The Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project
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Issue Vol. 23.4 Oct-Dec2008 | Date : 03 Feb , 2009

At present, ships transiting between the coasts of India have to go all the way around Sri Lanka because of a reef called Adam’s Bridge at Pamban, near Rameswaram Island. At Pamban, the depth of water is 11 feet.

This canal was first proposed in 1860 by a British officer of the Royal Indian Navy, then known as the Indian Marine. He proposed cutting a ship canal called the Sethusamudram Ship Canal through Rameswaram Island that would reduce the steaming distances between the west and east coasts and take advantage of navigation along the coast.

Within Tamil Nadu, political factions are divided over the project. Indeed the ups and downs of the project have got linked with whether the Tamil Nadu faction constituting the State Government is in coalition with the political party constituting the Central Government in Delhi.

In effect, the concept proposed linking the Gulf of Mannar on India’s west coast with the Palk Bay on India’s east coast by creating a shipping canal which would provide a continuous navigable sea route around the Indian Peninsula, instead of having to go all the way around Sri Lanka.

In practical terms, the advantages of the canal were that the distance between Cape Comorin and Chennai would be reduced to 402 nautical miles from the prevailing 755 miles. Further, by reducing the distance between the east and the west coasts, travelling time would come down by 36 hours. It would also avoid circumnavigation of ships around Sri Lanka, thereby resulting in savings in fuel costs. The canal would help make two-way coastal shipping operations between the east and west coasts more competitive.

In 1955, the Government constituted the Sethusamudram Project Committee under Sir Ramaswamy Mudaliar to examine the feasibility and desirability of connecting the Gulf of Mannar with the Palk Bay and its impact on the port of Tuticorin.

The committee recommended that the canal project be linked to the Tuticorin Harbour Project and that both projects be undertaken simultaneously with a view to spur industrial and overall development of then under-developed southern part of Tamil Nadu.

In 1963, the government sanctioned only the Tuticorin project.

The Present Scope of the Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project

The present,  project envisages the creation of a 167 km long, 800 metres wide,  two-way channel  between the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait, (starting near Tuticorin) more or less parallel to the Indo-Sri Lankan maritime boundary, within India’s territorial waters. It involves initial capital dredging and subsequent periodic maintenance dredging of a 12 metre deep canal across Rameshwaram Island and the shallow narrow waters between the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait.

It had been assessed as economically viable (1200 to 1500 crores at 1996 prices) and technically feasible (India’s Dredging Corpoeation now has adequate dredging capacity, experience and expertise). In 1999, the Defence Minister announced in Rameshwaram that from the funding aspect, the project could be launched jointly between the Central and Tamil Nadu governments as the Sethusamudram Corporation, as had been done for the Konkan Railway Corporation.

The greatest beneficiary of the project was envisaged to be Tuticorin Port, which had the long term potential to transform into a container transhipment hub like Singapore and Colombo. The canal project was also expected to foster the development of the proposed 13 minor ports in Tamil Nadu.

 The Security Aspect

Sri Lanka is separated from the Indian peninsula by a 35 kilometres long string of islets known as Adam’s Bridge. The Palk Strait, in which the Adam’s Bridge is located, is shallow, where only small craft can operate. Jaffna, the LTTE stronghold in northern Sri Lanka is just 30 kilometres from the Tamil Nadu coast.

In the peace negotiations between the LTTE and the Sri Lanka Government in 2003, the LTTE reiterated this demand and also claimed its right to have an Exclusive Economic Zone.

In the negotiations between the LTTE representatives and the Indian interlocutors prior to the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, the LTTE had sought for their ‘Sea Tigers’ the unfettered right to police the sea-lanes in the vicinity of India’s coastline. They proposed the delineation of “distinct naval boundaries” – each area being under the control of the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Navy respectively.

At that time, India had categorically rejected the LTTE’s suggestion, not only because it would undermine Sri Lanka’s authority but also because it would be tantamount to permitting a terrorist outfit to be treated as a legitimate force patrolling the seas adjacent to India’s coastline.

In the peace negotiations between the LTTE and the Sri Lanka Government in 2003, the LTTE reiterated this demand and also claimed its right to have an Exclusive Economic Zone.

In January 2004, the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis hosted the 6th Asian Security Conference in Delhi. In his speech, Mr Lakshman Kadirgamar, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs and at that time Senior Adviser on Foreign Affairs to the President of Sri Lanka, stated:

“It is probably correct that no other internal ethnic conflict has spawned a new (LTTE) Navy, replete with surface to surface missiles, fast attack craft and suicide boats laden with explosives which has fought a State Navy (i.e. Sri Lankan Navy) for domination of certain parts of the ocean and poses indirectly, if not directly at the moment, a potentially serious threat to international shipping, the security of an adjoining State – India – and a renowned natural harbour – Trincomalee.

“Ever since the mission of the Indian Peace Keeping Force ended unsatisfactorily in 1990, India has maintained a studied aloofness from any further involvement in the Sri Lankan problem. But it is becoming clear that this period of disengagement cannot go on indefinitely….an LTTE military build up especially around Trincomalee harbour on the East Coast of Sri Lanka has taken place over the last two years of the ceasefire and the build up of the LTTE’s Navy in addition to the growth of its armoury of weapons poses a potential threat to the southern flank of India.”

Hope on the project was revived in January 1999 when NDA Defence Minister Fernandes announced that the NDA government would complete the digging of the Sethu Samudram channel in three years. This was backed by the then Prime Minister’s assurance that the NDA government was committed to the project. Indeed, the government took a concrete step towards the execution of the project when the NDA Finance Minister, in his 2000-01 Budget, allocated Rs 4.8 crore for a fresh feasibility study of the project. Recently, following a directive from the Union Ministry of Shipping, the Tuticorin Port Trust invited tenders for undertaking a feasibility-cum-environment study for the project.

The concept of the project has been opposed by several fraternities.

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