Originally proposed in 1860
Multi-benefit Sethusamudram getting submerged in politics & religion
Though the Government of India designed and launched the Sethusamudram Shipping Channel Project (SSCP) in 2005 in Palk Strait to give a new and shorter route to vessels from the West Coast to East Coast ports, the multi-crore project is yet to see the light of the day.
While both voices – in support of the project and its blunt opposition – have been heard all over these years, the support voice reverberated across the length and breadth of Tamil Nadu last week when the DMK Party held protests demanding the State Government to withdraw its submission to the Supreme Court opposing the channel and pleaded for early implementation of the project.
The State-wide agitation in support of the project by DMK was organised after the Tamil Nadu Government informed the Supreme Court (a few weeks ago) that the Sethusamudram Project must be scrapped “as the project is of questionable economic value and not in public interest”.
Union Shipping Minister G. K. Vasan, who has contributed his unstinted support to ports, shipping industry and logistics sector from political and financial point of view, has also taken up the cudgel to openly declare that the Government of India is determined to implement Sethusamudram Shipping Channel project.
At this juncture Sagar Sandesh is trying to bring to light the history and background and enlighten its readers as well as the general public the two sides of the coin – advantages and disadvantages.
India has a peninsular coast of 7,517 km studded with 12 Major Ports and more than 200 intermediary and non-major ports. The country has had maritime trade with various countries of the world since time immemorial. Also shipping trade between the East and West coasts of India has prevailed for a long time.
But the coasts of India do not have a continuous navigation channel connecting the East and West coasts. Since Nature has played its part, the vessels coming from the West Coast of India and other Western countries with their 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 coupled with sand dunes and not sufficient enough for the movement of vessels carrying break-bulk cargo or containerized cargo. The unusability of the water is due to the presence of a shallow region, normally known as Adam’s Bridge, located South-East of Rameswaram near Pamban, which connects the Talaimannar, a coast point of Sri Lanka.
Due to such unavoidable factors, the vessels originating from West of India and destined for Chennai, Ennore, Vishakapatnam, Paradip, Haldia and Kolkata have to travel around Sri Lankan coast resulting in increase of travel distance, time and cost.
Apart from these cargo vessels, ships belonging to Indian Navy and Coast Guard also need to traverse around Sri Lanka.
In order to reduce the steaming distances between the East and West Coast of India and to improve the navigation within territorial waters of India, a navigation channel connecting the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay through north of Adam’s Bridge has been envisaged so that the ships moving between the East and West coasts of India need not go around Sri Lanka.
With a view to implementing the Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project, which envisages dredging of a ship channel across the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka, was finalized in 2005 by the Government of India.
According to the project, it will allow ships sailing between the East and West costs of India to have a straight passage through India’s territorial waters, instead of having to circumvent Sri Lanka. According to the supporters of the project, the channel would lead to a saving of up to 424 nautical miles (780 km) and up to 30 hours in sailing time.
As per the proposal, two channels have to be created – one across north of Adam’s Bridge (the chain of islets and the shallow pockets linking India with Sri Lanka) South-East of Pamban Island and another through the shallow regions of Palk Bay, deepening the Palk Strait. The total length of these two channels would be 89 km.
The channel project was originally proposed by a Britisher, Commander A. D. Taylor of the Indian Marine in 1860.
The proposal for providing a navigable route has been drawing the attention of the Government of India for a long time. The first proposal was mooted during 1890 and nine proposals were formulated between 1890 and 1922 for dredging a channel across the narrow strip of land mostly through the Rameswaram Island to connect the Gulf of Mannar with Palk Bay.
However, after 1922 the proposal was dormant for a long time till the country attained Independence. After Independence, five proposals were made for the development of Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project during different times and regimes.
In 1955, the Government of India set up the Sethusamudram Project Committee to study the feasibility of the project. After several studies, the Government took a concrete step towards the execution of the project when a sum of Rs. 4.8 crores was allocated for a pucca feasibility study of the Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project in the 2000-01Union Budget.
Following a directive from the Union Ministry of Shipping, the Tuticorin Port Trust (now VOC Port Trust) undertook the ground breaking feasibility-cum environment study of the project.
The VOC Port Trust is the nodal agency for this Rs. 2,427-crore dream project. The Government has a set up a ‘Special Purpose Vehicle’ – the Sethusamudram Corporation Limited and entrusted it with the task.
According to the initial financial arrangement reached, the Government of India would contribute Rs. 495 crores towards the equity of SPV. VOC Port Trust, Shipping Corporation of India (SCI), Dredging Corporation of India (DCI), Chennai Port Trust, Ennore Port, Visakapatnam Port Trust and Paradip Port Trust would bear the remaining cost of the project.
Adam’s Bridge Row
According to information available about the legal status of the project in public domain, in 2008 the R. K. Pachauri Committee was formed as per the observations of the then Chief Justice of Supreme Court, Mr. K. G. Balakrishnan.
The Pachauri Committee gave its report in February 2013 suggesting that the project would be neither economically nor ecologically viable.
Furthermore, the committee has said that “benchmark rate of return of 12 per cent isn’t met for the range of scenarios examined in the case of alignment 4A”. However, the Government of India rejected the committee report.
Making its intentions public, the Government in an affidavit to the Supreme Court had reiterated its resolve to cut across the Adam’s Bridge (also known as Ram Setu) to create the channel for navigation of large ships. During the course, it also emerged that the Government had already spent about Rs. 829 crores on the project till June 2012.
The project hit a road block with petitions filed in the Supreme Court to stop demolition of Ram Sethu/Adam’s Bridge in the Palk Strait for SSCP as Hindus believe it was built by Lord Rama to reach Sri Lanka to rescue his wife Sita from the clutches of King Ravana.
When Sethusamudram is in place, ships sailing from the West to the East Coast of India will no more need to circumnavigate around Sri Lanka.
The channel will cut short sailing of an additional distance of 254-424 nautical miles and 21-36 hours of sailing time. Substantial saving can be had in ship time and bunkering costs. This will directly benefit the shipping industry and EXIM trade. There will be substantial savings for the shipping companies, exporters, importers and manufacturers. Trade will benefit from reduction in maritime transportation cost.
Indian fishing boats can transit freely through north of Adam’s Bridge, which is not possible today.
The project will contribute to the national economy, develop the coastal districts of Tamil Nadu and improve the international competitiveness of India’s exports.
It would also serve as a shorter navigation route between Kanyakumari and Tuticorin and other East Coast ports of Chennai, Ennore, Kakinada, Visakhapatnam, Paradip, Haldia and Kolkatta and ports in neighbouring Bangladesh such as Chittagong.
India’s exports will become globally more competitive. Domestic consumers will also be benefited with industries producing cheaper goods for the domestic market due to cost of raw material imports.
The project would also facilitate coastal movement of domestic cargo, leading to greater employment generation in the ports and the industries in the vicinity.
Maritime trade in Tamil Nadu, both coastal and international, would flourish with rapid development of the existing minor port in Ramanathapuram.
The channel would also become an invaluable asset from national defense and security point of view enabling easier and quicker access between the coasts. Indian Coast Guard and Naval ships need not circumnavigate around Sri Lanka if the project is in place.
Besides, trans-shipment of Indian cargo on foreign shores will gradually decrease and after some time stop altogether. The project would ultimately lead to considerable savings and earnings of foreign exchange.
It is estimated that in the first year of operation of the project, 3055 ships could transit through the channel. This translates to about 9 transits per day. However, the proposed depth of 12-metre would impose restriction on the draft of the ships transiting through the channel.
Scare & Solutions
The channel alignment has been selected so as to ensure that there is no dredging in the Gulf of Mannar except in the southern reaches north of Adam’s Bridge for a length of approximately 6 km and width of 300 metres. As per the proposal, there will be no dredging activity required in the Gulf of Mannar Marine Biosphere Reverse (which is along the Indian Coast) or its north of Adam’s Bridge is a safe 20-km from the nearest island (shingle) forming part of the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park.
As the channel is at least 20 km away from marine breeding grounds, there will be no impact on either the coral reefs or the mangroves due to dredging or shipping operations.
Harbinger of Growth
According to the supporters of the channel project, it is a real harbinger for the State as well as to the Government of India. The substantial benefits out of the project would accrue to the national and regional economy.