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  Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project : A Good Thing Done Badly!  

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By: Sundara Krishnaswami
May 08, 2007
iews expressed here are author?s own and not of this website. Full disclaimer is at the bottom.


(The author is vice-president in an international management consulting company and is an avid student of Sanatana Dharma.)

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Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project : Good Thing Done Badly! Sundara Krishnaswami

I still recall my reaction when, in the year 2001, I first saw the NASA pictures of the bridge that Rama built between India and Sri Lanka about a million and odd years ago. My heart leapt in utter joy and I was incredulous that the bridge still existed. I remember carrying the web-site address on my PC files and enthusiastically showing the photographs to several people in the next few months.

About three weeks ago, I became aware of the project called the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project (SSCP) and the project?s plans to break the bridge that Rama built discarding better and cheaper alternatives that are available. This bridge (more a bund really) is called Rama Sethu or Nala Sethu in Bharat?s scriptures, or Adams Bridge in post-1800 geographical maps. In the past four days, this subject has gained high visibility in India and has been raised in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha as well as the Tamil Nadu Assembly. The subject is also gaining increased awareness among the world?s Indian and Hindu population.

Managing the affairs of the society, let alone a mini-world country such as India, is anything but an easy task. Problems abound. But so do opportunities.

This is the case in point here. Flipping the problem into an opportunity! Doesn?t the SSCP problem create the opportunity not only for executing the planned economic development of the southern coast of India but do it based on the morals and the cultural values of our nation? Don?t we have an opportunity here to really minimize the divisions that fracture our society? Isn?t this an opportunity to exhibit the moral courage that is the backbone of our civilization and bring about harmony among different groups?

What is the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal project?

   ?Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project (SSCP) envisages dredging of a ship channel across the Palk straits between India and Srilanka?, says the Sethusamudram Corporation?s website. ?The project will allow ships sailing between the east and west costs of India to have a straight passage through India's territorial waters, instead of having to circumvent Sri Lanka. Two channels will be created - one across 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 SSCP?s dredging plan calls for breaking the Rama Sethu (Adams Bridge) connecting Dhanushkodi (India) and Thalaimannar (Sri Lanka). The Hindus believe this was the ?bridge? that Rama built to cross the ocean to rescue Sita. In addition to the Ramayana, numerous other scriptural authorities authenticate the existence of this bridge.  

NASA?s statement accompanying the above photograph says ?The bridge's unique curvature and composition by age reveals that it is man-made. Legend as well as Archeological studies reveal that the first signs of human inhabitants in Sri Lanka date back to the primitive age, about 1,750,000 years ago and the bridge's age is also almost equivalent.?

What are SSCP?s claimed benefits?

The SSCP website lists the following benefits:

The project is conceived as a project of ?national importance? and ?will be unique of its kind on completion?.

? Savings in shipping costs. Fuels consumption will decrease because shipping distance is reduced by an average of 424 nautical miles (780 km) and sailing time is reduced by about 30 hrs. Forex payment will decrease due to decreased transshipment on foreign shores.

? ?Asset to national defense and security?. ?Indian Coast Guard and Navy will not have to circumvent Sri Lanka and there will be easier quicker access between the coasts of India.?

? Benefits to fishermen. They ?will directly benefit due to the potential for development of fishing harbors (between Nagapattinam and Tuticorin) with proper landing and storage facilities.? ?Indian fishing boats can transit freely though Adam's Bridge. This is not possible today.?

? Port development, employment generation and increase in maritime trade. Port activities at Tuticorin and Ramanathapuram will increase, generating additional employment in the area. As trading activities increase from these ports, additional wealth will be created in these areas.

What are the objections?

There is unanimous agreement among political, religious and scientific communities that a shorter shipping route be constructed, if it is beneficial to do so. However, these diverse groups have raised several strong objections with the ?alignment? currently selected to achieve this shorter route. Several reasons have been cited for these objections:

National defense

The India ? Sri Lanka Maritime Agreement (Act 80, August 1976) details the Palk Strait/Gulf of Mannar as ?Historic? (internal) warriors. The SSCP website also refers to ships sailing through ?territorial? waters. But, US Govt has rejected this claim of ?territorial? waters and insisted that these waters are ?international?. To stake this claim, US naval ships have visited this area in 1993, 1994, 1999 and 2000. In April 2007, the U.S.Navy issued a statement underscoring the importance to them of their presence in the Palk Strait/Gulf fo Mannar area.

Contrary to strengthening the national defense and security as claimed by the SSCP website, Dr. S.Kalyanaraman, who has submitted a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) application to the Supreme Court of India, expresses the concern this project will convert the ?historic? waters to ?international? waters, much the same way the waters of the Suez canal and the Panama canal are now ?international?. This will dilute our national defense system and not strengthen it as the SSCP website claims.

It is important to note that the SSCP alignment is about one mile west of the demarkation line between India and Sri Lanka, on the Indian side. Justice V.R.Krishna Iyer expresses this concern this way, ?Our nation will be weaker and may suffer new dangers with the American presence in the Sethusamudram waters by doing what for centuries has never been considered necessary or feasible or in any manner advantageous to us, the People of India?.

The question on the table is

?Doesn?t the SSCP weaken India?s national defense, by allowing American presence in the Palk Strait / Gulf of Mannar area??

Energy Security

In his speech to the Parliament in March 2007, the President of India said that the current electricity generation capacity in India is 120000 MW and is expected to increase to 400000 MW by the year 2030. Baba Atomic Research Center (BARC) estimates that about 30 % of world?s thorium deposits, or about 225000 tons of thorium, are found on the beaches of Kerala. This will support about 387 years of electricity generation at 2030 capacity levels!

Dr. Tad Murthy, world renowned tsunami expert and consultant to the Indian Government , has warned that when the next tsunami hits, the SSCP shipping canal will allow the tsunami energy to pass through to Gulf of Mannar and destroy the Kerala coast in entirety including all the thorium deposits. It is important to note that the Rama Sethu stopped the tsunami of December 2004 from traveling to the west coast of India, protecting millions of lives and the valuable thorium deposits. The SSCP?s official reply to this major concern of the next tsunami impact is a posting on their website where they claim they have not been able to get hold of Mr. Tad Murthy?s e-mail address and hence could not enter into a dialogue with him on his expert opinion. This is a ridiculous statement in today?s world of the internet! I goggled ?Tad Murthy? and was able to get his e-mail id and telephone number in less than two minutes! The SSCP web-site also gives a simplistic statement that when the next tsunami hits, the energy waves will travel west through the 300 m opening made in Rama Sethu and will limit itself to the 300 m width as it travels further west and will not diffract and will not touch the Kerala coast. The web-site goes on to make an audacious comment ?It escapes imagination as to how Southern Kerala could be impacted by tsunami traveling from Adam's Bridge towards the Indian ocean?. This is an unprofessional, non-technical response to a highly technical subject. It is given with a cavalier attitude almost mocking the seriousness with which the expert analyzed and reported it. It insults one?s intelligence.

The question on the tables is

? Has a detailed scientific study been done to assess the tsunami threat to Kerala?s thorium deposits that provide energy security to India? If so, where is the study? What are its results??

Ecology / Environment /Human Livelihood:

One of the reasons stated by the SSCP and the Shipping/Transport Minister of GOI for selecting the current alignment is to keep the canal farthest away from the coral reef near the shores and protect the marine ecology and environment. Common sense says that whichever alignment is selected for ship?s passage where there was no ship sailing before, the marine ecology, balance and environment will be adversely affected.

An eminent 34- member advisory group of Sri Lankan professionals has cautioned that the Sethusamudram canal dredging project could have disastrous environment impacts, particularly, maritime environment. This group says, ?Unless accurate forecasts are made of the mitigation effects, it could eventually destroy this fragile marine eco system ..? The concern is also there that there will be less fish available for fishing threatening the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of fishermen in both India and Sri Lanka.

The group says further, ?....For example, the NEERI report is yet to explain the sedimentation issue, silting possibilities and underwater ocean currents, when the canal is constructed... Furthermore, there would be increased turbidity, which has never been studied by NEERI, which has neither studied the possibility of a tsunami through the canal water flow...?

According to Sudharshan Rodriguez, a Chennai based conservation analyst, the EIA report furnished by NEERI, has used secondary data going back to 1976. "Hence, how can a project, which will pass through a biological hot spot, with so many likely impacts, be assessed on the basis of secondary data?" is the next most logical question... ?

Experts have pointed out that the SSCP lacks knowledge of the characteristics for about 60 % of the soil they will be dredging and does not know where about 90 % of the dredged soil will be placed. Two dredging ships have broken down so far underscoring the issue of the lack of knowledge of soil characteristics.

Based on the lack of adequate consideration given to the scientific aspects of sedimentation, silting, soil characteristics and tsunami by the SSCP, and based upon the assessment of these aspects by respective experts in these fields such as G.Victor Rajamanickam, Usha Natesan and T.S.Murthy, Dr. Ramesh points out that the SSCP may not even be technically feasible. Maintenance dredging alone will be significant especially post-cyclones and post-monsoons and will not be negligible as SSCP claims.

Next tsunami will impact many more lives than the last one did because instead of erecting tsunami protectors as Japan has done, the SSCP in fact opens the ?door? to the next tsunami by drilling an opening through the Rama Sethu. This is really ironical because it is the Rama Sethu that mitigated the damage in the December 2004 tsunami and saved the lives and livelihood of millions of people on the west coast!

This puts several questions on the table.

?Has SSCP conducted a detailed study to assess the effects of the next tsunami on the lives of people living on the western side of the south coast of India and if so, where is the study and what are the results of this study??

?Has a detailed study been done on the marine environment based on primary data (not on secondary data), and if so, where is the study and what are the results??

?Has the SSCP assessed the canal project from sedimentation, turbidity, silting, cyclones, monsoon and tsunami aspects?"

People?s religious and cultural sentiments


As justice K.T.Thomas, retired supreme court justice, says, ? India has a tradition of respecting peoples? sentiments?. Swami Paramatmananda Saraswati, secretary of the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha, points out that for millions of Hindus, ?Rama is deeply personal?. As a non-Hindu or as a non-believer in God, you may not recognize or acknowledge Rama. That is fine. However, whether one acknowledges it or not, there is a personal aspect of Rama in everyone?s life. Because the word ?Rama? denotes ?the attractive power? (?ramyathe ithi ramaha?). Sans this ?attractive pull?, we will not be able to orbit around the sun, will not be able to walk on the earth, will not be loving our children, will not be attracted to a flower, a delectable sweet on the table, position of power, wealth, scholarship or to a word of praise. There is an ?attractive power? prevalent all around, alright! The Hindus believe this ?attractive power? took the human form named Rama, lived a life illustrating the ideal human and societal conducts and in the process built the sethu to cross the sea to reach Lanka from India. This is described in detail in the Indian history books ? not the version distorted and doctrine by the British and taught in our schools today - but the history books, called ithihasas (?ithi ha asah? ? ?this is the way it was?) written by our advanced human ancestors. The belief or the non-belief in the ithihasa is not the issue. It is enough to understand and appreciate that there are some believers, and that Rama is deeply personal to them. The courtesy of respecting the belief of fellow human beings and the aptitude to harmonize the differences of opinions and beliefs are what give to rise to a peaceful and civilized society.

The above figure taken from the SSCP website shows six options for building a shorter shipping route. Leaving aside the first five options ? all of them recommending, on technical grounds, not to breach the Rama Sethu - SSCP developed and selected option 6 suddenly and to the surprise of the scientific, religious and some political communities. Note that all these six options are pre-tsunami and will have to be re-evaluated with due consideration for the next tsunami attack.

The question on the table is

?When there are better, cheaper and shorter alternative alignments available (4 or 5 for example), why has the SSCP developed option 6 suddenly and is implementing this alignment that damages the Rama Sethu??


The Rama Sethu is a man-made formation. S Badrinarayanan, former director of Geological Survey of India and a member of the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) says the Adam's Bridge was not a natural formation. "Coral reefs are formed only on hard surfaces. But during the study we found that the formation at Adam's Bridge is nothing but boulders of coral reefs. When we drilled for investigation, we found that there was loose sand two to three meters below the reefs. Hard rocks were found several meters below the sand. Such a natural formation is impossible. Unless somebody has transported them and dumped them there, those reefs could not have come there. Some boulders were so light that they could float on water. Apparently, whoever has done it, has identified light (but strong) boulders to make it easy for transportation. Since they are strong, they can withstand a lot of weight. It should be preserved as a national monument," he opined.

This man-made structure should be preserved as a national monument according to the laws of India. Why are we not doing this? On the other hand, on what basis can this be considered a natural, and not man-made, formation?


The Prime Minister?s Office (PMO) asked the SSCP to provide answers to a list of questions pertaining to the project. Answers were provided on June 30, 2005. The project was officially launched on July 2, 2005.

The inexplicable speed and the lack of transparency here raises two questions.

?Why the sudden hurry? (There was no adequate physical time available between June 30 and July 2, 2005 for the PMO to have evaluated SSCP?s answers!)?

?Did SSCP provide technical answers to the PMO on subjects requiring specialized technical expertise after consulting the necessary technical experts??

Project economics

It is noteworthy that the project investment estimate is reportedly around $ 550 M (Rs 2627 crores) and is expected to save about a reported $ 5 M/yr in fuel savings. Forex savings estimate is not available and these savings will be additional. It is also not clear if the tug-boat charges have been taken in to account ? these will cost an estimated additional $ 40 M/yr (approximate estimate, per K.S.Ramakrishnan, retired deputy chairman, Madras Port Trust and per SSCP web-site information). The claimed savings in sailing time of one day per trip is also doubtful because the tug-boat speed through the canal will be much less than the normal ship speed around the Sri Lankan coast. Ignoring this fact and assuming one day?s saving per trip, it is still unlikely that commercial shipping companies will justify incurring an additional cost of about eight times the fuel savings!

It is also noteworthy that the SSCP canal will limit the ship size to about 30000 MT while the Panama Canal allows up to 90000 MT and the Suez max is about 120000 MT. This means ships larger than 30000 MT will still have to navigate around Sri Lanka. The trend in shipping industry worldwide is to go for larger sizes because it is economical to do so.

The question on the table is:

?Is the project economically viable?? Even if the project is not economically viable in strict commercial sense, does it have over-riding benefits in terms of job and related wealth creation for the underserved people living on the coast?

I?m neither affiliated to any political party nor have any political disposition. The basis for this writing is non-political. The objective is to urge the political leadership of India to unite around ? not divide around ? the SSCP issue and arrive at a sensible solution that addresses the objections that have been raised by several experts.

The importance and the urgency of this issue cannot be overstated. Retired Supreme Court of India justice V.R.Krishna Iyer has stated in his letter to the Prime Minsiter of India that ?If the enclosed paper states the facts with scientific objectivity and national anxiety, my appeal to you to stop building bridge or any other construction , an action hostile to the nation and its swaraj.? Another retired Supreme Court justice Mr. K.T.Thomas states, ? After listening to the opinions of various experts, I now feel that the expected seriousness has not been pondered over (by GOI).... We have always been at peace in this area and no war has been waged in these waters...this requires a national debate... the project must be stopped? Justice K.T.Thomas goes on to urge the formation of a multi-disciplinary panel of experts to consider this issue from the strategic, oceanic and religious aspects and determine a proper re-alignment.

I urge the political leadership at the center and state levels to take the following immediate steps, regardless of party affiliations:
1. Suspend the work on current alignment immediately
2. Constitute a commission headed by a retired supreme court justice to determine the validity of the objections raised by the various experts, to develop resolutions to the valid objections and to recommend a suitable and well thought-out re-alignment for the SSCP. (Include the assessment of all necessary experts including tsunami, archeology, sedimentation, turbidity, silting, cyclones/monsoons, geology, marine life, ocean-bed, other applicable technical areas, project economics, social welfare and religious history) 3. Implement the commission?s recommendations on re-alignment

My desire, of course, is that the Rama Sethu be not breached because I can still feel the pang of happiness from looking at the NASA photographs six years ago. However, I?ll readily subjugate the desire of protecting the Rama Sethu to the importance of practicing what it symbolizes. The bridge was built exemplifying the harmony among divinity, humans and animals. In resolving the current controversy of the SSCP, if the political will and leadership in New Delhi and Chennai today can facilitate such harmony, then I believe we would have done our jobs well. We would have served Bharath well.

Sundara Krishnaswami

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