Sethusamudram project is anti-religious, uneconomical
The minister of shipping, through his decisions, has shown his ignorance of Indias maritime history and the religious importance of Ram Sethu…
The Rs 2,427 crore Sethusamudram Channel Project (SSCP) has been mired in controversy ever since it was inaugurated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in July 2005. Minister for Shipping T R Baalu has antagonised both the Sangh Parivar and the CPI(M), through his decision to destroy the Rama Sethu, the ancient bridge between India and Sri Lanka: which is holy to the Hindus.
His plans to have a new Maritime University in Chennai, rather than in Kolkata, home of the oldest marine engineering college in India have angered the CPI(M) as well.
The project to dig up a canal by destroying the Rama Sethu will kill the fishing industry and destroy the livelihood of about 3.5 lakh fishermen in six coastal districts of Tamil Nadu. Already, dredging activity has scared the fish to other areas, reducing catches.
An NGO representing fishermen, Coastal Action Network (CAN), has filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court. The fate of the Sethusamudram Project rests on the judgment.
It is safe to conclude that the Rama Bridge, acting as a breakwater, induces a certain stillness and calm in the Gulf of Mannar. Over the centuries, this calm has helped flourish over 3,600 species of plants and animals. It has five species of endangered marine turtles, innumerable fish, mollusks and crustaceans. As opposed to Palk Bay, Gulf of Mannar is deep, being over 300 metres deep in most places. Because of the unique circulation of ocean currents, the nutrients found here are exceptional. In case the Rama Bridge is breached, the shallow silted waters of the Palk Bay will flow into the Gulf of Mannar, destroying its fragile ecosystem.
On the other hand, breaching the bridge would also affect the meadows of sea grass in the Palk Bay, which are home to a large number of fish species and the rare dugong or sea cow.
Sethusamudram cuts off sailing time of less than a day and a distance of about 500 nautical miles, which is a negligible saving compared to the costs of using the channel, according to the calculations of a former deputy chairman of the Tuticorin Port Trust, K S Ramakrishnan.
Any ship using the SSCP will have to pay pilotage charges. There are various ways to calculate the charges. Ramakrishnan arrives at a figure of Rs 1.11 lakh per kilometre, which a ship has to pay for pilotage. For a channel length of Sethusamudram that would require pilotage, which Ramakrishnan fixes at 56 km, a ship would end up spending eight times more than it would to go around Sri Lanka. Ramakrishnan, therefore, concludes that ships won’t use the channel. The bulk of international shipping, comprising vessels larger than 60,000 tonnes, cannot use the SSCP because the draught of 10 meters is inadequate.
In the south of the Ram Sethu, sea depth ranges from two to 300 metres, supporting South Asia’s greatest marine biosphere. Right north, though, the shallowness is just three metres and does not go beyond 12 for most parts of the area till the Palk Strait and beyond.
Clearly, the bridge has produced this varied bathometry. One consequence of this bathometry is the sedimentation process, which is rapid in the Palk Bay and Palk Strait, with the prospect of Vedaranyam in the north joining Jaffna peninsula in 400 years. This incredible shallowness is likely to have acted as a quasi land breaker against the tsunami (December 2004), forcing it to return to the Bay of Bengal, and make its way to Maldives and further west around Sri Lanka. Another route for the tsunami and the energy will be directed towards south Kerala and Imagine if the great natural breakwater of the Rama Bridge was absent. It is very easy to show that the proposed channel with a depth of 12 metres will indeed wash away Thorium deposits from the Kerala coast.
By having the new Maritime University of India in Chennai, instead of Kolkata, Baalu also has demonstrated his lack of knowledge of India’s recent history and provoked a backlash against the Tamils.
Marine Engineering and Research Institute (MERI) in Kolkata is regarded as one of the most acclaimed marine institutes around the world. Just like the oldest such institute in Britain, the Royal Institution of Naval Architects and the Institute of Marine Engineering in Glasgow, the MERI is located in the city but connected to the Garden Rich Workshop, a very reputed shipbuilding centre of India. Chennai has no such claim, but the new maritime university will be located in Chennai just to satisfy the Tamil vanity.
The Tamils may mention the maritime exploits of Rajendra Chola but thousands of years before him traders from Bengal and Bihar had established the Champa kingdom in Vietnam, Sri Vijaya kingdom in Sumatra and Malaysia, Barman Kingdom in Cambodia. The names of cities like Kanchan Bari, Panch Bari, Ayoudhya in Thailand, Aranya Pathe in Laos, Bander Sri Bhagwan in Brunei, Rangan (Rangoon) and Bagan (Pagan) in Burma; names of islands like Java, Bali, Sumatra are not in Tamil but in Bengali or Maithili or in Magadhi Prakit. The name of the present king of Thailand Bhumibal Atulya Devor and the ancient name of Bangkok as Banga signifies that historic link, which Baalu ignores.
(The writer is professor, Nagasaki University, Japan)