Dream and reality
Sethusamudram Ship Canal Not A Viable Project
By Sam Rajappa
It might have been the 150-year dream of the people of Tamil Nadu to take up the Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project to cut short the distance navigated by ships sailing from the west coast of the country for ports on the eastern seaboard and vice-versa but the government of India should not have rushed into it without an informed and many-sided debate. When Commander AD Taylor conceived the project in 1860, ships were small, there was no Ram Sethu, only Adam’s Bridge, and the Bharatiya Janata Party or Vishva Hindu Parishad were not in existence. It could have been implemented without a hitch or hurting anybody’s feelings or religious sentiments. The British government of the day had its misgivings about the economic viability of the project considering the expenditure involved in implementation and shelved it.
Conditions have vastly changed in the last 147 years. Ships have become bigger and bigger and sailing time shorter. Except for the clamouring of Tamil Nadu politicians of all hues, the project has lost its steam. Since independence, the government had appointed the Ramaswamy Mudaliar committee in 1956, Nagendra Singh committee in 1967, Venkateswaran committee in 1968, and Lakshminarayanan committee in 1981 and decided against the project.
Lease of life
After coalition governments at the Centre became the order of the day and regional parties came to play a decisive role in national policies, the SSCP received a fresh lease of life. The United Progressive Alliance government led by the Congress which came to power in 2004 had no option but to carry on the project launched by the BJP government of Atal Behari Vajpayee two years earlier. The DMK, a key constituent of the UPA, made implementation of the 150-year-old dream of the Tamil people, a pre-condition for its support. The government never bothered to study fully the financial and environmental implications before rushing in to inaugurate work on the Rs 2,427-crore project. The alignment taken up for implementation, involves cutting Adam’s Bridge, an undersea ridge between the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar. To call it a bridge is a misnomer. It is more like a sea wall. The National Democratic Alliance government headed by the BJP had no hesitation in clearing this alignment which was one of six placed before it for consideration. All the other five alignments skirt Adam’s Bridge, now called Ram Sethu by the Hindutva brigade.
The 152-km long Sethusamudram shipping channel is a furrow in the seabed involving dredging to a depth of 12 metres and width of 300 metres to allow passage of ships of 32,000 DWT and below. Sides of the channel cannot be lined or protected by any artificial wall. A strong tidal wave is enough to level the channel laboriously dredged at a heavy cost. The favoured size of merchant ships today is of 60,000 DWT and above. The Suez and the Panama canals, which could handle modern ships of heavy deadweight, were dug through land mass and, therefore, stays dug. That cannot be the case with SSCP which will need constant dredging to keep shifting sands out of the dug out trough.
The claim that SSCP will be a boon to the shipping industry is not borne out by studies conducted by experts in the field. The basic assumption that SSCP will reduce fuel cost and sailing time for ships plying between Kolkata and Tuticorin or between Chennai and Tuticorin or between west coast and east coast ports is not based on hard facts. The sailing distance of course will be reduced by about 400 nautical miles as ships can avoid circumnavigating Sri Lanka. But to navigate the 152-km stretch of the SSC, ships will end up spending more time than going around Sri Lanka. Before entering the SSC, ships will have to drop anchor and wait for a pilot to board the ship to steer it through the fragile channel. Every major port in India is facing an acute shortage of pilots. SSCP will find it even harder to find pilots as they will not relocate themselves in Tuticorin or Vedaranniyam lacking in modern facilities.
SSC is not a free seaway in which ships can sail through without making any payment for using the facility. Ships will be allowed to pass through the channel only under regulated pilotage, pushed and pulled by tugs provided by SSCP at a considerably reduced speed than normal sailing. The approach channel to Tuticorin port is 2.5 km long. A 30,000 tonne coal ship calling at this port is charged Rs 6 lakhs towards pilotage which works out to about Rs 2.4 lakhs per km. Even if the pilotage is kept at Rs 1 lakh per km, the ship will end up paying Rs.152 lakh to pass through SSC to reach the open sea. Cost of saving on fuel by taking the shorter route through SSC will, at the most, be Rs 5 lakhs.
The Indian Meteorological Department had classified the Palk Bay as a “High Risk Area” for cyclonic storms. The cyclone season is generally between October and January. Unmindful of the dangers involved to the lives and safety of the mariners, SSCP is being implemented in a known danger zone. The environmental factors of cyclonic activity and siltation in the Palk Bay impinge on safety of shipping in the area.
Should a ship using SSC run aground due to shifting sands, it will take days to clear the passage, resulting in ships waiting at the Tuticorin end or the Palk Strait end lose days for the sake of saving less than 24 hours of sailing time. A Greek merchant ship that ran aground off the Marina beach in Chennai during a 1966 cyclone still remains embedded and become a death-trap for swimmers and fishermen. The finance minister’s appeal to private shipping companies to participate in the project supposed to benefit them has not evoked a single response because it simply does not make nautical sense. Only the dredging contractors and those pushing the project stand to benefit.
While SSCP is not viable economically, and deprive thousands of fishermen living in the coastal districts of Thoothukudy, Ramanathapuram and Pudukkottai of their livelihood, its impact on the fragile Gulf of Mannar will be disastrous. The Supreme Court which turned a deaf year to the pleas of the Movement Against Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project and the Coastal Action Network readily granted a stay of the project on the ground that dredging Adam’s Bridge would hurt Hindu sentiments.
The failure of the DMK to listen to the voices of traditional wisdom of the fishing community and those of more than 40 eminent scientists who had categorically stated that SSCP was not viable and must be abandoned was responsible for the rise of the ‘Ram’ phenomenon and its associated communalism of the BJP and the Congress. The DMK, which refused to rely on scientific inputs and showed scant regard for sustainable development for the poor, has now become the champion of science to proceed with SSCP.
For millions of Hindus not only in India but all over the world Adam’s Bridge associated with Ram’s epic battle to rescue Sita from captivity in Lanka has become a centre of pilgrimage like the Holy Land for the Christians and Mecca for the Muslims. The DMK may question the existence of Ram and ask for scientific proof. Equally, there is no scientific proof that he did not exist, say Hindu fundamentalists. Religious beliefs do not rest on scientific proof.
The government should not give room for the Hindus to feel threatened in their own motherland. All things considered, it is better the government writes off Rs 600 crores already spent on SSCP so far and abandon it once and for all. Adam’s Bridge or Ram Sethu as the BJP prefers to call it can be declared a World Heritage Site and promoted as a pilgrim tourism centre which will bring far more prosperity to the backward coastal districts in southern Tamil Nadu than SSCP can ever hope to achieve.
The author, a veteran journalist who retired from The Statesman, is based in Chennai.