India’s Sethusamudram Project: Not an Alternative for Convenient Shipping down South

(Image Courtesy: Scroll)

Ships originating from the west of India and destined for Chennai, Ennore, Vishakapatnam, Paradeep, Haldia and Kolkata have to travel around the Sri Lankan coast resulting in increase of travel distance and time. Apart from this ships belonging to Indian Navy and Coast Guard need also to traverse around Sri Lanka.

In order to reduce the steaming distances between the east and west coast of India and to improve the navigation within territorial waters of India, the navigation channel connecting the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay through Adam’s Bridge was envisaged so that the ships moving between the east and west coasts of India need not go around Sri Lanka.’

The Government of India set up the Sethusamudram project committee to look into the feasibility of the project and five routes were discussed till 2001. The project, Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project (SSCP), envisages excavating the shallow sea between the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar to create a narrow shipping passage, linking the east and west coasts of India and obviating the current ‘hassle’ of circumnavigating Sri Lanka to reach the eastern coast of India (and vice-versa).

(Image Courtesy: India Today)

Dimensions, Proposed Logistics Route

The total length of the channel is estimated to be 152.2 km and creating it will require two phases of dredging (or even blasting, depending on the nature of the substratum) the 20-km-long coral-reef platform known as ‘Adam’s Bridge’ or ‘Ram Sethu’, as some like to call it, and the 54-km long Bay of Bengal segments. The third segment falls in the Palk Bay, with a total length of 78 km and which reportedly requires no dredging as this area has a clearance depth of 12 m.

The project is fine, but the present route is not, as it involves destruction of a bridge believed to have been built by Lord Rama. Foreigners and Indians alike have described it as Rama’s bridge since ancient times in their maps and travelogues. The first time someone called it Adam’s Bridge was in 1804 by James Rennell, the first surveyor general of the East India Company.

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Impediments and Feasibility

The qualitative requirement for the Sethu project is a 12-metre dredged depth. A 30,000 DWT coal-carrying vessel will draw about 10.5 metre draught and that leaves a below-keel clearance of a mere 1.5 metre. “This project is supposed to serve the shipping industry by reducing time and distance, but till now no shipping company has endorsed it knowing fully well it is fraught with risks,” said Capt. H. Balakrishnan (Retd).

“If I were the captain, I will move at six knots, probably slower (normal speed is 12-13 knots), to negotiate the 84 nautical miles of the Sethu channel without running aground. That would mean a saving of a mere couple of hours and I would not risk my ship for that,” said the sailor.

(Image Courtesy: DNA India)

Proposed Canal’s Capacity

One set of estimates suggests that between Kolkata and Tuticorin, the distance saved in this manner would be 340 nautical miles, and between Chennai and Tuticorin 434 nautical miles. Even under the most optimistic scenario, the volume of shipping through any such canal would be an overwhelmingly small fraction of the volume moved currently through the Suez and Panama canals respectively.

Interestingly, the project literature admits that only ships up to 32,000 DWT can navigate this dredged canal. The current global shipping scenario has larger ships, of 60,000 DWT and above, to cut operating costs and meet the larger container traffic. None of these large ships will use the Sethu canal, so the projected traffic of 3,417 vessels per year by 2010 and 7,141 by 2025 “will remain a pipe dream.

Impact on Biodiversity

The Sethu region was rich in biodiversity that had evolved over 1,000 years ago and it would take another 1,000 years and more to rebuild itself after the destruction caused by the dredging.  While extreme care is being taken the world over to protect marine biodiversity, the Sethu authors seem unconcerned about the loss of marine life and biodiversity in the region.

“This place might end up like the Dead Sea, which has no fish, no marine life because of high salinity,” Environment scientist M. Arunachalam of Manonmaniam Sundaranar University. Anti-Sethu movement activists M. Jeeva and Jesurethinam said 15 lakh fishermen in the region would lose their livelihoods due to the depletion of marine life after the dredging.

Rough Weather on East Coast of India

Cyclonic storms are also a major risk factor in the area. Tamil Nadu’s coast in general, and the project area in particular, is considered to be very vulnerable to such storms. For example, in December 23, 1964, a storm surge washed away the Pamban Bridge and Dhanushkodi island. Cyclones can and do unleash autonomous dynamics of their own that redistribute sediment and disperse the dredged material. So how a cyclonic storm will change the sedimentary budget of the Ram Sethu region is not fully understood, consequently skewing the predicted estimates of sedimentation patterns and their rates.

In other words, the total amount of material to be dredged could be much more than projected. Second: cyclones could necessitate a revaluation of the amount of dredged material to be dumped at various sites.

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Worth Pursuing the Project?

So far the sea between India and Sri Lanka has been recognised as historic waters, though the United States has been pressurising to have it declared as international waters and said in a naval notification in 2005 that it does not accept the sea between India and Sri Lanka as ‘historic’. The US declaration and the role of the Tuticorin Port Trust, the nodal agency to implement the Sethu Samudram Canal Project coupled with the haste with which the project was inaugurated, has given rise to many unanswered questions.

Besides, the project cost has escalated multiple times and the project has run dry of funds since the bank loans were valid only for the initial sanction which has lapsed.  No wonders, the Indian Government has told the Supreme Court that it would not touch the Ram Sethu bridge, in the “interest of the nation” and if possible, alternate routes will be explored.

(References:, Pioneer, The Wire, Indian Express)

Sea News Feature, May 22