With the inauguration of Sethu Samudram Ship Channel Project by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on July 2, a more than 100-year-old dream of the nation is on its way to fulfilment. But like other mega projects such as the river linking project and the Sardar Sarovar project, this project is also not without controversy. Proponents of the project say that it will be the harbinger of economic growth.
Interestingly, the project was originally proposed by AD Taylor, a Britisher in the Indian Marine in 1860.
What is the Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project?
Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project envisages dredging of a ship channel across the Palk Straits between India and Sri Lanka. Two channels will be created - one across Adam's Bridge (the chain of islets and shallows linking India with Sri Lanka), south-east of Pamban Island and another through the shallows of Palk Bay, deepening the Palk Straits. The total length of these two channels would be 89 km.
A special purpose vehicle, Sethusamudram Corporation, has been set up with a debt-equity ratio of 1.5:1 for the Rs 24.27-bn project. The central government will provide Rs 4.95 bn of the equity. The Tuticorin Port Trust, the implementing authority, and the Shipping Corporation of India will contribute Rs 500 mn each. The Dredging Corporation of India, Chennai Port Trust, Ennore Port Ltd, Visakhapatnam Port Trust and Paradip Port Trust will provide Rs 300 mn each. The remaining equity of Rs 2.26 bn is to be raised through a public issue, with UTI Bank as facilitator. The central government will guarantee the domestic as well as foreign debt. The project, which envisages a 2.5-km distance between ships moving two ways in the canal, is likely to be a technical marvel.
Work on the project began in earnest in 1922. That was the year when nine proposals were made to cut a canal underwater across a reef that separates the Dhanushkodi beach, off the Indian coast of Rameswaram, from north Sri Lanka. But it was finally given life only in 1955 by a feasibility study conducted by the Ramaswamy Mudaliar committee. After several studies, the government took a concrete step towards the execution of the project when Rs 4.8 crore was allocated for a feasibility study of the Sethusamudram Ship Channel Protect in the 2000-01 Union Budget
Why is this project required?
Currently ships coming from the west coast of India and other western countries with destination in the east coast of India and also in Bangladesh, China, etc have to navigate around Sri Lankan coast. The existing water way is shallow and not sufficient for the movement of ships. This is due to the presence of a shallow region known as Adams Bridge, located south-east of Rameswaram near Pamban, which connects the Talimannar coast of Sri Lanka. In order to reduce the steaming distances between the east and west coasts of India and to improve the navigation within territorial waters of India this project has been started. The channel will cut short sailing of an additional distance of 254-424 nautical miles and 21-36 hours of sailing time.
What are the other advantages of the project?
The project will lead to considerable savings and earnings of foreign exchange. It is estimated that the Exim trade incurred an additional expenditure of around Rs 1,000 crore in foreign exchange in transhipment of Indian cargo outside the country during the financial year 2003-04 alone.
There will be substantial savings for the shipping companies, exporters, importers and manufacturers. Trade will benefit from reduction in maritime transportation cost.
The channel will become an invaluable asset from national defence and security point of view enabling easier and quicker access between the coasts. Indian coast guard and naval ships will not have to circumnavigate around Sri Lanka. .
Indian fishing boats will be able to transit freely though Adam's Bridge. This is not possible today. Fishermen will directly benefit due to the potential for development of fishing harbours (between Nagapattinam and Tuticorin) with proper landing and storage facilities. Maritime trade in Tamil Nadu, both coastal and international, will flourish with rapid development of existing minor port in Ramanathapuram.
What are the controversies around the project?
As the project finally becomes reality, concerns are mounting about what will happen to the 600,000 people who depend on fishing in the waters where the canal will be dug. Local fishermen and environmentalists have opposed the scheme, saying that digging would mean that the seabed scooped from the straits will be dumped in deeper water out to sea. This, they say, will endanger a rich biosphere reserve with 400 endangered species, including sea turtles, dolphins, dugongs and whales. Environmentalists point out that a canal would also destroy the natural barrier between the Bay of Bengal and the shallower, calmer waters of the Palk Bay.
Coastal Action Network (CAN), an umbrella group of NGOs had gone to court last year, saying the canal would disrupt their lives. Though the Madras High Court had in December dismissed the objections and signalled the go-ahead for the project, CAN has returned to the Madras High Court with a fresh appeal against clearance by the Union environment ministry. In its writ petition, it says that the Sethusamudram canal project was based on a "scientifically incomplete" report.
According to the group, the March 31 environmental clearance was granted "without application of mind". Senior Union government counsel P Wilson said the appeal has to first go through procedures of the National Environment Appellate Authority Act.
The National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) had also done a Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment in the neighbouring seas and submitted its report in 2003-04.
But the Tamil Nadu government does not agree. The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board has refused to give the project clearance, mandatory for any infrastructure project of over Rs 500 mn to be initiated in any state. Adding its voice to the chorus from activists, the Tamil Nadu government also says that the NEERI report is superficial. In fact Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, boycotted the high profile inauguration ceremony where besides the prime minister, the UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and finance minister were also present.
Sri Lanka, which was not consulted about the canal, also has voiced concerns that it would disadvantage its port in Colombo, presently south Asia's most successful hub for sea traffic. The foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, and the environment minister, AHM Fowzie, did voice fears and set up an inter-ministerial committee, and President Chandrika Kumaratunga did take up the issue with the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during her recent visit to Delhi. But the public voicing of concern ceased when the Indian government explained to the Sri Lankan president and her technical advisors that the project was not harmful and they were assured that any new concerns would be addressed.
Why is India pursuing the project now?
There are three reasons why the project seems to be seeing the light of day now:
(1) The tremendous economic development that India is now undergoing has created demand for the development of the shipping sector. It has also made the investment required for the project affordable;
(2) The increasing concern in India about its security requirements, also its growing ambition to be a global super power has propelled to go for the project.
(3)Then there is the domestic political compulsion to carry out the project. Two of the leading members of the ruling coalition in Delhi at this point of time, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) led by the veteran Tamil leader M Karunanidhi, and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) led by Vaiko, have been pushing hard for the project at the central government level. They are in positions of power thanks to coalition politics.
The ruling All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu is scared that the DMK and the MDMK is going to walk away with prizes for establishing the project. And according to the DMK, the AIADMK government is putting spokes in the wheel. The Congress, which is the leader of the coalition at the centre, is also interested. Congressman and Finance Minister P Chidambaram, who represents Sivaganga constituency in south Tamil Nadu, is very keen that the southern districts of his state make rapid strides in economic development. Chidambaram sees the development of ports on the south Tamil Nadu coastline as a necessary pre-requisite for the development of the hinterland. As he himself told parliament, the Sethusamudram project is a "long cherished dream" of the people of Tamil Nadu.
How real are the threats posed by the environmentalist?
P Balasundarampillai, a leading geographer and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Jaffna.
In an interview to a newspaper in Colombo on Monday, P Balasundarampillai, a leading geographer and former vice chancellor of the University of Jaffna, said that the ship canal would bring business not only to the many small ports on the Tamil Nadu coastline, but also to the currently languishing northern Sri Lankan ports of Mannar, Thalaimannar, Kankensanthurai (KKS), and Point Pedro.
According to him, the project doesnt pose any environmental threat. In the he revealed that the environmental aspects of the project have been looked into in-depth through over 30 studies. He himself has seen in the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, and another institute in Taramani, amazing facilities for computer simulation of ocean conditions.
Taking the environmental issues one by one, he says that there is no truth in the allegation that the coast of Jaffna will be eroded, and that hundreds of islets off the coast will be sunk, and marine life will be washed away by waters rushing into the Palk Strait and Palk Bay from the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, as a result of digging of the canal.
According to Balasundarampillai, the major currents in the seas off the west and east coasts of India and South Sri Lanka, are too far away from the canal area to affect water flows in it. Because of this, the depth of the canal will continue to be shallow and the water flow low.
"At any rate, for ships to move, the currents and the water flow will have to be regulated and this will be done by the design of the canal," he points out. According to him, much of the criticism of the project is due to ignorance of new and advanced canal building and dredging technology now available in the world. This is the not the first time in the world that a ship canal will be dug he points out. There are ship canals in Europe and in Japan too. A whole tunnel, linking England and France, has been dug, and the English Channel is none the worse for it.
Dredging of the sea is necessary for building and maintaining harbours and this is constantly done with no harm being done to the adjacent coastline. There is offshore oil rigging all over the world. And India has ample experience of it through digging in Bombay High. "Sometimes the wells go up to 300 to 400 metres deep into the sea off the coast," the geographer points out.
The North Sea is full of oilrigs and there has been no adverse impact of these on the Scandinavian countries or Great Britain, he says. As for the disposal of the dredged material/waste, there are tried and tested ways and means to dispose them off. The Indian government has assured that the Gulf of Mannar biosphere will be unaffected by the canal.
There are indeed fears about pollution and oil slicks due to increased shipping in the narrow sea. But Balasundarampillai says that effective pollution control measures exist, and that these have been factored into the project. Apart from economic and technical feasibilities, any project now will have to get clearance from pollution control agencies. India has very strong and vocal environment protection groups and government is not unaware of the trouble that these can create. There are international laws to be adhered to also. Fisheries will not be affected.
The geographer debunks objections based on the fear that fishing will be adversely affected by the increased shipping in the narrow sea. He points out that increased shipping has never affected fishing even in the busiest seas in the world like the English Channel and the North Sea. There has been no adverse impact on either the environment or fishing, by digging a tunnel linking the UK and France under the English Channel.
The ships coming to the canal will be moving in a single file, one up and the other down. They will not be dispersed. Thus, they will not be a hindrance to the movement of fishing boats in the area, he says.
Moreover, the influx of fresh water from the India Ocean and the Bay of Bengal due to the digging of the canal will actually bring in more fish and newer varieties of fish into the Palk Strait, Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar area.