Truth about setusamudram — MV Kamath

November 11, 2007

The truth about Sethu- samudram
By M.V. Kamath

What can we deduce from these admissions? One, that a long time ago, India and Sri Lanka were indeed linked by a wall of coral in one continual stretch. Two, were times when that wall was broken at intervals by violent sea waves, but not to the extent of making repairs difficult. From this we can deduce that if someone were to fill these intermittent minor channels with sand and stones, it would still be possible to acquire a continuous link between India and Sri Lanka, practically a roadway—call it a ‘bridge’.

Writing in Frontline (October 15), Shri B.Ramachandran reveals some extremely important facts that merit attention. In the first place, he states that the Ram Sethu “is a discontinuous chain of sand bars dotting a 30 km stretch in the East-West direction between the southern tip of Rameshwaram island in India and Talaimannar is north western Sri Lanka, creating a geographic divide between the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar.”
Then he makes the point that paleo-geographic studies suggest that the sea level in the region has oscillated significantly over historical times, exposing the seabed between India and Sri Lanka periodically. According to him “around 6,000 to 7,000 years ago, the sea level was just 17 meters below the present level, resulting in partial exposure of the seabed. The Marine and Water Resources Group of SAC/ISRO…. concluded after space-based investigations that the so-called Adam’s Bridge—or Ram Sethu—is not man-made but comprises 103 small patch reefs lying in a linear pattern with reef crest (flattened, emergent, especially during low tides) and intermittent deep channels. The MWRG interpreted the linearity of the Sethu to be due to the old shore line—implying that the two land masses of India and Sri Lanka were once connected.
What can we deduce from these admissions? One, that a long time ago, India and Sri Lanka were indeed linked by a wall of coral in one continual stretch. Two, were times when that wall was broken at intervals by violent sea waves, but not to the extent of making repairs difficult. From this we can deduce that if someone were to fill these intermittent minor channels with sand and stones, it would still be possible to acquire a continuous link between India and Sri Lanka, practically a roadway—call it a ‘bridge’ for all one cares—that would enable a vanar sena to cross over from India to Sri Lanka effortlessly, even in single file. Ergo, what a vanar sena merely had to do was to fill in the intermittent sea channels with stones to make a transportable way from the Indian subcontinent to the Sri Lanka island, requiring no major feat. That would mean that some vanar sena did build a ‘bridge’ using nature as a base. If we admit to this rational explanation, one can accept both propositions: One, that a link of sorts was already in existence when the vanar sena came to think of it and two, that the Sena did indeed help build a bridge, by filling in broken gaps in the coral reef with capacious stones and sand. Granting that the entire connection was not man-made and that a discontinuing physical link was already in existence, what the vanars did apparently was to fill in the intermittent breaks within the continuous coral wall to build a smooth highway for free movement. If this is understood, discussion then ceases.
One can believe that the vanars did indeed build a ‘bridge’—though not in the usual meaning of the term. If this line of thinking is accepted—and why shouldn’t it not? —then everything falls in its place. One can accept both the scientific findings as well as the so-called mythology surrounding the Ram Sethu. In regard to the latter, all that one had to do was for the vanars to carry stones to help fill in the gaps in the broken coral reef wall and thereby compete the passage-way from India to Sri Lanka for the smooth transport of men and material.
Let us now take an expert’s views on the usefulness and relevance of the proposed Sethu Samudram project. In an interview to Rediff. Captain H. Balakrishnan, who has been associated with the Navy for 32 years and is knowledgeable about the pluses and minuses of the Project, has made some relevant observations. According to him, from a mariner’s standpoint, the Sethu Samudram project “does not make any nautical sense”. In the first place, the Indian Metereological Department has assigned the coast between Rameshwaram and Cuddalore as “a high risk probability”. Thus, in 1964 the Pamban Bridge was washed away by a severe cyclonic storm. In the second place, maintaining a depth of 12 meters for ships to pass will entail round-the-year dredging. Once the Channel is set up it will have to be continuously dredged and that adds to the maintenance expenditure. This is a hidden cost. Then again, by the very nature of the project, a 60,000 deadweight tonne carrier will need anything in excess of 12 metre draft. But 60,000 tonne carriers are a thing of the past. Today we have very large carriers of the type of 150,000 and 185,000 tonnes none of which will ever be able to use the Sethu Samudram. Even more relevantly, for a ship to pass through the Sethu Samudram waters, it will drastically cut down on its speed because the water is shallow and a moving ship will create what it known as the “Squat Effect”.
According to Capt. Balakrishnan, a large ship has to cut down its speed from around 12 and 13 knots per hour to about 6 knots, especially if it is a bulk carrier. Then again, the Sethu Samudram is not an open seaway. It is like entering into a port. A pilot has to board a ship which ordinarily means that for letting a pilot aboard, an hour has to be wasted and similarly another hour has to be wasted to let him down. Asks Capt. Balakrishnan: “With this 6 knot speed and two hours pilotage delay, the time to Tuticorin via Sethu Samudram works out to 100 hours 30 minutes.
If one went round Sri Lanka, the time taken would be 102 hours 15 minutes. So the net savings in time by going through Sethu Samudram is 1 hours 45 minutes. Would it be worth spending Rs 2,400 crores—the amount sanctioned for the entire Project—just to save 105 minutes of sailing?
Whatever the authorities under political pressure might exaggerate, Shri Balakrishnan doesn’t expect more than 1,000 ships using the Sethu Samudram canal. Taking into account cost incurred per ship, using the Sethu Samudram route would entail shipping companies lose Rs 19 lakh per voyage. According to Capt. Balakrishnan, what is being planned “is a white elephant in the making”. He doesn’t say it, but everyone knows that the government is willing to spend over Rs 2,400 crore to satisfy the whims of a coalition partner, the DMK. This is atrocious and should be strongly resisted, especially also considering the damage the Sethu would do for the livelihood of thousands of fishermen and their families, who will be forced to look for alternate ways of making their meager fortunes.
(The writer is a senior journalist.)

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