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Friday, October 12, 2007

Sethusamudram Project: A reality check

I would like to quote an article I have read for forming an analytical view of the projects proposed in our country in the disguise of development..... For whose benefits? For whose advantage? With what agenda? People of this country should realize and respond....constructively.....

"The Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project (SSCP), which envisages dredging a deep water canal across Adam’s Bridge at India’s southern tip, has been in news for all the wrong reasons.

Yet, without negating the divine implications and without questioning people’s beliefs, there is a need to objectively analyse the project and assess whether it in our national interest.

The project, which would cost the exchequer around Rs 3,500 crores, entails building a 300 metre wide and 12 metre deep channel from Gulf of Mannar across the Adam’s bridge all the way to Bay of Bengal beyond Palk Strait off Point Calimere, a distance of about 44 nautical miles, so that the ships from the West Coast of India can transit to the East Coast through the Palk Bay, rather than going round Sri Lanka.

The protagonists of the project feel that the canal will save precious fuel and save transit time for the ships, and also develop the Tamil Nadu coast. Many feel that the entire traffic from the Persian Gulf and Red Sea to Malacca Strait will eventually take this route.

But the facts are somewhat different. The channel is being dredged so that the ships with up to 10 metres draught can transit through it. But almost all the tankers and bulk carriers from Persian Gulf or the Red Sea and bound for East or South East Asia are much bigger in size, and will not be able to use the channel due to constraints of draught.

Even for those ships that can transit through the canal, except for traffic from Tuticorin to Chennai, the time gained by most of the merchant ships on account of shorter distance will be more than neutralised due to delays that are inherent in transiting through a narrow channel, where pilotage in all probability will be compulsory. The ships will have to anchor and wait for a pilot (a local expert who navigates the ship through confined waters). Time will be wasted in waiting for pilot, embarking him, disembarking him and also due to speed restrictions mandated in a narrow and shallow channel.

If the traffic increases, then the ships will have to queue up as big ships will find it difficult to cross each other in a narrow channel like this. Any fuel saved will be neutralised by Pilotage charges and other charges likely to be levied on ships transiting through this artificially made canal. It is therefore unlikely that any significant shipping is likely to be diverted through this canal, even after it is ready. This poses serious doubts about the financial viability of the project.

From the security point of view, it must be noted that all big ships during their transit from Adam's Bridge to Point Calimere will be extremely vulnerable to attacks by LTTE, as the ships on account of surrounding shallow waters will be constrained to move at a slow speed and follow a fixed path, which will pass very close to the waters dominated by the LTTE. This will provide LTTE a strong leverage against India and the flow of traffic through the canal will depend on India's relations with this terrorist outfit.

Strategically, India must aim to bring the countries of South Asia closer and strive for a South Asian Economic Union. But the Sethusamudram Project creates an unnecessary Gulf between India and Sri Lanka, which is uncomfortable with the project as it perceives it to be against Sri Lankan interests. Although it has been circumspect as it does not want to ruffle feathers in India, but Colombo’s displeasure is well known.

Sethu project — A strategic blunder

It would make much more sense to go in for a land bridge between Dhanushkoti and Talai Mannar (over the Adam’s Bridge or the proverbial Ram Sethu) so as to achieve better integration of Sri Lankan Economy with Indian economy. This coupled with a reasonable devolution package by the Sri Lankan government could resolve the long festering ethnic turmoil in the island nation. Several studies indicate that a land bridge between India and Sri Lanka would make enormous economic sense and the cost could be recovered in less than a decade.

As an emerging maritime power, India would like to monitor shipping in the Indian Ocean at least in its vicinity, and one of the most significant Sea Line of Communication close to our waters is the one that connects Dondra Head (South of Sri Lanka) to Malacca Strait. Though Indian naval ships would still have the legal right to be in Sri Lankan waters after the construction of Sethusamudram Canal, they would definitely lose the moral right to do so.

The environmental impact of the project has not been studied adequately. It is believed that Adam’s bridge prevented Tsunami from affecting Kerala, but what is more significant is that the region has been prone to massive tidal waves and one such wave in the sixties had washed away an entire train from Dhanushkoti Railway Station.

The Gulf of Mannar has been chosen as a biosphere reserve as its waters and its coast are rich in marine life, which contains over 3600 species of plants and animals including 117 species of corals and 17 species of mangroves. The project will definitely have an adverse impact on the marine life even if the shipping lanes do not exactly pass through these waters; mere proximity will pollute the marine environment and destroy the coral reefs.

The local fishermen feel that this will not only ruin the fish breeding grounds but could also bring in deep sea trawlers, thereby threatening their livelihood.

It is therefore essential to dispassionately review the project and not see it through political or religious prisms. As the channel will not allow transit by bigger ships and small craft have always been transiting through Pamban Pass, it may be much more cost effective to dredge the Pamban Pass to allow ships of up to five to six metres to pass through. This may not even cost one per cent of the cost of SSCP, and besides saving exchequer’s money will definitely avoid the adverse environmental, security and strategic implications of this project. "

Hence, our esteemed Governments have the moral responsibility to bring the facts and figures of this project in front of the tax payers as they are accountable for each penny they intend to spend in the name of this project.