Indo-Sri Lankan channel project to become reality

New Delhi, August 14:

After more than a century on the drawing board, the ambitious Sethusamudram Shipping Canal project, billed as India’s Suez, looks set to become reality. The $550-million channel will cut through a chain of islands between India and Sri Lanka, reducing the transit time between India’s east and west coasts and cutting shipping costs as well as the government’s fuel-import bill, proponents say. The project is running into opposition from the Sri Lankan government and environmentalists, but work has already begun, and the backing of a key party in the Congress-led coalition government is likely to keep it going. “The canal will result in tremendous savings for the shipping industry and reduce freight rates,” said Arun Nanda, general manager for operations at Mercator Lines, India’s second largest private-sector shipping company.

Currently, ships traveling between India’s east and west coasts have to circumnavigate Sri Lanka, because the existing waterway along the southern tip of India is made shallow by a reef known as Adam’s Bridge. The Sethusamudram project will deepen the channel to 12 metres. The 167-km long, 300-metre wide waterway is slated to open to ships in 2008. It will cut the distance between India’s coasts by 424 nautical miles, saving ships a 30-hour southern

detour, the government says. Some in Sri Lanka, which has barely recovered from last year’s devastating tsunami, are concerned that dredging the seabed may affect the flow of currents, water temperature, marine life, and the livelihood of fishermen. The neighbours have held two rounds of talks on technical and environmental issues; neither side issued a statement after the last round ended on August 2, and another round hasn’t been announced. The Sri Lankan government has said that if the project poses adverse effects for Sri Lanka, it would take steps to safeguard the country’s interests. As a last resort, the government would take the issue to the International Court of Justice in the Hague. But it seems unlikely that Sri Lanka would want to upset its more powerful neighbour, especially if the new canal’s economic impact on the island is minimal.

“We don’t expect an impact on the Colombo port as mainline vessels won’t bypass Colombo,” said Daya Wijesekera, spokesman for the Sri Lanka Ports Authority, “If the canal has a depth of 12 metres, it will be used by smaller vessels. Mainline vessels will need a depth of 16 meters.” The idea for a canal at India’s southern tip originated with British colonial officials in 1860. Over the past 145 years, 14 committees, nine of which were set up by the British, examined and shelved the canal project. One champion of the channel, however, is the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK party), based in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Like other smaller, regional parties, DMK has gained greater leverage in the coalition government led by the Congress party.

Tamil Nadu should be a key beneficiary of the project, as it will boost traffic at the state’s Tuticorin port. A summary of the project by port executives say it will also save the national government foreign-exchange by reducing the oil-import bill, and generate revenue through levies on ships that use the canal. Still, environmentalists have concerns. They say that digging the seabed will endanger 400 species, including sea turtles and whales, as well as coral. “The environmental study on the basis of which the government has cleared the project

is outdated and based on secondary information,” says Ossie Fernandes, co-founder of Coastal Action Network, an environmental-advocacy group based in Madras.