Plan for Sea Canal Puts Hindu Belief In Sharp Relief

Opponents burn photographs of political leaders to protest plans to break up Adam's Bridge, which devout Hindus believe was created by the god Ram. (By Rajesh Kumar Singh -- Associated Press)
By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 18, 2007

ADAM'S BRIDGE, India -- In the emerald waters separating India and Sri Lanka lies a long chain of sand-capped rocky formations. Devout Hindus believe the god Ram built the shoals before a battle with a demon king. Fishermen along India's coast believe the shoals saved them from a tsunami three years ago. And environmentalists treasure them for their patch reefs, sea fans, sponges and pearl oysters.

Now, however, the shoals -- which form what is known as Adam's Bridge -- are being threatened by the construction of a massive sea canal.

The Indian government began dredging the shallow ocean bed two years ago and is now poised to break apart Adam's Bridge, whose demolition is necessary to allow ships to traverse a direct route between the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. But the project has become entangled in a complex web of resistance from environmentalists, fishermen, political parties and Hindu activists.

Opposition to huge industrial projects is common in India, but the controversy over Adam's Bridge, or Ram Sethu, marks one of the first times religion has become an obstacle to major development. Thousands of Hindu protesters have rallied in the streets since last week, blocking traffic and chanting, "We will save Ram Sethu, we will save Hindu heritage!"

"Millions of Hindus believe that Ram built that bridge across the sea. Our scriptures and epics mention it," said Surendra Jain, a leader of the World Hindu Council, a hard-line Hindu group. "We will not let them destroy our religious heritage."

An ambitious project with an estimated cost of more than $500 million, the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal was originally envisioned in 1860, and at least 14 proposals have been abandoned over the years because India lacked the financial resources to build it.

Ships coming from the Arabian Sea currently go around Sri Lanka to reach India's east coast and Bangladesh. With the proposed channel, 13 yards deep and 328 yards wide, ships are expected to be able to pass straight through India's territorial waters. That would mean more revenue for India's ports.

"The ships will save about 30 hours in navigation time," said Rakesh Srivastava, a senior official at the Shipping Ministry in New Delhi. "More than 3,000 ships will use this channel every year. This is a very prestigious project for India and would lead to the economic transformation of the ports and the coastal people."

While many critics have petitioned the Supreme Court in a bid to have the project scrapped, the Hindu activists support the sea canal as long as it can be built in a way that would avoid damage to Adam's Bridge. Some activists have proposed dredging to the west of the bridge to make way for a canal.

Government officials have said that approach would be misguided. And they contend the bridge isn't important in Hinduism.

"People have mixed religion with reality," Srivastava said. The shoals were formed from calcium deposits and natural sedimentation over millions of years."

In court, the government contended that the Hindu god Ram was a mythical character, an argument that only further enraged Hindus opposed to the current project. The Hindu nationalist political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, called the statement a blasphemous insult, and the government hurriedly withdrew it.

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