Rama Setu: channel project a strategic blunder

Sethu project: A strategic blunder

By Col (retd) Anil Athale |

Col. (retd) Anil A Athale is a Fellow at the Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research. A former Joint Director (History Division) and infantryman, he has been running an NGO, Peace and Disarmament, based in Pune for the past 10 years. As a military historian he specialises in insurgency and peace process.

The Sethusamudram project to link Palk Strait with Gulf of Mannar by dredging a deep channel in sea and cutting the Ram Sethu has evoked controversy on several grounds. It destroys the Ram Sethu, a land bridge described first in Rishi Valmiki written Ramayana around 200 BC, a cultural heritage for not just India but many South East Asian countries as well (it is also a national epic of Muslim majority Indonesia).

Ecologists and environmentalists object saying it will destroy the fragile eco system in Palk Strait and Gulf of Mannar and rich marine life there. Many express fear that the breaching of Ram Sethu will subject the western coast to tsunami threat since Indonesia and sea around it are prone to earthquakes. While it may be argued that only a small channel is being cut in the natural (or manmade) land formation of Ram Sethu, marine and hydraulics engineers will testify that the largescale transfer of water in an uncontrolled manner (there is no proposal to install any kind of underwater gates etc) will eventually erode the entire Ram Sethu barrier in course of time. What that will do to the rich thorium, monazite, zircon and other mineral deposits on Kerala beaches is a huge question mark.

But most surprisingly and regrettably, the military strategic aspects of the whole project have not even entered public discussion. By the accounts in the media, the channel passes very close to Talaimanar coast of Sri Lanka, far to the South East of centre line dividing the sea between India and Sri Lanka. It is most likely within the Sri Lankan territorial waters. The reason why Sri Lanka has not forcefully objected to this is because the Talaimanar area is in LTTE’s control (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam). In any case the channel, if completed on the lines planned now, the South Eastern end will be controlled by Sri Lanka. Control and ownership of this channel will be a new point of dispute between India and Sri Lanka. Since it appears to be clearly inside the Sri Lankan territorial waters, at some point, Sri Lanka (with the help of an outside power, obviously) will not only claim control but also may decide to deny us the use of this channel.

There is likelihood that under the existing regime of law of the sea, this will fall under the category of ‘International Waterway’, like the Suez and Panama Canals or Dardanelles and Bosporus straits. Thus it will not be farfetched to see the Chinese moving their warships through this, establishing their right. The Americans regularly do this in case of Hormuz Strait joining Gulf of Oman with Persian Gulf defying the Iranians.

The alternative proposal of dredging a channel to the North West of the current alignment and cutting a link channel through the Rameswaram makes eminent strategic and ecological sense. By creating a controlled water body with inlet gates, there will be no surge of waters from one ocean to other, thus saving the marine ecology as well as ore deposits of Kerala. But most importantly, the canal will be well within our territory and control. Strategically this will be most useful in time of tensions. It will also make sure that another point of friction with Sri Lanka is avoided. Obviously there will be some cost escalation and even extra time. But looking at the long term benefits and payoff, it is a price worth paying.

In any case the extra cost can easily be recovered from fee levied on shipping, both domestic and international. Canal management and associated works will create jobs for the locals, thus getting their support.

India has a history of committing strategic blunders in last 60 years! The loss of Skardu in 1947, the famous ‘throw out the Chinese’ remark by Nehru on 12 September 1962 and disastrous ‘forward policy’ that led to the 1962 humiliation at the hands of the Chinese or failure to push for severing the land link between Pakistan and China during the 1971 war. The list is long and seemingly unending. It was the hope and expectation of think tanks like Inpad that a formal structure like the NSC (National Security Council) that we lobbied for over 10 years, will cure us of this disease. But the episode of Ram Sethu project that seems to have ignored the military strategic factors puts a question mark on the efficacy of the government apparatus.

The second possibility is that the political leadership overruled the strategic experts and decided to go ahead with its plans! In that case, is it the pressure of Secularist Taliban that forced the government to go ahead with the plan not so for the sake of easing the problems of navigation between India’s East and West coast but with an aim to further consolidate its vote bank? The denial of historicity of Ram seems to show that this is an attempt to woe back the vote bank that seemed to be drifting away due to Indo-US nuclear deal. In the second part we will deal with this deep-seated mindset of Secularist Taliban of India.

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