Gujarat-based Hindu spiritual leader Morari Bapu has been given permission to conduct an 8-day event at Dhanushkodi.

Morari Bapu wearing a beige shawl sitting on a white metal swing at a press conference for his event in Dhanushkodi, Tamil NaduPic by SP Loganathan
news Environment Thursday, January 07, 2021 - 17:53

What is unique about the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtle is that the females return to the same beach where they were hatched to lay eggs, despite traversing thousands of nautical miles after they hatch – out of hundreds of hatchlings only a few survive to adulthood. The Coromandel Coast is one of their primary nesting grounds and from the months of December through March, thousands of these turtles return to various beaches along India’s east coast to nest. This year though, when they return to Dhanushkodi, an ecologically sensitive zone located adjacent to India’s only marine national park, the Gulf of Mannar, they might not have any beach space available to practise what their species has done for thousands of years. This is because Morari Bapu, a Gujarat-based spiritual leader famous for being one of the biggest donors for the reconstruction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, is holding an eight-day event on these very beaches.

Enormous hangars have been erected on Dhanushkodi’s beaches for the event, which began on January 2 and will continue till January 10. Bapu has been delivering discourses on the Ramcharitmanas, an epic poem describing the life of Lord Rama, for which he is famous. The event is live-streamed every day on his organisation Chitrakutdham Talgajarda’s YouTube channel. Although the event is only for eight days, the construction of the hangars, which required six feet deep holes to be dug and pillars to be erected on the beach, has been ongoing for many weeks now. The disturbance is preventing the endangered turtle species from temporarily inhabiting the beaches on which they were born, effectively infringing on the natural processes in this region, the consequences of which will be known only in the future.

“The exact location where this event is taking place is called Arichal Munai (literally translated to ‘eroding endpoint’). It has been given this name because the sea constantly erodes here and the region has been declared unsafe for even local communities to inhabit,” says K Ilango, a fisherman from Rameswaram who has been vocal in his opposition to Bapu’s event, to TNM. He adds, “Due to the pandemic, the area has been completely shut off by the police and no one has been allowed to get past their barricades. When this is the case, how can a Gujarati religious leader and his contingent be allowed to bring dozens of lorries and buses and hold such a large event here? Apart from occupying an ecologically fragile zone during a critical time, doesn’t this also jeopardise the safety of the people of Dhanushkodi and Rameswaram and put their health at risk unnecessarily?”

A view of the event hangar and vehicles for the event | Credit: Chinna Thambi

Chinna Thambi Xavier, another local fisherman and convenor of the Traditional Fishermen’s Association, Rameswaram, has filed a complaint at the Rameswaram police station stating that immediate action should be taken and the illegal constructions in Dhansuhkodi should be removed. Xavier told TNM, “Even the road they have constructed to the edge of Arichal Munai and the stones they have dumped to keep the sea away are illegal as per the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) laws. On top of that, if they continue holding such events in this region, it will completely destroy Dhanushkodi’s fragile ecological balance.”

Xavier adds, “This is a unique region where the Bay of Bengal merges with the Indian Ocean and its importance as a natural resource needs to be recognised. We’re not saying don’t hold sermons, just don’t do it at the cost of India’s natural wealth.”

A view of the event space and its proximity to the sea | Credit: SP Loganathan

A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) has also been filed by X Nallathambi in the Ramanathapuram district court and will come up for hearing soon.

Dinesh Ponraj Oliver, Collector of Ramanathapuram district, refutes these allegations. He tells TNM, “The issue is being politicised unnecessarily. We have consulted all the experts, and after receiving assurance that the event organisers will follow all procedural requirements, we granted them permission to hold a small gathering of not more than 200 people here. The beaches where the event is being held is not a turtle nesting region and so won’t affect their activities.”

According to a government order issued by the Tamil Nadu Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries department on September 27, 2016 (a copy of which is with The News Minute), Dhanushkodi is listed as a potential nesting site for sea turtles. A Tamil Nadu forest officer familiar with the region but who requested anonymity also confirmed this. He says, “Arichal Munai does not fall under the forest department but turtles definitely nest there. Any activity in that region especially during their nesting season is definitely going to affect the turtles adversely. So, while the event in question might or might not be violating laws, it’s definitely damaging the environment.”

A view of the event | Credit: SP Loganathan

Bapu himself gave a press conference on the sidelines of the event earlier this week, in which he was asked about the event’s consequences on the local environment. He replied, “We have received all necessary permissions and since this place is an extremely holy one in the Ramayana, I was happy to conduct my reading from the Ramcharitramanas here.”

While Dhanushkodi’s importance in Hindu mythology is unquestionable, Rameswaram’s residents are worried that this event will set a precedent for the future. As Xavier says, “We’re afraid other religious leaders will now come and try to organise similar events. What will happen to the wildlife here if people take over what little space remains for them? Where will they go?”

Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.

(With inputs from SP Loganathan, an independent journalist based in Ramanathapuram.)

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