The Sethusamudram Project (SSCP) inaugurated on 2 July 2005 envisaged the construction of a two berth ship channel 167 kms long, 300 meters wide and 12 meters deep to connect the east and west coasts of India to reduce the sailing distance between Cape Comorin and Chennai to 402 nautical miles from the present 755, saving 36 hours of sailing time. Sri Lanka was concerned about the SSCP due to its environmental impacts as well as its effects on fisheries, marine biodiversity, foreign trade and shipping.
In May 2007 this project took a dramatic turn when Indian Subramanian Swamy of the BJP challenged the dredging of the Adam’s Bridge as part of the SSCP. It was argued that the Adam’s Bridge or Sethu is a man-made structure going back to Hindu mythology. However the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Geological Survey of India (GSI) have conclusively proved that the Adam’s bridge is a natural feature and is a series of atolls formed by shifting sand. Pic shows Adam’s Bridge. Courtesy muslimmeadianetwork.com
The first proposal for the construction of the canal was made in 1860. There were 6 proposals up to 1922. After independence between 1956 and 1998, as many as 6 committees have recommended its construction. The proposed canal will have very significant consequences to one of the most important marine biodiversity areas of mainland India as well as Sri Lanka.
The project is estimated to cost Indian Rs.20 billion with a debt equity ratio of 1: 1.5. The project authority is Sethusamudram Corporation Ltd. (SCL) headquartered in Chennai. The authorized capital of the company is Indian Rs.8 billion and the participants are Shipping Corporation of India (SCI), Tuticorin Port Trust (TPT) and Dredger Corporation of India (DCI). An MOU was signed in 2006 between SCL and the Suez Canal Authority Egypt for a period of 5 years to manage the SSCP which was targeted for completion in 2008.
Since the proposed canal will also have serious consequences as outlined above, an Inter-Ministerial Committee was set up in 2004 to study the impacts on the Sri Lankan side of the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay regions. The Committee was headed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and included the Ministers of Environment and Natural Resources, Ports and Aviation, Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, Defense and Science and Technology. During the state visit of former Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga to India in 2004, a joint press statement was issued on the canal project and it was agreed to exchange views on environmental aspects in relation to Sri Lanka.
Consequently an expert group was constituted by Sri Lanka that held a series of meetings with their Indian counterparts in 2005. The two sides agreed to exchange information and cooperate in this project. It was also noted that the alignment of the canal as proposed by the National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and subsequently modified to accommodate environmental issues was selected for implementation.
The second round of talks were held in New Delhi in on 1 August 2005.These talks underscored the importance of India monitoring and exchanging information of the environmental implications of the canal project.
During the state visit of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to India from December 27th to 30th 2005, it was noted the positive collaborative relationship established for the study and monitoring of the environmental implications of the SSCP. It was also agreed that if there are environmental consequences there should be action from the Indian side to mitigate them.
The third round of technical level talks took place on 21st April 2006 where exchange of information was done on studies done by both sides. In May 2007 this project took a dramatic turn when Indian Subramanian Swamy of the BJP challenged the dredging of the Adam’s Bridge as part of the SSCP. It was argued that the Adams Bridge or Sethu is a man-made structure going back to Hindu mythology. However the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Geological Survey of India (GSI) have conclusively proved that the Adam’s bridge is a natural feature and is a series of atolls formed by shifting sand.
However in July 2008 the Central Government was compelled to withdraw its submission from ASI due to political and religious sensitivities. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appointed an expert panel headed by R.K. Pachauri, Chairman of the Intergovernmental Climate Change Panel (ICCP) of the United Nations to study a viable and environmentally safe alternative alignment of the canal for the SSCP.
The contention of this panel is that given the variations in the ocean currents, wind patterns related to sedimentation as well as other phenomenon related to the weather, it would be incomplete to arrive at an EIA on the basis of information which is less than the entire annual cycle of 365 days. In response to a request by the Supreme Court for an interim report in 2-3 months, Pachauri stated that this would restrict the scientific validity of the exercise. It was then agreed by the Supreme Court that the case would be heard afresh in February 2011. However the court rejected BJP’s plea to declare the SSCP illegal as no EIA was carried out.
Accordingly the Supreme Court stayed the dredging that was taking place in the Adam’s Bridge area. However the Court did not halt the work going on in the Palk Strait until it was completed on 27 July 2009. Given these developments, there is no information on whether the SSCP will be implemented and also how far it has progressed since 2005 as the target date of completion was November 2008.
It is also surprising as to why the SSCP was not included in the bilateral talks between President Rajapaksa during the state visit to India with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It is recommended that the technical panel that was constituted in 2005 is reactivated by Sri Lanka and information sought as to the present status of the SSCP as it will be of vital importance to the country in the light of the construction of the Hambantota Harbour and other development activities such as the Norachcholi coal fired plant.
(The author is a retired Economic Affairs Officer United Nations ESCAP. Email -firstname.lastname@example.org )