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A Project that was under Long Scrutiny - Sethu Samudram Ship Canal Project
-Part 2

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In the first part, we discussed some details of the Sethu Samudram Ship Canal project. In this second 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.

Fear of Endangering Gulf of Mannar:
There is a hue and cry to save the Gulf of Mannar. Gulf of Mannar Marine Reserve is one of India's most biologically diverse coastal regions. Over 3,600 species of plants and animals are found here. The sea grass beds along the coast are among the largest remaining feeding grounds for the globally endangered dugong. Additionally five species of marine turtles, innumerable fish, mollusks and crustaceans also feed there. Gulf of Mannar is the first Marine Biosphere Reserve not only in India but also in South and South East Asia. The reserve covers 10,500 sq. km and has 21 islands with continuous stretches of coral reef. The coral reefs which surround the islands in the area are highly productive and are often referred to as "underwater tropical rain forest" and a treasure house for marine ornamental fishes. The establishment of the Gulf of Mannar Marine Biosphere reserve has enhanced India's position as an environmentally responsible country in the comity of nations.

The Rs 1200 crore Sethu Samudram Ship Canal Project on the coast of Tamil Nadu entails the dredging of a canal across the Gulf of Mannar to facilitate sea travel between the East and West coasts of India without ships having to go around the southern tip of Sri Lanka. The project will endanger the fragile marine ecology of the area through constant dredging to maintain a canal depth of about 10 m. The increase in shipping traffic will inevitably result in an increase in oil spills and marine pollution. Bombay Natural History society (BNHS) is mobilizing public opinion and funds to campaign for the Sethu Samudram Project being dropped permanently in favour of the eco bio systems in this region. In these days of international recognition of the bio diversity, given such a huge potential of bio diversity of Gulf of Mannar, we have to seriously analyze the entire ecological cycle before taking complete side with the Canal project. According to the Union Minister for Transport and Shipping, Mr T.R. Baalu the fears that the Sethu Samudram ship canal project would have an adverse ecological impact are unfounded since the proposed canal alignment steers clear of the coral reefs by about 20 km. He also argues that when the formation of the Tuticorin port was proposed three decades ago, the issue of dwindling fish catch was raised, but the annual fish catch, which was around 55,000 tonnes then, has gone up to 1.02 lakh tonnes now in the area. The Minister has said that the distance from the last island in the island-chain and the proposed navigation line is 20 km. There was no vegetation in the area and there would be no damage to the biosphere or the coral reefs. He lamented that the view among even scientists that once dredged, the coral reefs would be destroyed irrevocably is completely baseless. He point out that in the Tuticorin port area, even after dredging two or three times, the coral reefs have resurfaced.

 There are also conflicting reports on the use of soil drawn out of excavation. One information is that it would be used to reclaim the earth that was swayed by sea. And another information is that it would be dumped in the sea itself at some other location. If we adopt the second plan, it could affect the bio-resources in the region where the soil is going to be dumped. Throw up of  mud deposits on the coral reef would smother the reef ecosystem.  This author wishes that when we do the cost-benefit analyses, the cost of affecting any chain in the entire eco-cycle to be estimated and not just the superficial disturbance to eco system. The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur, which had prepared an environment impact assessment report about the Sethusamudram project, has also clearly stated that "there would be no environmental degradation at all" because of the project. It is to be mentioned here that this report itself is questioned by many scientists and ecologists. In gaining complete understanding of the eco cycle and the cost associated with it in case of disturbance, ecologists and bio-scientists are to be involved to estimate the genuine and effective benefit of the canal project. We should not take narrow view of this issue. It is reported in some section of the press that the government has approved a feasibility study and environment impact assessment at a project cost of Rs. 4.8 crore. It would augur well for progressing the Canal project if the full details of this report is widely publicized.

Fishermen's Concern:
More than 138 villages and towns spread over five districts depend heavily on the fishery resources of the Gulf. Commercial fishing is done in about 5,500 sq. km. and nearly 50,000 people dwelling in 47 villages along the coastline bordering the Gulf of Mannar depend directly on the biodiversity resources of the Biosphere reserve for their livelihood, mainly the fishery resources of the waters of the Gulf of Mannar. The Tuticorin South District Fishermen Community Association has said that increased movement of ships would affect their living. They have reported that their boats and nets were destroyed because of accidents due to movement of ships in the fishing area on the sea. They demand that the fishing zone should be enlarged to 40 nautical miles from the present 17.5 nautical miles as the present fishing zone is not adequate. Even they have expressed fears that due to deep dredging, the Gulf of Mannar with 5,500 sq. km. fishing zone may become void of fish and affect their livelihood. Clear demarcation of ship movement zone and fishing zone to be ensured to safeguard the interest of fishermen.

Strategic Sensitivities:
We should also not underestimate the spin that the Sri Lankan government might put on this project as Sri Lanka could end up as a loser when the project is completed. Although, we undertake this project within our sea borders, in order to preserve and improve upon the bilateral relations, it is important that we take the Sri Lankan government into confidence before we start pumping huge money into this project.

Also, on the Orissa shores we have strategically important space launch stations and down south on the shore we are building a huge Nuclear plant in Koodangulam. These strategically important locations should ideally be at a long distance from the international sea route.

Cost-Benefit Analyses:
We assume that the international vessels would prefer to go through this canal as against the Colombo port. According to a conservative estimate, about 2,000 vessels would be using the canal annually but this might go up. In the 19th year, the cumulative earnings from the project is expected to be over Rs 5,000 crore. The project is estimated to cost about Rs 2,000 crore and debt-equity ratio is estimated to be 7:5. The Central Government is planning to go in for a mix of equity and debt for the project and for the first time. These estimates has to go through a public scrutiny as the project zone is known to frequently go into low bay pressures.

In the final part of this article, we would recap the history of the project and end the article with the implementation strategy of the Central government.

(to be contd)

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