Sunday, April 06, 2008

Sethusamudram Shipping Canal

The Sethusamudram Shipping Canal: still dredging up controversy

An abbreviated, *heavily-edited* version of this article appeared in the April 2008 issue of Gobar Times, a youth magazine published by the Centre for Science and Environment.

In the Hindu epic Ramayana, Lord Ram constructed a magical bridge from India to Sri Lanka so that he and his army could rescue his kidnapped wife, Sita. Many people believe traces of that bridge still exist and that it is in danger of being destroyed by a controversial canal project called Sethusamudram (SSCP). If completed, the 167 kilometer (km) channel would link the Bay of Bengal with the Gulf of Mannar and provide a continuous navigable route around the Indian peninsula. Currently, ocean-going vessels must navigate around Sri Lanka rather than passing through the Palk Bay, thereby increasing shipping time and costs and diminishing the development potential of much of Tamil Nadu’s coast.

Yet the channel’s current proposed alignment puts it on a direct collision course with a site considered sacred by many Hindus. Proponents of the project contend that the so-called “Rama Setu,” a chain of shoals running between northwestern Sri Lanka and southeastern India, is merely a collection of sand resulting from natural geological processes such as sedimentation; there is little if any physical evidence which links the shoals to the bridge depicted in the Ramayana. Yet others point out that the reality of how these structures were formed is secondary to the cultural importance which people have assigned to the site over the ages. Picking up on these concerns, some politicians and Hindutva groups have vowed ongoing demonstrations until the project is stopped. For the moment, the Supreme Court (SC) has acceded, putting a halt on any part of the channel’s construction which would damage the Rama Setu. In a landmark ruling that will likely have significant implications for similar controversies in the future, the Court will soon decide whether the purported benefits of the canal outweigh the religious and cultural values of the existing structure. While on its face the issue may appear to be a classic question of superstition versus progress, or cultural preservation versus material gain, a closer look reveals that there may be much more at stake.

The purported benefits of the canal include advancing India’s national security via increased freedom of movement for the Indian Coast Guard and Navy; boosting trade by reducing maritime shipping costs; and improving the livelihoods of coastal residents via expansion of economic opportunities in the region. Mr. Maravanpulavu K. Sachithananthan, a retired marine biologist based in Chennai who has studied this project extensively and given public seminars on the topic, calls it “viable, development-oriented, futuristic, and beneficial to both countries [India and Sri Lanka].” Yet comments such as Mr. Sachithananthan’s, combined with repeated references to Sethusamudram as the “Suez canal of the East,” imply that this project may also have a lot to do with international prestige. As with similar projects in China and other “rising” nations, the completion of large-scale, technically-challenging development projects sends an important message to the rest of the world. In its 2004 ruling on this issue, Madras High Court stated: “We must never overlook the basic aim of our country which is to make India a powerful and modern industrial state. Today the real world is cruel and harsh. It respects power, not poverty or weakness…if we wish to get respect in the world community we must make our country highly industrialized and prosperous.”

Yet despite its concern for “prosperity,” the High Court refused to hear arguments that the channel would cause irreparable harm to the coastal ecology of Tamil Nadu and the fisher-folks whose livelihoods depend upon it. Nor has the Supreme Court adequately examined the ecological and livelihood objections pending before it. Yet clearly many people are concerned; at the official opening of the project’s construction in 2005, hundreds of people protesting the canal on these grounds were arrested. A month later, one of the dredger ships had to be defended by police and naval personnel as 1,500 fisher-folk attempted a blockade. Now, this coalition of fisher-folk, environmentalists, and other concerned citizens is watching to see what the SC will decide while continuing to amass evidence to support their cause as well. An SC decision allowing continued work on the canal will likely lead to renewed grassroots opposition by an “alliance” of religious fundamentalists and those who oppose the project for more secular reasons.

Much of the environmental critique of the canal is related to its proximity to the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park—only a few kms away at its nearest point. The National Park is the core area of India’s largest Biosphere Reserve and the first of its kind in all of South and Southeast Asia. It is prized both for its world-class marine ecology as well as its historical and cultural significance. Yet there is already one major port and a handful of minor ports located within or directly adjoining the Reserve, not to mention the 100,000 residents, many of them fisher-folk, along its coastline; between natural resources extraction and industrialization of the coast, preservation of the region’s biodiversity is already a considerable challenge. By enabling a dramatic expansion of ship traffic so close to the Park, environmentalists allege that the Ministry of Environment and Forests is violating the spirit of international agreements as well as its own rules regarding species protection and buffer zones surrounding protected areas.

Sethusamudram’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), carried out by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), asserts that the canal will have “insignificant” impacts on the Reserve. Yet opponents maintain that the EIA was biased in favor of the project, non-comprehensive in scope, and based on faulty data. As if to underscore this point, a dredger working in the Rama Setu area was seriously damaged in May 2007 when it unexpectedly struck a rock bed. This discovery was particularly troubling because it meant that explosives would likely have to be used to clear a path through Rama Setu, a scenario that was not envisioned by the EIA or by the “Detailed Project Report” (DPR) submitted in 2005. Critics allege that other aspects of the proposal have also not been adequately modelled.

Moreover, the effects of increased shipping and coastal development which the Assessment predicts will result from the canal have been mostly overlooked; similar to road construction into land-based conservation areas, it is likely that the major damage will result not from the project itself, but from the further incursions that it facilitates. For instance, significant port development is being proposed for Thoothukudi, Puducherry, and Rameswaram in tandem with the construction of the Sethusamudram canal. Yet the EIA repeatedly refers to the synergistic effects of these activities as outside of its scope, therefore they have not been taken into consideration.

The EIA also acknowledges that there will be “significant, adverse impacts” from the canal’s construction on fishing activities, and that displacement of current residents may occur, although “…the extent of land acquisition, the need for resettlement and rehabilitation of affected population, if any, could not be assessed at this juncture.” The Coastal Action Network (CAN), a group representing fisher interests in Tamil Nadu, believes it has a better sense of what this project will entail for fisher-folk in the region. Jesu Rethinam, one of CAN’s convenors, offers a conservative estimate that “The one lakh fishing families who will be immediately affected by the SSCP will incur losses of Rs 24,000 crores in terms of household assets and loss of livelihood assets, marine resources, land and housing, and social goods…This is a conservative estimate accounting for only the next 5-7 years and does not include environmental destruction of the coastal environment, biodiversity, etc.” Yet it is obvious that any activities which further damage the marine ecology and fisheries of the region will have substantial impacts on fisher-folk, and CAN claims that some fisher-folks are already reporting decreased fish-catch during the construction phase of SSCP. Greater ship traffic will also undoubtedly exacerbate already-existing conflicts between traditional fisher folk and industry. Rethinam continues, “In the last two years, dredging ships have destroyed fishing nets worth Rs 2.5 crore…No action was taken despite fishermen’s complaints to the District collector and the police. Instead, fishermen who ventured too near the dredging area have been harassed by the Coast Guard.”

Given that the project will affect at least six of Tamil Nadu’s thirteen coastal districts, including hundreds of fishing villages and lakhs of fisher-folk, such impacts are no small matter. Yet the level of consultation with these communities in the lead-up to construction was poor. Though there were public hearings held from September 2004 to February 2005 in the districts to be affected, these meetings were racked with protest and interrupted by the December 2004 tsunami; in some instances vocal critics were barred entry or removed from the premises. As with the environmental assessment, the project’s social accounting also appears to have fallen short. The shortcuts the government took in securing local support have resulted in conflicts during the construction phase of the channel and ongoing resistance from the fisher community.

But perhaps the most critical weakness of Sethusamudram is from the economic perspective, as re-assessments of the canal’s DPR have undermined some of its key arguments. Even if the project were to remain on-budget—which is unlikely due to underestimations of dredging costs, its primary expense—some recent economic analyses demonstrate that the canal will also fall short with regards to revenue. Jacob John, an economist based in Bangalore, is the author of one such analysis. John estimates that there will be significantly less financial incentive for foreign ships to use the canal than the DPR has suggested; this projection does not bode well for the canal given that revenue from these ships was supposed to provide two thirds of its income. Further, the channel’s limited depth means that only ships with a draught (the distance from a ship’s lowest point to the water’s surface) of 10 meters or less will be able to use it. Therefore as the shipping industry moves towards ever larger ships, and Indian ports are being deepened to accommodate them, NEERI’s EIA states that deepening the Sethusamudram channel would be both economically and environmentally unviable. These facts bring the actual usefulness of the project, and hence its ability to generate a profit, into serious question. Beyond the concerns about revenue, interest rates have risen substantially since the initial planning stages, meaning that the loans which would be used to finance Sethusamudram will now be much more expensive to repay.

For all of these reasons, the canal is obviously in need of a mid-term assessment even if the SC overrules the religious opposition. As John argues:
Given the likelihood of overestimation of the revenues and underestimation of costs, it is a big question on whether the project will be viable on the grounds it was granted approval. Therefore, do mechanisms need to be built into project design, that stop projects that have significantly changed vis-à-vis the original approval documents…At the heart of this debate is the way many projects are projected to give stratospheric gains for the economy, employment, GDP, etc, but in reality there is little check once the entire project has been approved and operationalized… there is a duty of those promoting projects to consider the impacts it has on people, and allow people to review these impacts especially in the early years of a project.

On the other hand, if the SC does rule to halt destruction of Rama Setu, thereby putting it on indefinite hold, the situation could become even more complicated. Since the canal project was initially put forward more than 140 years ago, there have been numerous proposed routes. Despite their other shortcomings, NEERI is correct in the assessment that, from the ecological and livelihood perspective, the current route is the least destructive. As CAN asserts: “There is no scientific justification for a realignment of the canal. The destruction will be the same or worse.” Regardless, many religious opponents of the canal’s current alignment would support the project if it were to utilize one of the alternate routes, thereby causing a split between those who oppose the canal on religious grounds and those who oppose it for environmental or economic reasons. Revathi, a journalist who has studied the issue closely and is currently producing a documentary film on Sethusamudram, says, “A true ‘coalition’ with the religious fundamentalists does not exist. The BJP and RSS were sitting quietly during the early stages of the project; their motivations for becoming involved at this late stage are purely political and self-serving. I don’t see any big commitment from them for the environment, for the fisher-folk, for the taxpayer.” Yet reconsideration of alternate routes would at least delay construction and hopefully open Sethusamudram up to a fresh round of environmental and economic assessments.

Two and a half years after its official unveiling, the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal continues to dredge up controversy. There are still no definitive answers on the probable environmental, economic, and livelihood outcomes of the project, and we will likely never know whether the Rama Setu is a natural formation or one built by a god thousands of years ago. But what is clear are the deep-seated problems with the process through which the GOI continues to define and implement development. Take, for instance, the blatantly biased perspective of the Madras High Court, which concluded that:
We should not obstruct the scientific and technical progress of the country in the name of environment protection. No doubt, the environment has to be protected, but… industrialization itself ensures a good environment…

Yet progress should not be imposed on people from on high, and discussion, planning, and implementation of development objectives must make a thorough accounting of all stakeholders and their rights as well as employing the precautionary principle with regards to potential social and environmental impacts. While all the legal wrangling and citizen unrest may be a serious inconvenience to those who want to see this project completed anytime soon, it presents new possibilities for the GOI to open up to the public and address the critiques which have been raised by all sides. If the SSCP turns out, as its critics assert, to be a terrible idea, then the time, resources, and acrimony wasted on it will hopefully be a reminder to the government that full involvement of stakeholders, responsiveness to criticism, and ongoing assessment is central for any future endeavors. Yet even if supporters are right that this is a meritorious project whose time has come, then they obviously need to learn how to do a better job demonstrating those benefits and marketing such projects to the public in the future.

Works cited:
*personal interviews with Mr. Maravanpulavu K. Sachithananthan and Sudarshan Rodriguez
*“Sethusamudram Canal: An Expensive Voyage?” Economic and Political Weekly July 21, 2007; Jacob John
*Rodriguez, S., J. John, R. Arthur, K. Shanker, A. Sridhar. 2007. Review of Environmental and Economic Aspects of the Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project (SSCP). pp 76.
*SWAMINOMICS “150-year dream for 150-year old ships” 23 Sep 2007, Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar.
*“Sethu project faces 20-30% cost surge” Animesh Singh / New Delhi September 20, 2007;
*Tamil Nadu State Forest Department
*”In Short” 11/15/07
*”Sethusamudram's financial woes
*”Ecological reasons to oppose Sethusamudram project” 10/15/07,
*”Political Dredging” 7/31/05
*”Sethusamundram project is unviable” 6/15/07.
*“After 150 Years
*”Deep Waters” & “Blueprint Blues” 5/15/07.
*focused analysis on project in 3/15/06 issue of DTE.
*”Neighbours Worry”, 10/15/05.
*”Strait Hit”, 6/30/05.
*”Green Light?” 6/15/05.
*”A very heavy metal load” 2/28/01.
*”Saving a reserve” 1/15/98
*”Threat to dugongs” 7/31/01
*”Reserved!” 10/31/01
*”Assessing Marine Threat” 5/15/02
*”PMO exposes system slip-up” 4/15/05
*”Supreme Court stays DMK-sponsored Tamil Nadu shutdown” By ANI ( Sunday September 30, 03:07 PM;
*”Setu- Faith vs national interest” Central Chronicle, 9/19/07;
*“Silence, controversy shroud…” 9/10/07;
*”Project a recipe for disaster, scientists say” 9/12/07;
*”Centre criticized for excluding key experts from Sethu panel” 10/23/07;
*”SC rejects Swamy plea for reconstitution of Sethu committee” 10/24/07;
*”Govt on back foot, withdraws affidavit” 9/15/07;
*”No one benefits from a Rs2,600 crore channel” 9/13/07;
*”Lack of Access to Sethu Panel Criticized” 10/30/07;
*”Channelling religious sentiment into rare political opportunity” 9/14/07;
*Interview w/ T.R. Baalu, 2/6/08;
*”Adam’s Bridge,” Encyclopedia Britannica online
*Sethusamudram Corporation Limited
*”Environmental Impact Assessment for Proposed Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project.” National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI)
*”Tuticorin port has potential to be global container hub: PwC” by Raja Simhan T.E; The Hindu Business Line 6/16/05
* “DMK has been isolated on Sethu issue: TN BJP” The Hindu, February 5, 2008
*”Sethu project: Centre counters environmental concern.” March 2, 2008.
*”Centre files fresh affidavit on Sethu project in SC.” The Hindu, 2/29/08.
*”Role of Fisherwomen in Coastal Eco-system of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and TamilNadu—an Overview” by Vijaya Khader and R. Sathiadhas; prepared for the 22nd Annual Conference Proceedings of the AIAEE in Clearwater, FL.
*“Govt should declare Sethu heritage: BJP”; 2/1/08
*“Yes to Ram, no to sethu: Govt”; 1/31/08
*“Coast Guard 'torpedoes' Sethu project” The Economic Times, 2/1/08
*“Sethu project to raise security issues: Coast Guard DG” The Economic Times 1/31/08
*”The Sethu gridlock” by Professor Willie Mendis. The Island online edition.
*”Cong files affidavit in SC to give Sethu its go-ahead.” IBN Live, 3/1/08.
*”Government seeks apex court’s nod to Sethusamundram project“ Thaindian News, 2/28/08.
*”Doublespeak On Ram Sethu” Tehelka, 3/7/08.
*”Sethu project will trap government in immeasurable debt: experts” The Hindu, 2/19/08
*”Rama Sethu in the mist of political prejudices”, 2/7/08.
*Captain (retired) H Balakrishnan of the Indian Navy, 10/1 interview with Shobha Warrier of Rediff, which is one part of Rediff’s ongoing coverage the project
*”Impacts of the Proposed Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project (An Alternate Report).” Coastal Action Network, 3/12/04.
*Tuticorin Port Trust, “Final Detailed Project Report.” Feb. 2005
*”Review of the Environmental Impacts of the Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project (SSCP),” by Sudarshan Rodriguez. Indian Ocean Turtle Newsletter No. 6, July, 2007.
*”A Status Report on Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project & the Struggles against the project.” The Movement Against Sethusamudram (Sea Channel) Shipping Canal Project.