Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Project Disaster

It would seem the most natural thing to have a channel that cuts the sailing time from the east to the west coast and the west coast to the east by a day and saves a distance of about five hundred nautical miles. And yet, the proposed Sethusamudram Shipping Channel Project (SSCP) could turn out India’s worst environmental nightmare, potentially deplete thorium reserves, risk a LTTE-Indian Navy confrontation drawing India unwillingly into Sri Lanka’s civil war, and become a financial liability.

The Centre and the Tamil Nadu government insist that SSCP will bring international shipping traffic to the Tuticorin Port. The Port is situated in the Gulf of Mannar/ Palk Bay/ Palk Strait (GoMPBPS) area where the maritime boundaries of India and Sri Lanka meet. Presently, oceanliners skip Tuticorin and instead anchor at Colombo because GoMPBPS has an average draught of 7.5 metres. Almost in the middle of this area lies a sandstone reef called Ramar Bridge (Adam’s Bridge) where the draught shallows to less than three metres.

SSCP conceives dredging a one hundred and sixty seven kilometre long, twelve metre deep and three hundred metre wide channel in this region cutting through the Ramar Bridge, which has separately angered the Sangha Parivar. The Tamil Nadu government hopes that this channel will become an alternative, shorter sea lane to going around Sri Lanka for ships bound either for Chennai or to South East Asia and beyond.

The state government believes that with Tuticorin, about fifteen smaller ports will also benefit from international shipping in the GoMPBPS area. Off and on, security dimensions have been given to SSCP, but never very convincingly. One argument is that in an Indian Ocean war, a major rival power could prevent the Indian Western and Eastern fleet from joining up for common action, and that the SSCP could prevent this. To this writer, an Indian Navy spokesman did not deny such a scenario. But he added, “Look, the Navy has nothing to do with the project. We were not consulted at any stage. It is entirely a Shipping Ministry project.”

On one hand, this would not matter. It is no secret that the Minister of Shipping, Road, Transport and Highways, T.R.Baalu, of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), is pushing the project at the behest of the Tamil Nadu chief minister, M.Karunanidhi. Perhaps with the exception of the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK) chief, J.Jayalalithaa, no Tamil Nadu political leader or party is opposed to SSCP. All of them believe that it will miraculously turn Tuticorin into a trade hub in the region much like Singapore. Except that our researches show this won’t happen. But rather, that the project would make the peninsular region more vulnerable to tsunami and provoke unprecedented environmental degradation.

Not only is SSCP economically unviable, the well known international tsunami expert, Professor Tadepalli “Tad” S.Murthy, has warned that it would draw in any tsunami originating in the Sumatra/ Andaman Sea area to hit the west coast and most devastatingly South Kerala. More immediately, the project will kill South East Asia and South Asia’s first marine biosphere in the almost still, calm waters of the Gulf of Mannar. This biosphere is home to more than three thousand six hundred rare plant and animal species.

Four other factors should weigh in against the project. One is the confirmed heritage value of the Ramar Bridge, dated by a NASA digital image to be 17.5 lakh years old, which matches the ancient age of human settlement in Sri Lanka. Indeed, Sri Lanka sought a bridge on the stone reef to India. But the proposal came to nothing.

Second, GoMPBPS is a major sedimentation sink for the east coast. While the causes for the sedimentation are Indian/ Sri Lankan rivers and long shore currents, what makes the area a sink is perhaps the Ramar Bridge. It acts as a natural breakwater and forces ocean currents the longer way around Sri Lanka. By that token, Ramar Bridge has also made the marine biosphere possible. And now, tsunami experts by and large agree that the Bridge considerably diminished the intensity of the 26 December 2004 tsunami. While Nagappattinam north of GoMPBPS and Kanyakumari to the south were brutally impacted by the tsunami, places within the region themselves escaped more lightly.

Third, because GoMPBPS is a sedimentation sink, there is frenetic land building happening to its immediate north. Experts like G.Victor Rajamanickam, Professor of Earth Sciences at Thanjavur’s Tamil University and India's eminent coastal geo-morphologist and mineralogist, say that this land building activity will likely connect Vedaranyam to Sri Lanka’s Jaffna peninsula in another four hundred years. His studies reveal that the Palk Strait has grown shallower by an astonishing six metres between 1960 and 1986, which would suggest that this Strait is being silted in at the rate of twenty four centimetres a year. The Sethusamudram Shipping Channel Project goes against this natural land building activity, and would ravage a rare natural breakwater, and condemn the unique environment of the region.

The Sethusamudram canal will never make profits

Four, the project will kill the fishing industry and destroy the livelihood of about 3.5 lakh fishermen in six coastal districts of Tamil Nadu. Already, dredging activity has scared the fish to other areas, reducing catches. These waters have anyhow become dangerous for Indian fishermen. Inadvertently crossing into Sri Lankan waters, they face firing from the Sri Lankan Navy, which accuses them of smuggling arms for the Tamil Tigers. On the other hand, the Tamil Nadu police chief has newly disclosed that the LTTE has had a hand in the killing of Indian fishermen and even capturing them. With the upcoming project, the fishermen face a bleak future. While the shipping minister, Baalu, makes an unacceptable comparison between the project and alleged increases in catches with the development of the Tuticorin Port, an NGO representing the fishermen, Coastal Action Network (CAN), has filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court which is due for hearing in July. The fate of the Sethusamudram Project rests on the judgment.

The Sethusamudram Project was conceived by a British commander of the Indian Marine, A.D.Taylor, in 1860. He could well have drawn inspiration for it from the Suez Canal which was then being constructed. Nearly one and a half centuries later, India has commenced on his abandoned dream project, but any similarity it bears to the vastly profitable Suez Canal or Panama Canal projects is illusory. SSCP’s major backers, including the Tamil Nadu government and the Tuticorin Port Trust, make untenable comparisons with both Suez and Panama. While the sixty four kilometre long Panama Canal saves ships a 22,500 kilometre journey around South America, the Suez contributes an eighty six percent reduction on a trip that would otherwise have to be taken about the African continent. On the other hand, Sethusamudram cuts off sailing time of less than a day and a distance of about five hundred nautical miles, which is a negligible saving compared to the costs of using the channel, according to the calculations of a former deputy chairman of the Tuticorin Port Trust, K.S.Ramakrishnan.

Any ship using SSCP will have to pay pilotage charges. There are various ways to calculate pilotage charges. Ramakrishna’s method is simple. In his short paper of July 2005, he uses the lowest amortized pilotage charges of Chennai Port. He arrives at a figure of Rs 1.11 lakh per kilometre which a ship has to pay for pilotage. The comparable cost for Tuticorin Port, which is still recovering its capital cost on the approach channel, is more than two and a half times higher. For a channel length of Sethusamudram that would require pilotage, which Ramakrishnan fixes at fifty six kilometre, even at the lowest, amortized Chennai Port cost, a ship would end up spending eight times more than it would to go around Sri Lanka. Ramakrishna, therefore, concludes that ships won’t use the channel.

When Ramakrishnan made his calculation, SSCP had not revealed its pilotage charges. Later, almost as if to rebut Ramakrishnan, it made public its tariff plan, but used another formula. These two, that is Ramakrishnan’s conclusion and SSCP’s projections, cannot be reconciled. But in any case, Captain Balakrishnan, a retired Indian Navy frigate commander and merchant seaman, says that the bulk of international shipping, comprising vessels larger than sixty thousand tonnes, cannot use the SSCP because the draught of ten metres is inadequate.

Captain Balakrishnan says, “For international shipping, time is of the essence. Ships cannot afford to wait for pilots and berths, and it is unlikely that in a channel sixty kilometres long, pilotage will be a streamlined and time saving affair. At any rate, pilots are always in shortage. The major container vessels avoid Indian ports by and large, preferring Colombo in between Singapore and Dubai. Container feeder vessels from Colombo may use Tuticorin, but this traffic, if it at all generates, will be negligible in relation to any substantial revenues for the port. The port will make no money. In addition, this area is cyclonic. Major shippers do not like cyclonic coasts.”

Captain Balakrishnan says that GoMPBPS and further north are virtually unnavigable during the months of October to January when cyclones rage in the area. He remembers of his navy days when, on one occasion in April 1986, for thirty hours he could not see the aircraft carrier Vikrant during a cyclone. He was providing frigate escort to it. Everything on his deck was washed away. His radar would not swivel in strong winds. He also recalls in the early Nineties when an oil drilling ship broke six heavy anchors in the Cauvery basin and washed ashore because of powerful cyclonic storms. Captain Balakrishnan says that ships prefer taking the longer route around Sri Lanka even to go to Tuticorin and, at any rate, they would burn up fuel forced at a slow speed of ten knots per hour to go through the channel. “They call it the cyclonic coast, and the Sethusamudram Project will make no difference,” he says. “And let’s forget about the project making any money.”

What galls fierce critics of the Sethusamudram Project, however, is that it will sink the investments, already projected upwards of Rs 2400 crore, without any chance of recovery. In this, the Tamil Nadu government mostly covers itself, but loss makers would include the major stakeholders in the Sethusamudram Project Limited SPV, including the major port trusts and the Centre. V.Sundaram, a former IAS officer and the first chairman of the Tuticorin Port Trust, cannot reconcile to the huge costs of dredging, which would ultimately amount to nothing. “As the first chairman of the Tuticorin Port Trust, I was a member of the Lakshminarayanan Committee which was set up to examine the feasibility of the Sethusamudram Project,” says Sundaram. “We estimated the cost of dredging in 1981 at Rs 180 crore and now it is shown as Rs 2400 crore (the project dredging estimate is Rs 1719.6 crore), which will further increase. Please investigate why the dredging costs have shot up and who is making money.”

SSCP could degrade India’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean

Even assuming the worst that SSCP will make no money, does it redeem itself at all? One argument is that SSCP will reinforce India’s sovereign maritime territorial rights in the GoMPBPS area, although neither the Centre nor the Tamil Nadu government have ever officially taken this line. Before the government clarified, questions were raised in Sri Lanka’s parliament about the project, but its then foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, said that the SSCP alignment was in Indian waters but that anyhow India was keen to remove misapprehensions.

But a bigger threat has been cited from the United States, although significantly, the Indian government has been silent on it. In August 1976 and June 1979, the Indian and Sri Lankan governments declared the waters of the Gulf of Mannar as “historic” and those of the Palk Bay as “internal”. Rejecting this, the US Navy conducted “operational assertions” as late as 2001. On 23 June 2005, the US Department of Defence reiterated that these claims were untenable through reissue of a manual for operational assertions. Less than a month later, despite pointed warnings by the international tsunami expert, Professor Tad Murthy, the Centre and the Tamil Nadu government expeditiously commenced on the Sethusamudram Project. While again, there is no official word, it is implied that the project would warn the US Navy off the GoMPBPS area.

The US does not accept India and Sri Lanka’s “historic claim” to the Gulf of Mannar waters. In the absence of a navigable channel, the US Navy cannot do much more than show its flag, and with its growing operational burdens in the Middle East, the Taiwan Strait, and with rising tensions with Russia, it is unlikely that it will do further assertions here. In any case, the Indian Navy has the capability to bottle up any such intention, and on current account, the US claims only a friendly intent with India. North, in the Palk Bay and Palk Strait, Indian and Sri Lankan straight baseline territorial claims exceed the twelve nautical mile limit set by the UN Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The United States has not ratified UNCLOS but insists on its right to free passage in the GoMPBPS area under UNCLOS. But SSCP is not the answer to keep the US away.

For one, SSCP is in Indian territorial waters. If the US insists, it can still force its Navy into the strip of water lying between the UNCLOS-mandated Indian and Sri Lankan claims. But with India laying historical claims over and above those granted by UNCLOS, the US would have to confront the Indian Navy, which it would not want. But in any case, this bears no connection to the SSCP. So how SSCP helps in reinforcing our territorial claims in the GoMPBPS area is an open question.

Commodore Rajeev Sawhney of the New Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation sees no connection between SSCP and any perceived threat from the United States. “In any case, SSCP lies in our territorial waters,” says Commodore Sawhney. “It would not help the government to counter US operational assertions in the area.” Adds Rear Admiral (Retired) O.P.Sharma, an expert on maritime law, “Sri Lanka is comfortable with the boundary agreement with India, so I see no reason for an US objection. The US has not ratified UNCLOS anyhow. India should not bother.” The key thing is that the Indian Navy has not been broached on this issue specific to SSCP. So, if the Indian government has a sense that somehow SSCP will assist it against the US claim, it is putting good money after a bad project.

SSCP’s second alleged advantage is that it would enable the Indian Eastern and Western fleet to quickly join in action in a contingency. The underlying apprehension, although never expressed by the Indian Navy, is that a rival power could establish in the rough area of the Gulf of Mannar and divide and take on the two fleet. The logic of this is hard to deny, and it follows on the British capture of Gibraltar in The War of the Spanish Succession in the early eighteenth century which denied the French the advantage of having fleet in the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean Sea. The Indian Navy spokesman told this writer that there wasn’t much strategic basis to this, although there was no deny that a channel would cut sailing distance and time.

Captain Balakrishnan more forthrightly rejects any strategic setback to the Navy not having the Sethusamudram Project. “Since at least the Seventies,” says Captain Balakrishnan, “India has worked on a two-fleet principle. Once a year or during VIP visits, the fleet join. Otherwise, they work perfectly independently, and no power can prevent them from coming together. Anyhow, Sethusamudram is not the answer. Naval ships never move alone, and they need wide seas to operate. In the channel, ships have to move in single file. The escort profile can never be maintained. V.Prabhakaran (of the Tamil Tigers) will salivate at the sight of the unescorted Indian Navy. There are the Sea Tigers to contend with in the area. And remember that not only has the LTTE air power, it has also shown skills in night flying. For the Navy, the channel only represents a source of trouble.” Since the channel draught is no more than ten metres, it rules out the aircraft carrier Viraat in full load, and the under-refurbishment Admiral Gorshkov cannot pass Sethusamudram at all. For Indian naval power projection in the Indian Ocean, a naval base in Rameshwaram would be an asset. But the SSCP could be a liability.

On the other hand, the Sethusamudram Project’s positive disadvantages are several. It could, for a start, draw India into the LTTE-Sri Lanka civil war. India has said no to joint patrolling with the Sri Lankan Navy in the area as this would bias it against the LTTE, whereas India wants to stay neutral. Even without any channel traffic, Indian fishermen are being fired upon both by the Sri Lankan Navy and the LTTE, each claiming that the fishermen are spying or working for the other party. Imagine when the channel opens, and in addition to securing such international shipping as passes through it, the fishermen also have to be protected by the Navy. Also, in the triangle pointing to the Gulf of Mannar and in the scalene triangle north of Palk Bay, currently no international ships go. But with the channel and ships coming, smuggling to the LTTE gains impetus. The Indian Navy would not care for the additional responsibility of boarding ships to search for LTTE weapons. And in case LTTE air power is deployed against ships using the channel, it would destroy India’s image and circumscribe its ambitions in the Indian Ocean.

SSCP hurts Indian fishermen worst

nature is working against the Sethusamudram project. In a lucid piece in the Economic and Political Weekly, Dr R.Ramesh of a Coimbatore organization called Doctors for Safer Environment highlights one critical aspect of the GoMPBPS area, which is that it is one of India¡¦s five major sedimentation sinks. While Indian and Sri Lankan rivers and long shore currents are the source of most of this sedimentation, the region becomes a sink perhaps on account of the Ramar Bridge which acts as a natural breaker for the ocean currents. Any SSCP study done on sedimentation is before the 26 December 2004 tsunami, and Dr Ramesh says that even these studies, one of them conducted by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) of Nagpur, address a small amount of the sedimentation. For example, the annual sediment load for the sink is 58.8000 x 106mƒV. This causes the area to become shallower by a centimetre every year. NEERI in its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study for SSCP is able to account for only a fraction of this, for 0.2657 x 106m3, which is sediments contributed by long shore currents and tides in the Ramar Bridge or Adam¡¦s Bridge area. Subtracting for other studies which account for sedimentation, a colossal 99.4 per cent of the sediment load is unaccounted for in the waters where the Sethusamudram Channel is being dredged. Consequently, dredging and sedimentation are taking place side by side, and it is quite possible that nature will win out. Indeed, the sediment load in the GoMPBPS area would be much larger. The data published here is all pre-2004 tsunami.

From the SSCP angle, there is worse news in the Vedaranyam-Jaffna peninsular stretch of Palk Bay. According to a study by S.M.Ramaswamy et al in 1998, the rate of sediment building activity here is twenty-nine metres a year. They say that at this rate, Vedaranyam would be connected to Jaffna peninsula in another four hundred years. G.Victor Rajamanickem, a noted coastal geo-morphologist and mineralogist, says that between 1960 and 1986, the Palk Bay grew shallower by six metres. The SSCP is being dug coincidentally in areas where the sea bed is rising twenty-five to seventy-five times more than the average. Project authorities have so far shown no concern for these facts.

Three, Sethusamudram will destroy the livelihood of at least 3.5 lakh fishermen in the coastal districts of Tamil Nadu. As such, catches have been dwindling, forcing fishermen to scout in areas falling in Sri Lankan territory, especially near the island of Katchatheevu. Since the past two months, fishermen have been killed or abducted either by the Sri Lankan Navy or the LTTE. Each side accuses the fishermen of spying for the other side. To prevent more killings, the Indian Navy has deployed in the area but refused joint patrolling with the Sri Lankan Navy. In this background of desperate fishermen risking their lives for catches in far out areas comes the Sethusamudram Project, whose preliminary capital dredging with high noise levels has already migrated some fish species to other waters.

This was one of several findings of a Coastal Action Network-mandated team that visited Rameshwaram, Pamban, Mandapam and other areas at the urging of fishing communities there. The other findings of the team were that dredging has ceased because the spud of the cutter-sucker dredger Aquarius broke while attempting to cut the Ramar Bridge, and that dredging dumps are coming up in undesignated locations because of local protests. From all accounts, catches have diminished, giving a lie to the assurances of the Union Shipping Minister and the DMK¡¦s leading light, T.R.Baalu. As we explained earlier in the piece, Baalu has been making disingenuous comparisons between the development of Tuticorin Port and the Sethusamudram Project. While the development of a port does destabilize the environment, it is nothing to the degradation that will be caused by SSCP. The Movement Against Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project (TMASSCP), working on a mandate from CAN, has detailed the misinformations of Baalu in regard to the risk to marine life and especially the marine biosphere in the Gulf of Mannar.

TMASSCP has also alleged that fishermen were not compensated for nets worth lakhs of rupees destroyed by Sethusamudram dredgers, despite complaints to local authorities. A Deccan Herald report of September 2004 says that during a series of meetings called by the Tuticorin Port Trust to hear public objections to the Sethusamudram Project, representatives of political parties shouted down the fishermen and environmentalists who feared risk to the Gulf of Mannar marine reserve.

Four, the project will without a doubt destroy South Asia and South East Asia¡¦s first marine biosphere in the Gulf of Mannar. It is safe to conclude that the Ramar Bridge, acting as a breakwater, induces a certain stillness and calm in the Gulf of Mannar. Over the centuries, this calm has flourished over three thousand six hundred species of plants and animals. It has five species of endangered marine turtles, innumerable fish, molluscs and crustaceans. As opposed to Palk Bay, Gulf of Mannar is deep, being over three hundred metres deep in most places. Because of the unique circulation of ocean currents, the nutrients to be found here are exceptional. In case the Ramar Bridge is breached, the shallow silted waters of the Palk Bay will flow into the Gulf of Mannar, destroying its fragile ecosystem. On the other hand, breaching the Bridge would also impact on the meadows of seagrass in the Palk Bay which are home to a large number of fish species and the rare dugong or sea cow.

The prestigious Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) is particularly exercised about the inevitable damage to the Gulf of Mannar marine biosphere from the Sethusamudram project. BNHS says that NEERI¡¦s EIA about the biosphere is insufficient and that a detailed, all seasons study is necessary. The Tamil Nadu Environment Council (TNEC), which is accredited to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), has also accused NEERI of paying inadequate attention to the impact of dredged depositions on marine microorganisms, especially in the Palk Bay. NEERI said that loss of microorganisms would not be significant since sediments would be deposited in a small area. TNEC's state convener, L.Antony Samy, has retorted that the marine environment cannot be compartmentalised. Meanwhile, the Coastal Action Network, in its Supreme Court PIL, has demanded the GIS data on the dredging done so far. CAN alleges that no successful dredging has taken place in the past fifteen months.

There’s evidence to back the Ram Setu

Five, there is the heritage issue concerning the Ramar Bridge, or the Ram Setu, as the Sangha Parivar calls it, that can no longer be ignored. In October 2002, the Press Trust of India (PTI), the national wire service, ran a story from Washington that a NASA shuttle had imaged a “mysterious ancient bridge between India and Sri Lanka, as mentioned in the Ramayana”. “The bridge’s unique curvature and composition by age reveals that it is man-made,” says the PTI report. “Legend as well as archaeological 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. This information is crucial … for an insight into the mysterious legend called Ramayana, which was supposed to have taken place in the Tredha Yuga (more than 1,700,000 years ago).”

In Goswami Tulsidas’s Ramacharitamanas, whole stanzas in the chapter “Lanka Kand” are dedicated to the Ram Setu built on the orders of Lord Rama to cross to Sri Lanka to bring back Sita. Tulsidas’s Ramacharitamanas speaks of a floating bridge:

Bandha Setu Neel Nal Nagar
Ram Kripa Jasu Bhayu Ujagar

Trussed a bridge did Neel and Nal on the waters,
With Ram’s grace did their fame spread.

Boodahin Anahi Borahi Jai
Bhay Upal Bohit Sam Tai

The drowning stones,
Sailed like ships.

Shri Raghubir Pratap Te Sindhu Tare Pashan

With Ram’s powers swam the boulders on the sea...

(Translated excerpts by the author from Avadhi.)

The existence of a man-made bridge and of its floating nature is forcefully emphasized by a former director of the Geological Survey of India and a member of the National Institute of Ocean Technology, S.Badrinarayanan. Badrinarayanan told The Times of India Group paper, Mumbai Mirror (24 April 2007), that the Ram Setu or Adam’s Bridge was not a natural formation. “Coral reefs,” he said, “are formed only on hard surfaces. But during (our) 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 metres below the reefs. Hard rocks were found several metres 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.”

On 3 and 4 May 2007, Parliament was held up by strong interventions of BJP MPs against the Sethusamudram Project because of the destruction it would cause to the Ramar Bridge. On 9 April 2007, the Society of Hindu Personal Law Board moved the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court to prevent digging of “any part of the Ram Setu”. The society said that NASA had published digital images and had radiocarbon dated the bridge as belonging to the Ramayana era. Baalu, the Shipping Minister, while denying any scientific evidence of an ancient man-made structure, insisted that the issue could not be discussed as it was subjudice. The Lok Sabha speaker, Somnath Chatterjee, overruled him and permitted discussions.

Significantly, while the Parliament debate was powered by the BJP, it was initiated by the question of two RJD MPs belonging to the ruling UPA coalition, Ram Deo Bhandary and Mangani Lal Mandal. Subsequently, a Rajya Sabha BJP MP, Shreegopal Vyas, inserted a national security dimension saying that the SSCP had to be realigned to protect the Ram Setu since besides its heritage value it embedded thorium deposits in its vicinity. On that, according to newspaper reports, the NDA and key Communist allies of the UPA government came together to charge the Shipping Ministry with colluding with a US company to deplete India’s thorium reserves in the area. “I fear that dredging and breaching Ram Setu would wash away the thorium deposits,” Vyas, the BJP MP, told this writer. “I would neither put it past the United States to carry away the dredged materials for thorium.” Dr Suresh L.Kati, former managing director of the Nuclear Power Corporation, said that “We need to establish recovery of thorium reserves. But while we know there are reserves in the sea, they may not necessarily be in that area but around. At any rate, we cannot stop ships plying a certain distance outside our territorial waters.”

The issue of the presence or absence of thorium reserves, in particular, the ore it is extracted from, monazite, returns us to the 26 December 2004 tsunami and the central role of the Ramar Bridge in minimizing its impact. Professor Rajamanickam’s pre-tsunami studies established some known indicators. In the Kanyakumari region, heavy mineral assemblages were represented by monazite, zircon, rutile, garnet, tourmaline, hypersthene, hornblende, apatite, and other flaky minerals like chlorite, as well as trace amounts of glaucophane. But in the Mandapam region, astride the proposed Sethusamudram Project, flaky minerals like chlorite, biotite and muscovite were dominant, “but minerals like ilmenite, magnetite and monazite are completely absent”. In short, according to Rajamanickam, there were little to no known thorium reserves in the contentious GoMPBPS area. But this was the pre-tsunami situation.

The proposed Sethusamudram shipping canal will maximize tsunami

Following the tsunami, Rajamanickam’s team discovered amazing increases in placer minerals in an area touching Nagappattinam, Nagore, Pumpuhar, Colachal and Chennai. Incredibly, the ilmenite content of heavy minerals arose from fourteen to seventy per cent, besides the spectacular rises in other precious minerals. Rajamanickam told an interviewer, “One may take this as a blessing in disguise. Now titanium (derived from ilmenite) is going to give a higher revenue to the government as its cost is increasing everyday – like oil.” However, Rajamanickam made no study of the post-tsunami changes in the GoMPBPS area, but admits the transformation of the sediments could be revolutionary. “The tsunami had completely disturbed the shelf sediment right from River Krishna down to Kanyakumari. It had disturbed the seabed up to two hundred metres…the shelf sediments now have a completely new texture after the tsunami. If one studies the present sediments, one would be surprised to find the seabed to be a different one now.”

This is neither to suggest the presence or absence of strategic minerals like monazite. But without the benefit of a new sediment survey, there certainly is a risk pointed up in Parliament. And it returns emphasis to the central role played by the Ramar Bridge as a natural breakwater. While NASA’s digital imaging cannot be ignored, the government also cannot turn a blind eye to the geological findings of S.Badrinarayanan, a former director of the Geological Survey of India. The CPI-M leader in the Rajya Sabha, Sitaram Yechury, concedes that the potential heritage value of the Ramar Bridge must have to be examined by the government. In any case, the RSS and the VHP have threatened a national movement to save the Ramar Bridge. “We have advised the government to change the alignment of the Sethusamudram Project,” said Dr Bharat Bhushan Arya of the Vishwa Samvad Kendra, a Sangha Parivar organisation. “Along with sensitive heritage issues, there are serious environmental and security concerns about the project. The government is only bothered about revenue. If the project does not stop, the VHP will commence its agitation.”

Sixth and finally, the Sethusamudram Project will become an undoubted tsunami maximizer. Since the tsunami of December 2004, several computer models have established its path and destructive mode since originating from a nine Richter earthquake hypo-centred off the west coast of north Sumatra in Indonesia. Traveling at speeds exceeding eight hundred kilometres per hour, the tsunami left its damaging impact within less than three and a half hours. Significantly, on the Indian east coast, the area between Nagappattinam and Chennai bore the brunt of the tsunami’s fury, the area of Rajamanickam’s study mentioned above. On the other hand, the GoMPBPS region, otherwise subject to fierce cyclonic storms, faced less ravaging tsunami energies.


While no tsunami expert or geologist has categorically sourced it to the natural breakwater effect of the Ramar Bridge, all the evidence points to it. What is to be understood is that the bridge has changed the bathometry of the region. South of the bridge, sea depth ranges from two to three hundred metres, supporting South Asia’s greatest marine biosphere. Right north, though, the shallowness is just three metres and does not go beyond twelve for most parts of the area till the Palk Strait and beyond. Clearly, the bridge has produced this varied bathometry. One consequence of this bathometry is the sedimentation process, which is rapid in the Palk Bay and Palk Strait, with the prospect of Vedaranyam in the north joining Jaffna peninsula in four hundred years. This incredible shallowness very likely acted as a quasi land breaker against the tsunami, forcing it to return to the Bay of Bengal, and make its way to Maldives and further west around Sri Lanka.

Imagine if the great natural breakwater of the Ramar Bridge was absent. Professor Tad Murthy, the Canadian tsunami expert, clearly explains the consequence. He puts it in the context of a channel breaching the Ramar Bridge. Said Murthy to an interviewer, “It is very easy to show that the SSCP channel with a depth of twelve metres will indeed provide another route for the tsunami and the energy will be directed towards South Kerala.” Murthy has studied tsunamis most of his life and was with the Canadian Oceanographic Service for twenty seven years. He was also director of Australia’s National Tidal Facility for three years. He teaches at the University of Ottawa in Canada.

In January 2005, right after the tsunami, he visited India in a delegation with the Canadian prime minister. In May, in a fax dated February 2005, the Tuticorin Port Trust sought his views on the project in the backdrop of the tsunami. Murthy says that he was puzzled by the fax dated February, which he received in May, and where he was asked to reply within twenty four hours. Anyhow, Murthy suggested a reorientation of the eastern entrance of the channel towards northwest which, in his words, “will fix the tsunami problem”. The Tuticorin Port Trust dismissed his idea as “ridiculous”. Dr Ramesh of the Doctors for Safer Environment says that “had the SSCP been operational at the time of this tsunami, the fast changing currents and the turbulence would have damaged the canal considerably and would have caused a dispersal of the dredged dumps placed at sea to places unknown.”

No expert with any knowledge of the area disputes that the Sethusamudram Project would maximize the effects of any future tsunami and put at risk the GoMPBPS area as never before and leave South Kerala exposed. Indeed, amidst growing fears of global warming and climate change, which in raising oceans and seas are submerging islands, care should be taken to preserve land areas. If, because of the SSCP, ocean currents roar in their fury through the GoMPBPS area, Sri Lanka would erode in the northwest and so would matching areas on the Indian east coast. While the Indian government does not take global warming seriously, its threat to national security has been finally conceded by the United States. A Center for Naval Analyses, US, report of retired American flag officers and four- and three-star generals in April this year notes that some military bases would be compromised by climate change, including Diego Garcia in the Southern Indian Ocean. “Although the consequences to military readiness are not insurmountable,” says the study, “the loss of some forward bases would require longer range lift and strike capabilities and would increase the military’s energy needs.” This report came a day ahead of the UN Security Council’s first-ever briefing on climate change. There was unprecedented consensus that climate change poses a threat to international security.

Clearly, therefore, on all grounds, environmental, economic, heritage-wise, and related to security, there is absolutely no justification for the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project. In their hubris, DMK leaders are pushing the project and political compulsions prevent the Centre from opposing them. It is time that the Indian Navy shed its neutrality. With a canal, the Navy’s proposed Rameshwaram base would be risked. Its training command at Kochi would be certainly compromised in a tsunami. India cannot have a repeat of its assets in the Andamans being gravely affected by the tsunami. As a rising power and with growing ambitions in the Indian Ocean, India has to safeguard its interests.

The Sethusamudram Project, on the other hand, compromises them.

hits since Chaitra 7, 2064 Vikram (March 26, 2007)