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Monday, July 1, 2013

the Sethu Samudram Project - exploding some myths

Dear (s)  (collated from various sources - primarily rediff.... something shared with my group on 3rd Oct 2007 – now posted in my blog)

Of late, Sethusamudram, a project to create alternative shorter route for ships to cross the Gulf of Mannar, has been hogging limelight for wrong reasons – there have been remarks by the CM causing resentment amongst believers.  This is nothing about the callous remarks but an attempt to view it scientifically and know whether it will be of any real use, as and when (if)  this conceptualization is implemented.

The project does appear to be an  wonderful idea -- one which is more than 150 years old. The channel, originally an idea of a British commander named A D Taylor was put forth in 1860. In 1955, 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 but nothing happened.   Here is a map which would explain as to what best possible benefit it could be of :

What is Sethusamudram  Channel?  :  This is what the official version is.:

     India has a peninsular coast of 7517Kms studded   with 12 major ports and 185 intermediary and Minor ports and has had maritime trade with various countries of the world since time immemorial.  Also shipping trade between the east and west coasts of India has prevailed for a long time.  But the coast of India does not have a continuous navigation channel connecting the east and west coasts.  Currently the ships coming from the west coast of India and other western countries with destination in the east coast of India and also in Bangladesh, China etc have to navigate around Srilankan coast.  The existing water way is shallow and not sufficient for the movement of ships.  This is due to the presence of a shallow region known as Adam’s bridge, located southeast of Rameswaram near Pamban, which connects the Talimannar Coast of Srilanka.  Due to these factors, the ships originating from west of India and destined for Chennai, Ennore, Vishakapatnam, Paradeep, Haldia and Kolkata have to travel around Srilankan 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 Srilanka.

     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, a navigation channel connecting the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay through north of Adam's Bridge has been envisaged  so that the ships moving between the east and west coasts of India need not go around Sri Lanka. 


Two channels are to be created - one across north of Adam's Bridge (the chain of islets and shallows linking India with Sri Lanka)  South - east of Pamban Island and another through the shallows of Palk Bay, deepening the Palk straits.  The total length of these two channels would be 89 Kms. The project involves digging a 44.9 nautical mile (83 km) long deepwater channel linking the shallow water of the Palk Strait with the Gulf of Mannar.  The total cost of the project is Rs 2,427 crores (Rs 24.27 billion).

THE EVENTS  :  During the last tsunami in December 2004, the Ramar Bridge, also known as Adams Bridge in the Palk Bay acted as a natural barrier preventing the direct devastation of the entire South Indian coastline, south and southwest of Nagapattinam. Thus the Ramar Bridge, traditionally and popularly also known as Ramasethu, played a key role in protecting the coastline in South India against the unforeseen ravages of the tsunami in December, 2004.
Those who are familiar with the case narrate this story: When all was going well for the protagonists of the canal project, with the Supreme Court about to dismiss the writ petition against the project, the Central Government filed that infamous affidavit on September 12, 2007, in which it had denied that Rama of Ramayana ever existed. It triggered a tsunami of public anger that compelled the government to withdraw the affidavit and to put on the withdrawal memo the government's respect for the religious sentiments of the Hindus particularly in this case. Moving further to ease the popular anger the Central Government also gave an undertaking to the Court that it would consider realigning of the canal so as not to disturb the Rama Sethu. This virtually put a brake on all further work on the project.
This was followed by the lectures of the present CM on Rama & Ramayana – further trivialized by asking where did that Rama learn his engineering to build the Rama Sethu.  Then there was the bandh effort on Oct 1, converted into ‘fasting’ after Supreme Court stepping in, which virtually prevented any one attending to their daily chores but the organizer suspending it midway rushing to work at Fort St George.  The  DPA politicians who observed a one-day token fast on Monday keep asserting that the Sethu Samudram Canal Project (SSCP) is for the development of Tamil Nadu. There are a few secular questions to ascertain the veracity of their statements as well as the depth of their knowledge about SSCP.
1)        On a cost benefit analysis, Marine experts say that  the type of fuel used in high seas and in canals like these differ.  The cost of voyage  by utilizing this channel is certainly not what it is projected to be, going by the  (lack of) operating costs in such a journey !
2)        Is SSCP going to be an international sea route like Suez/Panama canal?The depth of the canal being dredged is 40 ft (13 metres) for 75 km (half the length of the canal) under the water without banks. Can the ships more than 35000 DWT go through this canal? Ships plying in the international routes are normally 100000 DWT and more and not less 60000 DWT. Can these ships use SSCP?
3)        Ships plying on international routes sail at a speed of 14 to 18 knots. Can the speed of ships going through SSCP be more than seven knots? These ships are required to embark a pilot. Are they not required to pay pilotage and additional marine charges like for the usage of tugs? No oficial document to date has indicated the rate to be levied for embarking a pilot and additional marine charges
4)        With a low transit speed 6-8 knots (50 per cent of the speed on any international route) can the saving of sailing time be more than four hours? Does this make any sense to vessels sailing for weeks and months?
5)        The Bay of Bengal is a rough sea and Mannar Bay is a calm one. During the northeast monsoon (October to January) there will be heavy silting which will cause loss of depth below 40 feet. Can the canal be used during those four months?Is dredging possible during the monsoon? Will there be any revenue from the canal in the monsoon months when there is no dredging and the silting is high?Therefore, it cannot serve as an international sea route.
6)        With all these constraints, will the revenue from ships using this canal (of course, below 35000 DWT) be sufficient for an economically viable operation? This is the vital question to be addressed by the pseudo-secular DPA politicians.
7)        Can the Indian Navy which sails in formation use the canal which is 1000 feet (300 metres) wide and depth only 40 feet? As the role of eastern and western fleets is well defined, where is the need to use this canal? In the event of Indian Navy using this canal, it is close to LTTE sea hideouts. LTTE may create problems as they did during the IPKF operations.
8)        Just a few years ago this area was declared a special biosphere park for conservation by T R Baalu himself. Will not the millions of cubic feet of undersea minerals and chemicals wealth scooped out permanently disturb this special biosphere park?
9)        What will be the effect of millions cubic feet of sea wealth scooped out on the lives of rare living beings in the seas in these areas and how is it going to affect the livelihood of people both in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka? Since only ships under 35000 DWT can operate, this canal can be used only to bring coal to the Tuticorin thermal station. Should we spend nearly Rs 4000 crores (the project’s esclated cost today according to media reports) to bring coal to the Tutucorin thermal station? Dedicated rail wagons are sufficient for this purpose.
As the canal will function as a funnel under water between the Bay of Bengal and Mannar Bay what will be its effect on biological/ ecological aspects when the ocean currents are normal and during under-water earthquakes and tsunamis and the implications for Tuticorin and Rameswaram? Have the oceanographers and geologists studied these vital implications? Without bringing in Sri Rama or Ramar palam (Sethu), the whole concept has been discussed here. Will the DPA leaders dispassionately answer them point by point?
Let the people of Tamil Nadu & other parts of India  know what purpose does the canal serve and whom it is meant to serve. The people are apprehensive of this project because of the fiasco of the original Veeranam project under the present Chief Minister. The huge cement pipes on the way to Kumbakonam are stark reminders of the fiasco. SSCP should not become another such fiasco.
The believers  say that they are not against the Sethu but only against building it at this location, wanting to shift  and construct without damage to the “Ram Sethu”. 

But, whether the canal itself is required, cost effective and whether the Govt. has allotted  sufficient funds for this are all questions for which no acceptable answers seemingly are available.

With regards
S Sampathkumar.

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