The geoheritage value of Ram Setu

Source: The post is based on the article “The geoheritage value of Ram Setu” published in The Hindu on 22nd November 2022.

Syllabus: GS – 3: Environmental Conservation.

Relevance: About Ram Setu and Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project (SSCP).

News: The Supreme Court gave the Centre four weeks’ time to file a response clarifying its stand on a plea seeking national heritage status for the ‘Ram Setu’.

What is Ram Setu?
Read here: Ram Setu – A bridge across history, mythology and controversy

In 2003 researchers at the Space Applications Centre in Ahmedabad using satellite remote-sensing imagery concluded that Ram Setu is not man-made, “but comprises 103 small patch reefs lying in a linear pattern with reef crest, sand cays and intermittent deep channels”.

What is the story behind the formation of Ram Setu?

During a global glaciation period that began around 2.6 million years ago and ended 11,700 years ago, the Indian coast, including parts of the Sethusamudram, may have been raised above the water.

And in time, the platforms may have been used by migrants to cross oceans. The Ramayana refers to a putative land bridge in this region.

The post-glaciation period witnessed a steady rise in sea levels around the world leading to the submergence of the bridge.

About Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project (SSCP)

It can be traced back to the British, who proposed creating a channel to link the Palk Strait with the Gulf of Mannar. The project was inaugurated in 2005. However, the project has been opposed on various grounds.

The CSIR-National Environmental Engineering Research Institute ruled out any serious environmental risk and certified the feasibility of the project. The SSCP, if completed, is expected to considerably reduce the navigation time between the east and west coasts of India.

What are the concerns associated with the SSCP?
Environmental concerns

Impacts of Waves: Computer models suggest that the central, eastern and northeastern parts of Palk Bay may be impacted by waves of higher energy. This means that these areas will receive more sediment, rendering them more turbid.

Impact of Cyclone: The area is also vulnerable to cyclonic storms. A cyclone in 1964 was so powerful that it wiped out the town of Dhanushkodi. So, finding safe places for dumping dredged material without harming terrestrial or marine ecosystems is a big challenge.

Emissions from ships: Emissions from ships will pollute the air and water. Any accident to a ship carrying oil or coal will lead to an ecological disaster.

Might be a final blow to the marine biosphere: The coral reef platforms between Thoothukudi and Rameswaram in the Gulf of Mannar were notified as a marine biosphere reserve in 1989. The reserve has more than 36,000 species of flora and fauna.

This area is already threatened by discharge from thermal plants, brine run-off from salt pans, and illegal mining of corals. The SSCP, if it becomes a reality, might be the final blow to this sensitive environment and to the livelihoods of the people.

Religious grounds

Religious groups have been opposing the project as they believe that the structure is mentioned in the Ramayana and have immense religious significance.

What needs to be done?

Geodiversity consists of varied landforms and features representative of dynamic natural processes. The natural heritage of a country includes its geological heritage. The value of abiotic factors like geology, soils and landforms is also recognised for their roles in supporting habitats for biodiversity.

The Ram Setu carries the unique geological imprints of an eventful past. Therefore, it needs to be preserved not just as a national heritage monument, but also as a geoheritage structure as defined from a scientific perspective.

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