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A Project that was under Long Scrutiny 
- Sethu Samudram Ship Canal Project

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A Project that was under Long Scrutiny - Sethu Samudram Ship Canal Project Last year, on March 13, 2003, after a prolonged delay, the Central Government headed by Vajpayee gave the green signal for the multi-crore Sethu Samudram project, providing a navigational route through construction of a canal near the Palk Straits linking the East and West coasts. The then NDA government announced that "they were committed to undertaking the Sethu Samudram project and completing it in a time-bound manner.'' The project involves excavating and deepening a canal near Rameswaram island to connect Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar to facilitate movement of ships. The draught would be about 7 m.

Everyone agrees that this project would provide better connectivity between our eastern and western coasts without going around Sri Lanka, thereby reducing the travel distance by about 350-400 nautical miles and 36 hours of shiptime. Sethu Samudram Canal project envisages widening and deepening about 1.2 km distance between Talai Mannar and Rameshwaram thereby enabling big ships and boats to navigate through the Mannar gulf, Palk straits and Bay of Bengal directly instead of circling around Sri Lanka as it happens at present. The idea is to construct a 300 $ million US dollar canal like the Suez or Panama after attendant dredging. The estimates carried out by our Central Government show that even if 30 ships use the canal every day, the project will be more than viable. Even in the Tuticorin-Paradip stretch, the canal will result in a saving of 474 nautical miles. It is assessed that shipping lines can save anywhere between Rs. 4 lakhs to Rs. 8 lakhs in a trip and even if a ship is charged Rs. one lakh, it will be a viable venture.

The Sethu Samudram project would galvanize Indian shipping as ships from the West Coast and East Coast could move to and from their respective zones through the cheaper and shorter sea routes. This could lead to development of several Indian ports including Tuticorin, Nagapattinam and Rameshwaram. An adverse consequence for Sri Lanka would be the de-valuation of Colombo, Galle and Trincomalee but this could be off set by the development of Talai Mannar, Kankesanthurai and Point Pedro.

Ironically this project is on the shelves for more than 140 years. Thankfully now it is under active scrutiny. One reason that was slowing down this project could be the security situation in Sri Lanka. The LTTE Sea Tigers dominate that triangular stretch of waters extending from Kalpitiya to Mullaitheevu. The other reasons are technical feasibility, the concerns of fishermen in the region, and the concerns on environmental impact of this project. Also, there is a threat that we may have to shift to excavation of rocks to deepen the sea in case if our recent decision to deepen the sea by excavation of sand heaps does not suffice. Also, there are fears that before the project is implemented, the ships hitting against the rocks should be completely eliminated.

Recently, after the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government headed by Manmohan Singh took over, this project got further impetus. The Union Minister for Shipping, Road Transport and Highways, T.R. Baalu, informed that he is prepared to look at different methods of financing the Sethusamudram project so that funds constraint does not stand in the way of the project being executed. He even went ahead and asked the Tuticorin port authorities to submit an application for environment clearance in June this year. This project expected to cost more than Rs 1200 crore. It is contemplated that this project be taken up in phases and be taken up on a build-operate-transfer basis. Another plan is also being evaluated that a special purpose vehicle could be floated with ports on the east coast of India taking up to 51 per cent equity (as they would benefit from the project) and the balance with private parties.

The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, engaged for a techno-economic study, has completed an environmental management program on averting or minimizing the damages to marine wealth during the implementation of the project Twenty-one islands forming the National Marine Park and facilitating fish breeding the canal region would not be affected as the sea route is set 6-21 km away. Further, deepening is needed only in shallow regions. The project could be started by 2005. A 300-metre wide canal would be dug after dredging of 32 million cubic metre sand (Reference: Press Interview by N.K. Raghupathy, Chairman, Tuticorin Port Trust). In the next part of this article, we would review the entire history/fact sheet of this project. We would also critically review the fears expressed and the merits of the implementation strategy that has been planned.

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