Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Saturday inaugurated work on the Rs 2,427 crore Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project that would cut the sailing distance between the east and west coasts, amidst protests by fishermen and environmentalists.
While United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi attended the function, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa boycotted it, accusing the Centre of subverting environmental clearances and not addressing the concerns of fishermen and environmentalists.
Allaying fishermen's apprehensions that the project will cut into their livelihood, Dr Singh pressed a button that started dredging at a site off point Calimere coast in Nagapattinam district, 250 km from Madurai.
Dr Singh also announced the Centre's decision to set up a 'world-class' automobile testing facility near Chennai, which, he said, will attract huge investments both directly and indirectly.
"It will give a boost to Tamil Nadu's already developed automobile sector. Let Tamil Nadu be a rival to Detroit in future," he said.
The inauguration of work marks the fulfillment of a promise made by the UPA government in its Common Minimum Programme, and a long-cherished dream of the Tamilians.
The project will create a navigable sea route between the Gulf of Mannar and the Bay of Bengal and cut travelling time between India's west and east coasts by over 30 hours.
Speaking after the inauguration, Sonia said the Centre will implement the project in a manner that 'protects and preserves the local ecology', as the tsunami had already taught the government the need to care for the fishermen.
Noting that environmentalists had raised some issues about the impact of the project, she said the fishing community will be paid due attention. "We will make sure their interests are protected and their welfare will be central in all our endeavours," she said.
In her short speech, Sonia said it was only the UPA government that had 'decisively' come forward to realise the dream of the people on this 'technologically and economically vital project'.
The project will benefit lakhs of people in the country, particularly in Tamil Nadu. It will also stimulate trade and encourage tourism and other economic activities.
Congratulating Union Shipping Minister T R Baalu and others on launching this 'historical project', she said, 'today is a day of satisfaction' and a historical moment for the people of Tamil Nadu and the country.