Rama Setu: mid-ocean channel, a nautical folly

“Revisiting Sethu Samundaram (SSCP) –Nautical Folly”

[ Proposed Article for ASIAN AGE –By Vice Admiral A K Singh (Retd) ] (10 October 2007)

   Despite a spate of articles (including one by this writer) &  TV Interviews/debates (including a professional series  by Retired Indian Navy Captain & Master Mariner, H Balakrishnan),  the SSCP(Sethu Samundaram Channel Project) appears to have got mired in some complex  discussions  which range from inflamed religious beliefs to  flawed comparisions with the Suez & Panama canals. A few lines about the SSCP —  It is 152.2 km ( or 84nm) long, 300 M wide & is to have a depth of 12M(to permit two way transit by ships below  an estimated 32,000 Dead Weight Tonnes or DWT, with draughts below 10 M). It has  three legs viz “Southern leg (20 KM) in the “Ram Sethu” (or “Adams Bridge”) area; “Northern leg ( 54.2 km) in Park Strait area; “Central leg” of 78 km. Dredging is to be carried out only in the “Southern & Northern” legs, marked in red thick line in the attached figure. The amount of initial dredging is estimated to be some  70 million cubic metres, and this dredged mud is to be ‘dumped’ at 25 sq km dumping sites located in  depths greater than 25 M– The distances to these dump sites are approx 60 km in Palk Strait area & 35 km in ‘Ram Sethu’ (or Adam’s bridge) area. I will not comment on the ecological impact of this ‘dredging-dumping’ operation, as this is not my field of expertise — However, since the SSCP is located in one of the five known “high siltation” areas, regular “maintenance dredging” would have to be carried out every 1 to 3 years,  to keep the channel open & safe for shipping. Indeed, dredging is the  primary reason for the high cost of SSCP.

The Tamil Nadu coast is ‘cyclone prone’ & as per the IMD statistics, between 1891 to 2001, 64 cyclones hit the TN coast, with 23 ‘visiting’ the SSCP site.

Also, since the SSCP, is basically an ‘open sea’ channel, ships using its shallow, restricted waters, at slow speeds of about 6 kts (due to ‘shallow water squatting effect’), would face great problems of safe navigation, as the effect of strong winds, currents & rough weather, have a far greater impact on ships moving at slow speeds. The SSCP, in theory, has the laudable objective of improving the economy of the neglected southern TN coast & boost shipping traffic to Tuticorin port.

At the outset it would be prudent to  avoid any sensitive religious controversies and simply look at the SSCP from a nautical & economical angle, while sidestepping any “red herrings” like SSCP realignment options or “difficult to prove” issues of maritime pollution or ecological disasters.

To start with any comparisions between the SSCP & the Suez Canal ( 21 M depth, which permits ships of approx 100,000 DWT to transit ) or with the Panama Canal ( present depth 12 M, similar to SSCP, but work has begun on a 8bn USD project , to increase depth to 18 M by  2015 to  cater for modern trends of international ships of over 60,000 DWT, ), are INCORRECT — A simple glance at a school atlas will show that the Suez & Panama Canals save thousands of  nautical miles (nm) of open sea transit, while the SSCP, basically “saves” only between 340 to 434 nm. Dredging the SSCP deeper than the presently planned 12M will not help for two reasons . 

Firstly the “CSI” compliant(Container Security Initiative)   & efficient ‘deep water’ port of Colombo is in close proximity to Tuticorin, &  almost in the direct route for west/east bound international shipping — Indeed since India has no CSI compliant port yet (JNPT has been earmarked, but is not “ready/cleared” yet), we lose a lot of money in sending our USA bound seaborne containers  to CSI compliant Colombo & Dubai ports.

Secondly, any coastal ship taking coal or petroleum or other goods  from Kolkatta, Pradeep,Vishakapatnam or Chennai to Tuticorin Port  will not save much time, as it will have to reduce its open sea speed of 12 to 15 kts, to 6 kts to transit the shallow 84 nm long SSCP ( due to “shallow water squatting effect”), plus take 2 to 4 hours to embark/disembark the pilots–In addition every such trip which goes around Sri Lanka will actually save an estimated Rs 13 to 19 lakhs ( the extra expenditure in the SSCP is due to mandatory toll tax, pilotage & tug charges; also merchant ships when transiting in restricted waters like the SSCP use expensive High Speed Diesel instead of the cheaper Furnace Fuel Oil which they use in open sea transit).

The projected shipping through the SSCP is  3055 ships (in 2008), 3417(in 2010) and 7141 by 2025. Even if ships of below 30,000 DWT  are theoretically available, the total estimated futuristic requirement of Tuticorin Port of 30,000 DWT ships is less than 1000 ships (215 ships for coal,& 200 for petroleum products  etc), unless their is dramatic & unexpected growth of Tuticorin Port, due to reasons which are impossible to fathom at present.

The estimated cost of SSCP  is Rs 2300 crores ( present press reports indicate escalation to possibly Rs 4000 cr) and this would entail an annual debt repayment of approx Rs 204 cr per year for 25 years. Estimates of likely pilotage charges per ship for one time use of SSCP vary from Rs 22 lakhs  (break even) to Rs 50 lakhs (profit making). It is thus evident that the SSCP is not likely to make profits to even pay back its capital cost (dredging ,infrastructure, tugs, pilots etc) or the subsequent regular & not yet disclosed regular ‘maintenance dredging costs’ .

The SSCP (planned depth of 12 M & catering for ships below 32,00DWT) has unfortunately also been overtaken by modern trends in international shipping, wherein, for economic reasons, merchant ships have grown in size, from the earlier ‘mimimum’ of 30,000 DWT to over 60,000 DWT — Also their transit open ocean/sea speeds have increased  beyond the earlier 12 to 15 kts (Higher the speed, the greater is the “TIME -ECONOMIC” advantage of avoiding the SSCP) — This trend is expected to last beyond 2025 , and applies to the  787 strong fleet of Indian foreign going ships also . By about 2015- 2020, most ships below 30,000 DWT would have been  phased out, leaving very little traffic for the SSCP. Sadly,  modern trends in domestic coastal shipping have, again for financial reasons shown a downward trend in size from 4000 DWT to about 1900 DWT — Our fleet of 530 “Coasters” is expected to grow rapidly in numbers, but each ship will be “smaller” & hence be more irrelevant to the SSCP.  The other “financially irrelevant” users would be the 4000 registered trawlers, mechanized fishing craft, OSVs & MSVs used to support  oil rigs.

The SSCP, would offer smaller Naval & Coast Guard ships ( of 100 to 3000 tons), the ability to deploy/ redeploy at reasonable speeds(due to low draughts) from one coast to another, should the tactical situation permit– but the larger ships would have to go around Sri Lanka.

Now that so much money has been already spent on the SSCP, it is theoretically possible for the Shipping Ministry to place orders for  “coastal ships” below 32,000 DWT  on its captive yard at Vishak ie  Hindusthan Shipyard  Ltd , and subsequently direct any of its public sector shipping lines to use the SSCP, so as to boost the economy of the southern TN coast — The economics of this option will need to be worked out.  In my opinion, it may be a “paper transfer” of funds from one Govt agency to another & not likely to earn profits.

So, even if we ignore the other factors ( LTTE threat, Tsunamis, cyclones , piracy, maritime terrorism threats, marine pollution etc), purely on professsional & technical grounds we can conclude that the SSCP,  is” nautically  & economically unsound”, now & for the forseeable future ( Ironically, every year over a 100,000  merchant ships & tankers transit the Indian Ocean, with cargo worth one trillion USD). Perhaps, their are other more viable means by which prosperity can be brought to the neglected  coastal regions of southern Tamil Nadu.It is time for India to set up a highly professional “single window” National Maritme Board which will take a holistic view & give ‘ speedy ‘decisions on relevant economic , security & environmental issues  — Such an organisation should have representatives from the Navy, Coast Guard, Merchant Marine, Ports, Fisheries, IMD,Intelligence Agencies, Environment and Finance.

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