Secret Society’s Public Sitting and Private Hearing

published on November 1, 2007

Sethu panel keeps hearings private

Chennai, Oct. 31: The Committee of Eminent Persons on Sethusamudram Shipping Channel Project is holding public sittings in Chennai, but there is nothing public about it. The committee proceedings began on Monday at the Malligai bungalow on Greenways Road, where most state ministers and high court judges live and the question that is agitating the public and the Sethu scholars alike is why the media is being kept out.

“This is not a public sitting. It is a private hearing involving those making their presentations and the members of the committee. We will issue press releases at the end of each day’s proceedings. We do not want a media presence beyond this,” Professor S. Ramachandran, vice-chancellor of the Madras University, chairing the nine-member Sethu committee, told this newspaper. However, no press release came.

Officials of the Chennai Port Trust are manning the entry points at Malligai and their main task appears to be to identify media persons and shoo them away. “We are not even allowing the Kalaignar TV crew, why should we let you in?” quipped a babu at the gate. The police is doing its bit in screening the visitors, who are either campaigners for the Rs.2,500 crore project that is expected to fulfill the 150-year Tamil dream or “spoil-sport activists” trying hard to get it shot down.

“There is a big announcement outside the committee room saying it is a private hearing. This is in violation of the high democratic traditions promised by the additional solicitor general in the Supreme Court for listening to alternative views on the Sethu project,” said Dr S. Kalyanaraman, chairman of the Saraswati Foundation and one of the opponents of the projects, who made his 25-minute presentation before the committee on Wednesday.

Chief minister M. Karunanidhi and his nominee T. R. Baalu heading the Union shipping ministry are convinced that the Sethu project will sail through, overcoming the hiccups caused by court cases mostly inspired by the Sangh Parivar taking up the issue of the Ramar Sethu, the legendary bridge built by the Hanuman brigade for Rama to rescue Sita from Ravanan’s Lanka.

Informed sources say Mr Baalu had handpicked most of the members of the Sethu committee, constituted by the Centre following a directive from the Supreme Court hearing petitions against the Sethu project, including one from the Janata Party president Dr Subramaniam Swamy. Interestingly, Prof Ramachandran had come to the venue of the fast led by Mr Karunanidhi on the Sethu issue at Chennai on October 1 and even presented a shawl and flowers to the chief minister, announcing his political leanings rather loudly.

“How do you expect such a person to conduct this committee in a non-partisan, fair and scientific manner?” asked Dr Swamy, terming the committee as “BARC, Baalu’s anti-Ram Committee”. Sources said the committee of eminent persons could do with more experts, considering that some of its members were not adequately informed about the intricacies of the issues involved, particularly the complicated issues of undersea dredging, navigation calculations and terrorist-threats. “I was surprised that the committee should ask me to provide them with copies of the Madras high court judgement of 19 June (2007) and references to Sethu in Sangam and ancient Tamil texts,” said Dr Kalyanaraman, emerging from his session with the committee.

Capt Hariharan Balakrishnan was another expert who came with a detailed affidavit to “educate” the committee on the navigational and security aspects allegedly ignored by Mr Baalu and team. “Four pens dropped to the floor and I found the members suddenly sitting up when I told the committee that the Sethu Channel will not reduce the distance for large vessels sailing between Athens and Singapore but actually increase it by 63 nautical miles. I told them this project made no nautical sense,” Capt Balakrishnan said speaking to this newspaper.

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