ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 18, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 42

Bilateral discussions drown in Sri Lanka’s silence

By Rohan Abeywardena

Is the Sri Lankan Government lacking the political will to pursue its own case over the controversial Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project (SSCP) or is it simply not focussed on the issue?

These are the questions being raised in environmental, diplomatic and economic circles over the evolving drama that the Indian Government is spearheading 'at its end' with little or no concern for Sri Lanka's muted protests.

“The stone death silence of India”, is how one senior Lankan official described New Delhi bureaucracy’s total silence to a written proposal submitted by Sri Lanka early last year to set up a Joint Environment Management Project to oversee the dredging of the channel.

And as far as we know, the matter was not even placed on the agenda for discussions when the new Foreign Minister Rohita Bogollagama, took the first flight to New Delhi after his appointment, to pay what has now become the ritual 'courtesy call' on the political and bureaucratic leadership of India.

Sources in Colombo say that from the beginning, India had been adopting a rather high handed attitude, not seeking the approval of Sri Lanka for the project, on the basis that it was one kilometre inside their side of the international maritime boundary, even though under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, there is a clear need for consultation. The opening ceremony to cut the first sod, so to say, was done without any ‘By Your Leaves’ from Colombo even for the sake of courtesy.

They said that then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, had, despite maintaining good neighbourly relations with India, ensured that a committee of experts painstakingly gather relevant evidence to meet India on the dangers to the environment and even possible erosion of our Western coastal belt posed by the project.. After his untimely death, the lack of zeal, or the lack of expertise, or both, by his successors in this direction, saw a lack of focus by the Sri Lankan side to what was happening to the SSCP.

The last known action taken by the Sri Lankan Government was under Mr. Kadirgamar's stewardship when Sri Lanka raised its concerns at the highest levels, and in September 2004, the Cabinet appointed an Inter-Ministerial Committee to study the impact of the project on Sri Lanka and to make recommendations. To ensure that Sri Lankan concerns were brought forth to the notice of Indian authorities in a coherent and scientific basis, the Government also appointed an advisory group comprising experts in related fields. As a result of such efforts, the Indian Government arranged three rounds (January ’05, August ’05 and April ’06) of bilateral discussions between officials of the two countries, but according to critics much of it had been one sided. There have also been occasions when the Indian side brought up issues before our officials could raise them, and then brushed aside those matters. The situation was such, some Sri Lankan officials began to suspect their hotel rooms were 'bugged'.

At the third round of bilateral discussions held in Colombo in April 2006, the Sri Lankan side had ensured that its concerns were heard by the Indians and had made several recommendations, the chief being the setting up of a Joint Environmental Management Plan for Impact Assessment of the project area.

Concerned officials in Colombo charge that since then, there has been total silence from the Indian side despite matters being raised even during talks between then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera and his counterpart on the sidelines of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to New Delhi last November. Even the follow up fourth round of bilateral discussions that should be held in New Delhi has not been scheduled by the Indians so far. When The Sunday Times asked Indian High Commission’s Commercial Counselor Sanjay Sudhir about this issue he said there had been no official complaints from the Sri Lankan Government. “They may have complained to you, but they have not said anything to us, and no request has been received by us for a meeting”.

Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona was also non-commital. He maintained that “we are continuing with discussions.”

In the meantime, India had launched the second phase of the project; the dredging of the environmentally sensitive Adam’s Bridge in December last year

The Adam’s Bridge area off the Gulf of Mannar is a unique bio diversity zone and the UN has already declared it a World Heritage area due to many marine species found there being non-existent anywhere else on earth.

Even Indian experts have pointed out that in the event of another Indian Ocean tsunami occurring after completing the channel it could lead to a catastrophe as waters could rush through this channel and could even lead to permanent changes in weather patterns with the movement of colder waters from the Bay of Bengal to the Gulf of Mannar. Indian experts themselves have expressed reservations, and some of them who had prepared technical reports, considering the ecological sensitivity of the region, had laid down some 90 conditions for the project, including getting Sri Lanka’s approval for it. But the Sri Lanka Government has put this project on their back-burner, with the new Foreign Ministry hierarchy busy jetting across the globe meeting VVIPs and appearing on TV interviews.

Compounding the situation are the growing Indian nuclear projects in the region. India is already constructing a nuclear fuel enrichment facility at Koodankulam, some 150 km from Tuticorin, which is considered the furthest point in India for any Pakistani or Chinese missile strike.

And, the Indian planners want to transport the enriched fuel through this canal to the East coast of India, without going around Sri Lanka. Under international convention, experts point out, New Delhi has to obtain Sri Lanka’s permission each time its ships carrying any nuclear fuel circle around Sri Lanka. India is also said to be planning to build a base for its nuclear powered submarines on this canal to refuel inside its own territorial waters.

Fortuitously, while the Sri Lanka Government avoids taking suitable action like pressing for bilaterals on this project, or going for international arbitration, nature has played a decisive role.

On December 18 last year, they began the dredging of the most eco-sensitive area of the Adam’s Bridge, but it has been dogged by endless problems, including running into hard bedrock, instead of sand. On January 23 this year, the 107 tonne driller of the dredger collapsed and a few days later the 150 tonne crane brought to lift the drill too had collapsed. Even the little area already dredged elsewhere too is reportedly fast filling up due to shifting sand banks in the region.

Hindu kovils in India too are increasingly kicking up dust as they consider the Adam’s Bridge, which they call the sacred Hanuman Bridge of yore, is being desecrated by the project. It is not only powerful heads of Hindu Kovils that have now gone to court to block the project. For some time now Indian environmentalists and other concerned groups have been also battling to stop the SSCP.

A senior diplomat who declined to be named suggested other options for Colombo to pursue. Since India will not give up its strategic pursuits, to take the path of least resistance and to see this as both a challenge, and an opportunity, as it will eventually bring in more business for Colombo from main line vessels calling here with/for Indian cargo.

He also suggested that Colombo continually engage India on environmental and other threats, including possible impact on our fishing industry as warm waters of the Mannar Bay, which are ideal breeding grounds for fish could be adversely affected if cooler waters from the Bay of Bengal rush into this area through the canal. If India however continues to ignore Sri Lanka's concerns, then there is no option but to take up our case at the appropriate international forum.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.