A project at sea – a ‘bad Tamil dream’ by K Venkataramanan (October 21, 2007 Pioneer)
Ram Setu project has seen enough controversy to reel under. But the chant against it is, either it can be financially viable or it can be advantageous to the shippers. Even as the debate over its viability continues. K Venkataramanan tells you how the project cost is beyond the Indian pocket, how deep dredging is near impossible, how environmentally hazardous it is and how much of an economic disaster it will prove to be
It is touted as a 150-year-old Tamil dream, but is actually a 19th century British marine commander’s proposal. It is projected as the harbinger of unprecedented economic prosperity for southern Tamil Nadu, but many see it as an ecological disaster in the making. Many question its financial viability, but the project’s proponents talk of larger economic spin-offs. Livelihood of fishermen are in danger, cry some, new livelihood opportunities will emerge, say others. For all the well-thought-out objections that environmentalists, ecologists, fishermen, analysts and mariners have come out with against the proposed Sethusamudram Ship Canal for nearly three years, it is a faith-related peripheral issue – one involving religious sentiment – that has pitch-forked the project to national headlines. The Ram Setu controversy, arising out of a demand by the devout that ‘Adam’s Bridge’ should not be touched as part of the project’s dredging activity, has achieved what agitation and litigation by environmentalists, as well as serious technical studies by independent analysts, could not. The Union Government has taken time from Supreme Court to examine the possibility of the project being taken up along a different alignment, one that does not affect the mythical bridge that a vanar sena is said to have built for Lord Ram on his way to Sri Lanka to rescue Sita. Until then, dredging activity in the area is on hold. Thus, a project of doubtful viability has added a new bipolarity to its catena of contradictions – variously describable as science vs faith, rationalism vs mythology, secularism vs communalism – and even as a fight between enemies of the Tamil dream and its protectors. The Sethusamudram project aims at creating a navigation channel that will connect the Gulf of Mannar with Palk Bay on India’s south-eastern seaboard. It is supposed to fulfil a long-felt need for a continuous navigable channel between India’s eastern and western coasts, as the shallow sea in the Palk Bay and Palk Straits had forced vessels for centuries to circumnavigate Sri Lanka. The principal reason for the lack of depth in the northern fringes of the Gulf of Mannar is a reef, called by British geographers Adam’s Bridge. It consists of a series of sandbars, also called islets or just a ‘bridge’ of rock, sand and shoal connecting Rameswaram in India with Talaimannar in Sri Lanka. The channel proposal went through more than half a dozen studies under the British Raj, and more assessments by independent India, but doubts always persisted about finances, feasibility, and it also attracted variegated opinions on what alignment the channel would follow, given the current and tide patterns in the area. Strong currents account for a high level of deposits of silt in the Palk Bay and Palk Straits, making the stretch sea a sort of sink for silt. Since the mid-1950s, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has been asking for implementation of the project, but despite a few studies being undertaken, it was not until 1998, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee as Prime Minister announced a techno-feasibility study that the first concrete step was taken. Studies and reports went through many agencies and Ministries, until the UPA regime cleared the project in its present form in May 2005. The Union Government has established a special purpose vehicle (SPV) called Sethusamudram Corporation Ltd to implement the project, which has an outlay of Rs 2,427 crore. Of this, the Centre is contributing Rs 495 crore, the Shipping Corporation of India Rs 50 crore, the Dredging Corporation of India Rs 30 crore, Tuticorin Port Rs 50 crore, Chennai, Ennore, Paradip and Vishakapatnam ports Rs 30 each, and public holdings to the tune of Rs 226 crore. The loan component accounts for the remaining Rs 1,456 crore, for which the Union Government will give a sovereign guarantee. Under the present plan, the channel is to have a total length of 167 km in three segments, one each in Adam’s Bridge (35 km), Palk Bay (78 km) and Palk Straits (54 km), and the dredge quantity has been estimated at a total of 82.5 million cubic metres. Of this, Adam’s Bridge accounts for 48 million cubic metres. After the project was inaugurated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in July 2005, dredging work was initially taken up by the Dredging Corporation of India. As the global tender for the dredging contract failed to attract quotations within the project estimate for capital dredging, the DCI has been awarded the entire contract. It has so far completed one third of the dredging work. Up to October 8, 2007, a total of 15.86 million cubic metres of materials have been dredged in the Palk Bay/Straits area (out of a total quantity of 34.50 millions cubic m. to be dredged).This means 45.99 % of the work in this section has been completed. In another section, the Adam’s Bridge area, where dredging has been halted since September 17, 2007 following a Supreme Court stay, 11.89 million cubic metres have so far been scooped out from the seabed, about 24.76 % of the 48 million cubic metres due for dredging. Taken cumulatively, out of a total dredge quantity of 82.55 million cubic metres, only 27.75 million cubic metres (33.61 %) have been dredged so far. The principal objections to the project are that it may not be technically and financially viable; that its 12-metre depth is sufficient only for small and medium-sized vessels and may not be useful for an industry moving towards large-sized vessels; it may adversely affect marine ecology; it may change marine species incidence and, thus, affect the livelihood of fishermen; that its operation and maintenance cost will not be sufficiently made up by revenues; and that the detailed project report’s estimates about the number of ships using the canal every year are grossly exaggerated. The first concern of mariners and the shipping industry is the ‘draft’, or depth required by a vessel to stay afloat). The channel depth restricts the size of the ships that can safely use it. With a provision of about two metres for ‘under keel clearance’ (space below a ship’s propellers so that it does not suddenly run aground), the recommended usable draft is 10 metres. This means that only vessels with a dead weight tonnage (DWT) of 30,000 or lower can safely navigate through the channel. Given the fact that the global trend is towards larger vessels (of 1, 00,000 DWT and above), does it make ‘nautical sense’ to build a channel for medium-sized vessels? The Detailed Project Report (DPR) says all vessels up to 20,000 DWT, about 75 % of 30,000 DWT, 10% of 40,000 DWT vessels and 5% of 50,000 DWT vessels will be able to use the canal. Also, all empty vessels can pass through the canal. The DPR admits that given the existing fleet in the world, and the vessels under order, ‘the future trend is for larger size vessels’. However, it analyses details of worldwide container vessels fleet in the Clarkson’s Register (figures for April 2002) and says there has also been an annual increase of about 5% in the number of vessels of size up to 30,000 DWT. Also, it optimistically posits a theory that there can actually be a growth in the number of ships built specifically for the purpose of passing through the Sethu canal. Capt H. Balakrishnan, a retired naval officer and an experienced mariner, questions many of the assumptions and conclusions of the DPR. ‘To reduce operating costs and cater to the enormous growth in shipping needs, trends are towards operating vessels of 60,000 DWT and above,’ he says. Going by the size of the vessels that take the international shipping lane from the south of Sri Lanka to the south of Great Nicobar Island, one could say none of these large vessels would avail of the Sethu canal. Capt Balakrishnan believes only coal-carrying bulk carriers on charter to the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board – which load coal at Haldia or Paradip or Visakhapatnam and offload it in Chennai and Tuticorin for thermal plants – would be the main users of the SSC. Some smaller container feeder vessels from Colombo and bound for Chennai could also use the canal. The DPR claims that even by a moderate estimate, some 3,055 transits (number of ship movements) will be achieved even in the first year of operations. It projects a traffic volume of 4,432 transits a year by 2015, and 5,621 in 2020 and 7,141 in 2025. Capt. Balakrishnan scoffs at these figures and says the reality may be that only around 1,000 ships will use the SSC in the early years. He also challenges the ‘savings’ in terms of days and fuel that are projected as the canal’s main advantages. While the DPR posits an average saving of 22.5 hours for each voyage, he has made his own calculations based on the comparative navigable distances between using the channel and not using it. A significant point is that while a vessel can cruise at 12 to 15 knots in an international shipping lane (around Sri Lanka, in this case), it will have to reduce its speed to six to eight knots while navigating the channel, with most captains preferring to err on the slower side for safety reasons. ‘While there is savings in distance navigating through the SSCP, this does not automatically translate into commensurate savings in time, on account of the slow speeds required to navigate through the canal,’ says Capt. Balakrishnan. Further, while using the canal, provision has to be made for possible delays in the arrival of pilots to guide vessels through the strait. The waiting time may be an hour or two for each transit. The main ‘advantage’ of using the canal is that the saving in time results in savings in vessel charter cost and fuel cost. The Sethusamudram company proposes to impose 50 % of the total amount saved as ‘channel charges’. The channel charges will be the only source of revenue for the project company, and will be used to defray operational expenses, do regular maintenance dredging to clear fresh sedimentation and to service loans. Experts like K S Ramakrishnan, a former Port official, say the project can either be financially viable or provide advantage to shippers, but it cannot do both at the same time. For, the channel charges will have to be high to give a reasonable rate of return and to start recording profits after the loan repayment period. However, if the charges are high, the industry will be reluctant to use it. In other words, at expected tariff, users will have to weigh the comparative costs of using the channel and not using it before deciding. If there is a discount on channel charges to attract more users, the project will not be financially viable. Capt Balakrishnan says if only around 1,000 ships use the canal in a given year, the charges may have to be as high as Rs 22 lakh a vessel to recover the cost. And if any shipper actually decides to pay this, he may end up losing money rather than saving it! Based on a study of fuel consumption for both alternatives – around Sri Lanka or through the Canal – he argues that for a trip between Kolkata and Tuticorin, it is more cost-effective to circumnavigate Sri Lanka than using the Sethu canal. The cost incurred in using the channel will result in the vessel suffering a whopping loss of Rs 19 lakh. On the technical aspect of the project, many question the decision to have a channel in a cyclone-prone area. According to the meteorological department figures, as many as 256 cyclones have hit the eastern coast since 1891. The project provides for a ‘downtime’ of 35 days a year (periods when the canal will be closed for climatic reasons). This means the number of expected transits will come further down. Another area of concern is that the Palk Bay is a high siltation area, and the need for maintenance dredging is high. The DPR puts the annual maintenance dredging requirement at two million cubic metres, and may reduce over the years – a conclusion that many do not agree with. Analysts have questioned the scientific adequacy of the studies that preceded the project, saying the project consultants did not conduct multi-season studies, and had done a rapid environment impact assessment when a detailed one was required. Further, there was no proper study of sedimentation after the December 2004 tsunami. (The SSCL says studies had not noted any significant change after the tsunami). Also, the ‘dredgeability’ of Adam’s Bridge is now in question. The DPR says a Cutter-Suction-Dredger would be enough to scour the top few metres of the shoals, but the DCI’s biggest CSD, ‘Aquarius’, failed to make any headway. The dredger’s spud broke in the process. Shipping experts believe only specialised dredging equipment from European companies will do the job, but the SSCL cannot afford to hire them, as it would jack up the project cost. There has been no fresh assessment of the project estimates since it was quantified at Rs 2,427 crore three years ago. Sceptics believe the cost may have overshot Rs 4,000 crore, but the Government does not want to admit it. The Indian shipping industry has also been silent on whether it is eagerly waiting for the canal to be opened to traffic. Project analysts say the industry’s real opinion is that the project is not viable, or that they will prefer to circumnavigate Sri Lanka rather than use the canal at high risk and great expenditure. What experts have to say Criticism: Traffic projections for canal usage very unrealistic Project Defence: Traffic projects based on analysis of ships passing through Indian ports and quantities/types of cargo Independent opinion: Only some mid-size ships will use channel. May not be enthusiastically used by shipping industry Criticism: Draught of 12 m inadequate Project Defence: Draught restrictions in the interest of safety. Enough to accommodate all vessels up to 30000 DWT, and a small percentage of ships up to 50000 DWT. All empty vessels will use it. Independent opinion: Low draft will create ‘squat’ or ‘shallow water’ effect. Hence, will restrict speed of vessels to just six knots. Will make captains skip canal. Criticism: Channel charges will be too high, rendering canal unattractive to industry Project Defence: Channel charges will be 50% of actual savings in charter costs and fuel costs Independent opinion: The charges may not be enough to recover project costs. If what is needed to cover project cost is levied, ships may find it more cost-effective to skip canal. Criticism: Time saved not as high as projected Project Defence: Time savings may be between 22 and 36 hours Independent opinion: In shorter routes, time saving is significant, but pilotage delay and slow navigation speed may offset benefit Criticism: Distances saved inadequate Project Defence: Actual distances saved are high, and so is reduction in fuel costs Independent opinion: Distances shortened, no doubt, but ships will have to decide if the consequent saving is enough to justify using canal. Criticism: ‘Ram Setu’ should not be destroyed and alternative alignment should be found, avoiding dredging of Adam’s Bridge Project Defence: Dredging in Adam’s Bridge area cannot be avoided as other alignments found unsuitable. (Govt. has promised to examine alternatives) Independent opinion: Difficult to find alternatives. Other alignments may endanger marine bio-reserve in Gulf of Mannar and involve land-cutting. Criticism: Dredgeability of Adam’s Bridge in doubt because of rocky character Project Defence: Cutter-suction-dredgers can do the job. Geophysical studies have shown it is dredgeable. Independent opinion: DCI’s expertise in doubt. May need costly dredging service providers from abroad. Criticism: Financial viability in doubt. Internal rate of return (IRR) (9.1%) inadequate. Economic IRR (16.9%) not enough. Project fails in a sound cost-benefit analysis. Project Defence: Being a major infrastructure project, this IRR is good. IT exemption and reduction in debt service reserve (Rs. 530 million a year now) will make project more attractive. Independent opinion: These are only estimates, and actual project performance alone can say whether the project is financially viable Criticism: Marine ecology a major casualty. Will destroy coral reefs, cause unwarranted disruption in incidence of marine species Project Defence: Marine bio-reserve will not be affected. Canal away from coral reefs. No great threat to marine life anticipated. Independent opinion: Changes in sedimentation, current and wave patterns, especially during storm surges or tsunamis not studied. So difficult to say marine ecology will be unaffected. Criticism: Project area will have heavy siltation and sedimentation. Maintenance dredging needs far higher than projected Project Defence: Maintenance dredging will only be of order of two million cubic metres a year. Will go down to 1.4 million in subsequent years. Independent opinion: Continuous maintenance dredging needed. Danger of repeated siltation high as it is area is cyclone-prone. Is an alternative route feasible? With the campaign to save Ram Setu gaining momentum, the question now arises: Can the Sethusamudram project be implemented through an alternative channel alignment? The campaigners, including the BJP, believe that Alignment No 4, considered and rejected earlier, can be revived. Both the ‘bridge’ built for Lord Ram by his monkey army and the project can be saved, they argue. However, is this really possible? The present alignment (No 6) for the channel was finalised only after other possibilities were exhausted. Ever since Commander A D Taylor prepared his 1860 proposal, followed by one by Townsend in 1861, and several others in later years, different paths have been considered. Most of these proposals involved cutting across stretches of land. Alignment No. 4 involved cutting across the southern stretch of the Rameswaram island. It was considered most suitable for the project, with the channel cutting through the land between the Kothandaramaswamy Temple and Dhanushkodi. However, the Union Environment Ministry shot down the proposal on environmental and ecological grounds. The channel leading up to the land-cutting point on the eastern side (Gulf of Mannar) has been declared a national marine bio-reserve. It comprises 21 islets with rare flora and fauna, especially coral reefs. The area is also home to dugongs (sea cow) and sea-horses, sea-turtles and other rare and endangered species. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi and Union Shipping Minister TR Baalu have pointed out that it was NDA Minister Suresh Prabhu who shot down the alignment. Even an alteration to this, by avoiding cutting the land but going around Dhanushkodi was also rejected. Hence, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) was asked to suggest an alternative route. It came up with the one involving dredging through Adam’s Bridge. Other alignments have been rejected as unsafe or impractical. Hence, it is now doubtful whether there can be an alternative to the present one. Opinion is also divided on whether land-dredging is preferable to sea dredging. Environmentalists and fishermen will not prefer land-cutting, as it may involve displacement of people, denial of approach roads to Dhanushkodi and rehabilitation costs, besides damage to coral reefs. ‘Natural Aquatic Ecosystems of India’, a thematic biodiversity strategy and action plan prepared by the Zoological Survey of India (2003) has already warned that dredging projects pose a big danger to coral reefs through ‘initial physical disturbance, habitat alteration and the subsequent problems associated with sedimentation’. In short, it may not be easy to go ahead with the project without breaking Adam’s Bridge. Or, if ‘Ram Setu’ is to be protected, the whole idea of a Sethusamudram canal may have to be forgotten as a ‘bad Tamil dream’.
Sethu: RSS chief tells all Hindus to protest Express news service Posted online: Sunday, October 21, 2007 at 0000 hrs IST NAGPUR, OCTOBER 20
RSS chief K S Sudershan called upon all Hindus on Saturday to raise their voice against the UPA Government’s “bid to destroy the Ram Sethu for the proposed waterway between India and Sri Lanka”. In his customary Dussehra speech here, Sudershan said that the Government and its allies are serving the interests of the Americans and the Chinese through the Sethusamudram project. “When the common people, scientists, environmentalists and archaeologists are vouching for the existence of the Ram Sethu and the grave dangers posed by its proposed breaking, Union Minister T R Baalu and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi are bent upon rubbishing them and trying to thrust their dictatorship. Do such ministers have a right to continue in their offices?” Sudershan asked. Among all religious texts, Sudershan curiously chose to quote from the Guru Granth Sahib about how different Sikh Gurus themselves had written about the existence of the Ram Sethu. Sudershan also claimed that the Sethusamudram project doesn’t make any economic sense as is being claimed by the UPA Government. He dwelt at length on how the project will endanger the rich thorium deposits along the coast that can revolutionise India’s nuclear programme. The RSS chief observed that the US is trying to strengthen its control over the Indian Ocean through the proposed waterway and is pressuring the Indian Government to push the project. Similarly, China, which has set up its strategic base at the Coco island near Myanmar, too, will be greatly helped by the project since it is planning to build a modern port on an island near Sri Lanka, he said. “That’s why the Communist parties, which opposed the nuclear deal, are supporting the Sethu project,” Sudershan claimed. The RSS chief also attacked the Leftists by referring to the ration riots in West Bengal and the growing Naxalism which, he said, are “cruel manifestation of their bankrupt ideology”. On reservation, Sudershan questioned the propriety of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “Some people are asking for reservation to Muslims and Christians. The Constitution clearly provides it only for backward castes in the Hindu society and not for the converts. Clearly, the gameplan is that if these converted sections get quota, it would further help conversions,” he said.