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#1508, 26 September 2004
Harnessing the Troubled Waters: Sethusamudram Canal Project
N Manoharan
Research Officer, IPCS

Why India does not have a continuous navigable route within its own territorial waters? Why should ships from Chennai to Tuticorin or Kolkotta to Mumbai circumnavigate Sri Lanka? The single answer is: absence of deep water connectivity between Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar that separate India and Sri Lanka.

The importance of such connectivity by an artificial canal was realized in 1860 when A D Taylor, the British Commander of the Indian Marines, conceived of the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project (SSCP). The story goes soon after India's independence thus:

  • Sethusamudram ('Sethu' is the name given to the sea dividing India and Sri Lanka; 'Samudram' in Tamil means sea) Project Committee under Sir Ramaswamy Mudaliar was constituted to study the feasibility of the project. The Committee recommended a canal costing Rs 9.98 crores.

  • A high level committee, constituted in 1964, placed the cost at Rs 37.46 crores in its 1968 report.

  • A Techno-Economical Appraisal Committee, constituted in January 1981, reported the cost in April 1983 to be Rs 282 crores.

  • This report was revised in 1996 by the Pallavan Transport Consultancy Services Ltd. pegging the cost at Rs 760 crores.

  • A sum of Rs 4.8 crores was allocated in the 2000-01 Union budget for a new feasibility study after a promise to complete the project in three years made by the then Defence Minster, George Fernandes, in 1999.

  • The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) submitted its environmental impact assessment report in May 2004.

  • The Union Shipping Ministry reiterated its commitment in September 2004 to complete the project and approved a plan to set-up the Sethusamudram Corporation Ltd.

All these committees advocated dredging of a sand stone relief called 'Adam's Bridge' having a length of 44.9 nautical miles in two parts (Tuticorin Port to Adam's Bridge and from Adam's Bridge to Bay of Bengal Channel). It was proposed to have a depth of 12 metres and a width of 300 metres for two-way traffic. This canal would cut the running time (roughly 36 hours) and distance (approximately 400 nautical miles) for Indian and international fleets apart from saving fuel and fleet labour and facilitate coastal shipping along the Coromandel Coast, triggering employment opportunities in the backward coastal districts of Ramanathapuram and Tirunelveli. This apart Tuticorin Port could become a leading container and transshipment port, as it is centrally located on the international trade route connecting with Europe and the Middle-East on one side and the Asia Pacific region on the other. Currently, Colombo enjoys the monopoly of being the only container port in this area. Tuticorin would be the obvious choice for international users for these advantages. Thirteen other minor ports in Tamilnadu would also get the chance to develop themselves. The potential foreign exchange earnings for India, as a consequence, would be enormous.

The construction would, however, involve dredging of 85 million cubic metres of sand, which is rich in marine-bio resources. It is also famous for its pearls, corals and conchs. An estimated 3,600 species of flora and fauna inhabiting this area would be severely affected. For these reasons the proposal has confronted stiff opposition from conservationists. In addition, Sri Lanka has its own concerns. Colombo fears that the canal operation would affect the livelihood of thousands of fishermen on its west coast. There is also a worry that Tamil militant groups might be able to ship arms and other materials using larger fleets through the canal. The major concern, however, is the loss of monopoly by Colombo Port on container and transshipment.

Sri Lanka's concerns are real, except on the security issue. In fact, Sethusamudram Canal can effectively check arms smuggling between India and Sri Lanka along the shallow waters of Rameshwaram. India needs to take note of other sensitivities of Sri Lanka and proceed with the project only on a consensual basis. Care should be taken to keep the entire alignment of the canal within the territorial waters of India. But, for this, a clear demarcation of the maritime boundary between the two countries is imperative. The fact that Indian fishermen might get affected must also not be ignored. They could be provided suitable employment opportunities arising out of the canal project. On the ecological aspect, a proper environmental impact assessment should be done before going ahead with the project. While it is not possible to entirely prevent environmental damage, it is possible to reduce its impact. Concerns of coastal erosion are not an issue given the existence of the Suez and Panama Canals. But, if the government is serious about the project it should implement it immediately, as the cost has gone up by 100 times since the first proposal made in 1955

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