Sethusamudram Project: It’s all a matter of faith
9 Oct, 2007, 0411 hrs IST,Jacob John & Sudarshan Rodriguez, TNN
When the Sethusamudram project was revived, for the nth time, environmentalists expressed their concern that it would cost far more than the project documents suggested. The dredging costs have been highly underestimated, many say. Their concerns came out of recent scientific literature that suggested that the annual sediment load in the Palk Bay causes a sea depth reduction of 1 cm per year.
Further studies have even suggested that the sedimentation rate could, in fact, be 25-75 times higher! But, every new document of the Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project (SSCP) seemed to ignore all literature after 1989. Not surprisingly, many of the more recent scientific papers suggested that the sedimentation siltation rates in the Palk Bay and surrounding areas were far higher than what was earlier believed.
Like the literature review of the SSCP project documents that stops at 1989, the hydrodynamic modelling studies measure only ‘normal’ wind speeds (up to 31.5km/h) to calculate various other parameters like sedimentation and siltation. Cyclones are a common occurrence on the south Tamil Nadu coast.
An analysis of the Global Tropical and Extra Tropical Cyclone Climatic Atlas (GTECCA) by experts validates this position by highlighting that the project area is visited by a cyclone with wind speeds greater than 64.82 km/h every three years. Again, it seems ingenious that the project documents could ignore the cyclones and its effect on siltation in the SSCP area.
The method followed in the project documents helps create a project that significantly underestimates the amount of dredging required — both capital and maintenance — by using data that allows it to peg the cost to around Rs 2,500 crore. In fact, the project documents go so far as to suggest that the Palk Bay region of the canal will not need any maintenance dredging, ignoring scientific studies of the last 15 years!
This structure of the project documents is important as the practice in India is that once a project is approved, it stays approved. While academics and scientists might come in post-hoc to analyse the cost over-runs that have taken place, the current project approval system does not allow for a review (leading to rejection) of the project due to significant cost increases.
This makes the pre-project phase the only viable time to protest. Even at this time, project documents seem to be selective in their use of data to support favourable conclusions. The reality of SSCP could be dredging contractors delight as it will probably be necessary to dredge for posterity in the entire project area, making it an excellent method of spending government money indefinitely.