it is fashionable nowadays to blame for all our woes. The author was a marine engineer, Commodore Alfred Dundas Taylor, who first suggested the canal in 1860 to reduce sailing distance, cut time and cost, and give an impetus to the economy through port development. The colonial administration considered no fewer than eight other proposals between then and 1922, with everyone agreeing that in addition to obvious benefits, a canal would avoid the longer storm-tossed route round Ceylon which is especially perilous during the monsoon months.

Stressing this last aspect, Sir Robert Bristow, harbour engineer in Madras, wrote, “The increased wear on all parts of the ship, and the anxiety and risk which are thus eliminated in the case of all vessels render the construction of the canal a very desirable object on the general grounds.” His was the last British Indian inquiry in 1922. There was no debate then or before because no one disagreed. But nothing happened because the government didn’t have the money.

After Independence Sir A. Ramaswamy Mudaliar was asked to re-examine the proposal. His 1955 committee recommended joint construction with Tuticorin harbour. Again, nothing happened, and Tuticorin was sanctioned as a stand-alone scheme in 1963. The following year the Nagendra Singh committee also approved of the canal, as the Lakshminarayan committee did in 1981. The last imprimatur of approval seems to have been from the Pallavan Transport Consultancy, which the Tamil Nadu government commissioned in 1994 to review the Lakshminarayan committee report.

Predictably, costs spiralled during these years from the Mudaliar committee’s Rs 1.8 crore for a canal with a draft of 26 ft to the Lakshminarayan committee’s Rs 282 crore to the Pallavan Consultancy’s Rs 760 crore to the present Rs 2,427.4 crore. The comparisons are not exact, for the scope of work varied from committee to committee, but the drift is plain enough. It is also obvious that successive governments in New Delhi and Tamil Nadu were eager to go ahead with the project, which featured in almost every election manifesto. As with the British blueprints, the only hurdle was money. There was no hint then of any religious objection. That came later with the political theatre mentioned earlier and the declining calibre of our political players.

Religion certainly was not a factor since Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced in Madras on September 15, 1998 that his Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government would implement the project. George Fernandes, the NDA defence minister, promised the following January that the channel would be ready in three years. Then came the first concrete step after all these decades of talking — Yashwant Sinha’s budget for 2000-01 allocated Rs 4.8 crore for a feasibility study. The following year the NDA finance minister described Sethusamudram as being of national importance; Vajpayee went further in 2004 when he said it was the “cherished dream” of the Tamil Nadu public. And, indeed, Jayalalithaa who was sharing the platform with him, pleaded with the prime minis- ter to “expedite” completion.

Her boast, in those days, was that she and the late M.G. Ramachandran had first thought of the Sethusamudram canal. Predictably, the claim aroused Karunanidhi’s wrath. The DMK president pointed out that the late C.N. Annadurai spoke of the canal in 1960 and that the DMK passed a resolution in its favour the following year. Now, of course, it suits Jayalalithaa’s agenda to breathe fire and brimstone against the Suez of the East on grounds that range from the environmental to the mythological.

Given the shenanigans in New Delhi, her volte face is not surprising. Take, for instance, Togadia’s tantrums. He is general secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh publication, Organiser, is baying for the government’s blood over Sethusamudram. Neither seems to realize that, by objecting to the project now, they are betraying Vajpayee, Fernandes, Sinha and Advani, who set the ball rolling in 1998. Apparently, these worthies don’t feel betrayed, or even a teeny-weeny bit embarrassed. At least, Togadia and Organiser can claim an opposition’s justification of being duty bound to oppose. But our three Congress luminaries have no excuse save self-aggrandizement.

The Union law minister could have got away with withdrawing certain sections of the government affidavit. Instead, in a display of pusillanimity that is astounding in someone who is supposed to uphold the law and mete out justice, Bhardwaj chose to withdraw the entire document and gratuitously assure the world that he is as pious as any saffron brigade militant. At least, he damaged no one save himself, which is more than can be said of that well-matched pair, Soni and Ramesh.

Flouting every norm of ministerial responsibility, the culture and tourism minister, who was gallivanting abroad when the storm broke, had no qualms about victimizing junior officials for her own negligence. I am unaware, at the time of writing, of how the third ASI official, Anshu Vaishya, the director-general, bore her displeasure, but can only hope he did not let down his two subordinates. It does not matter a jot who actually wrote the controversial paragraph 20. Collective responsibility rests squarely on the minister.

Scenting gain, Ramesh jumped into the fray, probably expecting twin rewards from pointing out Soni’s dereliction of duty. The flourish of rectitude would earn him a pat on the back. The stab in a senior colleague’s back — Soni is a full minister whereas he is only minister of state — might create a cabinet vacancy up for grabs. Instead, he seems to have received a slap on the wrist while Soni remains where she was, albeit chastened. Ramesh’s apologetic retreat is a reminder that bluster and servility are two sides of the same coin.

This is not a plea for the canal. It is not a denigration of faith. It is a lament for lost values. It is to bemoan the shoddy netas we are saddled with. With colleagues like Bhardwaj, Soni and Ramesh, Manmohan Singh, a good man fallen among thieves if ever there was one, needs no enemies.

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