What is common between the VHP activists who, on Wednesday morning, threw life out of gear for thousands of commuters across the country and a more rationally minded group of infrastructure economists? Answer: both parties are opposed to the Government of India’s grand Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project (SSCP). While it is difficult to imagine the likes of Praveen Togadia making common cause with those who know their cost-benefit reports, the fact of the matter is that the proposed canal from the Gulf of Mannar (lying between the southern tip of India and the west coast of Sri Lanka) to the Bay of Bengal may not be the wisest of projects to undertake. Our naysaying has nothing to do with the VHP’s colourful notion that the dredging work for the canal — that has been stopped by the Supreme Court until its next hearing this Friday — will destroy the fabled ‘Ram Setu’, built supposedly by Lord Ram’s simian army to cross the sea to Ravana’s Lanka. We would rather go with the scientific belief that the ‘bridge’ is a natural string of coral reefs. That brings up environmental questions of its own — including the matter of the underwater structure providing a natural defence to disasters like the 2004 tsunami.
But what makes the project really go against the flow of logic is the findings in two separate expert reports — one by a group of economists and the other by a former Indian Navy captain — that states empirically that the SSCP makes no economic sense. The reason cited for constructing the canal is that ships will be able to move from India’s west coast to its east coast without having to navigate around Sri Lanka. The channel will purportedly save 36 hours of shipping time and 570 nautical miles. The expert critics argue that the L&T Ramboll feasibility report on which the government went ahead with the project is based on exaggerated data. For one, there is the issue of whether the traffic that will generate the bulk of the revenues — ships from ports outside India — will at all use the ‘toll canal’ when it will be cheaper to take the longer route. For another, taking the ‘short cut’ will amount to much less time actually saved than the projected 36 hours, as ships will have to travel at a much slower speed (not to mention on more expensive fuel) once they enter the canal waters.
Somebody forgot to take a real long look at the SSCP’s feasibility report. While we don’t agree with the VHP regarding why the project (incidentally kicked off by the previous NDA government) needs to be stopped, we do believe that there is a case to go back to the drawing board. The present government shouldn’t feel embarrassed about stopping the creation of yet another white elephant.