The Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project (SSCP), when complete, will enable cargo ships that now have to sail all the way around Sri Lanka just to get from the eastern to the western coast or vice versa to cut straight through the Palk Strait via Tuticorin port by November 2008. And it is being touted as the catalyst for an economic boom in southern Tamil Nadu.
According to the promoters of the mega project — comprising five port trusts and two public sector undertakings — the main attraction of the 167-kilometer-long canal for mariners and shipping companies will be the time (30 hours) and distance (780 kilometers) saved.
There has been a lot of political drama over the project. The DMK pushed it vigorously, calling it the realisation of a 100-year-old dream and comparing it to the Suez and Panama canals.
The rival AIADMK originally supported it during the MGR days but later, when Jayalaltihaa joined hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1998, termed it an environmental disaster.
As for the BJP, it gave the project an in-principle okay during the NDA regime, when the DMK was its partner. It was mum when the project was officially launched by the UPA government in June 2005, though the plan clearly showed the canal would cut through the Adams Bridge or Ramar Setu — the mythical bridge said to have been built by Lord Rama’s Vanar Sena. It was only after a mutt head in Ramanathapuram and a panchayat chief moved court demanding that the project should not damage the Ramar Sethu in any manner that matters took on a “religious” connotation. The Sangh Parivar seized the Ramar Setu as its next emotive religious-political agitation. Unfortunately for it, the protests it organised in Rameswaram on April 18 failed to stir up popular support.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad and allied sants have now decided to organise a “dharm sansad” of top Hindu religious leaders in Delhi.
In spite of the protests, and the breakdown of vessels active in the Ramar Setu area, the dredging of the canal has been going on. In the Palk Bay 1 area of the project, 13.44 million cubic feet (mcft) of sand has been dredged against the target of 13.55 mcft. Near Adam’s Bridge, 0.37 mcft of the targeted 4.80 mcft has been dredged.
The project envisages shipping traffic of 3,055 vessels in 2008 and 7,141 by 2025. But Captain H. Balakrishnan, a retired naval officer with a decade of experience in the merchant navy, has punched holes in these claims in a detailed study. “Since the canal has a draught limitation of 10.7 metres (navigable depth), only vessels up to 34,000 dead weight tonnage would be able to use it, thereby limiting traffic and the commercial viability of the canal,” he says.
Experts have also said the SSCP will have to spend huge amounts on maintenance desilting as the sea current through the Palk Strait and the cyclones that frequent the area will bring in huge loads of silt. Dredging on a continuous basis would further jack up costs and the SSCP would need Rs. 204 crore annually just to service its debt of Rs. 1,456.40 crore, they say.
Balakrishnan also argues that the proponents of the project have not taken into account the high piloting charges for each ship — in the range of Rs. 20 lakh.
Environmentally, the SSCP is expected to impact the 21 national marine parks in the region with their rich coral reefs and marine species. Sanjiv Gopal, oceans campaign manager, Greenpeace India, says the destruction of coral reefs will “strip” the entire Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar of their marine life. This will also negatively impact the livelihood of lakhs of fishermen.
The dumping of more than 20 mcft of sand in the Gulf of Mannar and along the coast will lead to long-term affects, adds Ossie Fernandez, convener, Coastal Action network. “What is alarming is that while there have been reports of only 95 whale deaths in this region between 1841 and 1945, 10 have died in just nine months since July,” he says.
Hemantha Withanage, executive director, Centre for Environmental Justice in Sri Lanka, concurs the project will destroy the biodiversity of the area.
On the strategic side, Colonel R. Hariharan (retd) of the South Asia Analysis Group feels that though the SSCP will enhance Coast Guard and naval patrolling capability, it may not lead to India’s dominance in the area.
Many Sri Lankan Tamil nationalists, however, oppose the canal as they feel it will increase India’s military presence in the Palk Strait. It is feared that in the guise of safeguarding the canal, Indian naval ships will keep a watch on the movements of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The LTTE itself has been silent on the issue, though it had organized a seminar on the subject at Kilinochchi. Asked to comment on the canal project, an LTTE spokesman had said: “Given the other immediate and more pressing issues, the LTTE has not given much thought to the canal.”
Other Tamil sources speculate that the LTTE will not oppose the canal as the DMK and MDMK, its long-standing allies in Tamil Nadu, are the prime movers of the canal idea.
Joint monitoring demand
Following several meetings between experts from India and Sri Lanka, Colombo has finally agreed not to oppose the project. All scientific data sought by the Sri Lankan side has been given and doubts cleared about the soundness of the project.
Given their obvious interest in the project, Sri Lanka has asked for joint monitoring of the environmental impact, which India is not ready for given that the canal is entirely on the Indian side.
Those in charge of the Colombo port and the shippers feel that they may lose out if small Indian ships, which now come to Colombo to transfer their cargo to the big mother ships, cease to come if there is a canal connecting India’s eastern and western coasts.
Shipping Minister TR Baalu is upbeat on the overall viability of the project, pointing out that similar apprehensions were voiced when the Suez and Panama canals were executed. “We are looking at the employment of 80 million man days a year and any long-term project will take time to earn profits. The socio-economic benefits are much greater than hard profits which will come later,” he says.
Baalu points out that 15 minor ports between Kanyakumari and Chennai will be developed and increased ship traffic will naturally lead to economic spin-offs in the region, particularly the backward districts of Ramanathapuram and Tuticorin.
The jury is still out on the issue though.
(With inputs from Hemendra Singh Bartwal and M Rajendran/New Delhi)