Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project<br>Conceived in 19th century, completed in 21st century?
By Harish Rao
The Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project conceived more than a century ago is still in its embryonic stage.
The project was originally conceived in 1860 by the British Commander A.D. Taylor of the Indian Marines. Thereafter, almost once in every decade a committee or a prominent expert made a recommendation in favour of the construction of the canal. In 1955, for the first time since Independence, the Government of India constituted the Sethusamudram Project Committee under Sir Ramaswamy Mudaliyar to examine the feasibility and desirability of connecting the Gulf of Mannar with 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. The cost of the joint project was estimated at Rs 9.98 crore. The Sethusamudram Project Committee report was, however, put in cold storage. In 1963, the government sanctioned only the Tuticorin project.
The government's enthusiasm to set up committees did not wane. Successive committees revised the cost of the project upwards. In 1994, the Tamil Nadu government appointed the Pallavan Transport Consultancy Services Ltd in Chennai to appraise and revalidate a 1983 report. The new report, submitted in March 1996, further revised the project cost to Rs 760 crore for 31 feet draft.
Hope on the project was revived in January 1999 when Defence Minister George Fernandes announced that the government would complete the digging of the Sethu Samudram channel in three years. This was backed by the Prime Minister's assurance that his government was committed to the project. Indeed, the government took a concrete step towards the execution of the project when Union Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha, in his Budget 2000-01, allocated Rs 4.8 crore for a feasibility study of the Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project. Recently, following a directive from the Union Ministry of Shipping, the Tuticorin Port Trust invited tenders for undertaking just such a feasibility-cum-environment study for the project.
The "Sethusamudram Ship Canal" project proposes linking the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar on the east coast of India by creating a shipping canal through Rameswaram Island, which would provide a continuous navigable sea route around the Indian Peninsula. The total cost of the techno-economic viability and EIA study is expected to be around Rs 6 crore. The project involves digging a 44.9 nautical-mile long channel linking the Palk Strait with the Gulf of Mannar.
After the canal is constructed, the distance between Cape Comorin and Chennai would be reduced to 402 nautical miles from the present 755. Further, the canal would considerably reduce the distance between the east and the west coasts with travelling time coming down by 36 hours. It will also avoid circumnavigation of ships around Sri Lanka, thereby resulting in savings in fuel costs and standing charges associated with extra period of voyages. The canal would help make coastal shipping operations from the east coast to the west coast and vice-versa more competitive.
The greatest beneficiary of the project will be Tuticorin harbour, which has the potential to transform into a transhipment hub such as those in Singapore and Colombo. The project will also help in the development of the proposed 13 minor ports in Tamil Nadu.
On the flipside, the project is likely to face stiff opposition from fishermen and environmentalists, who have already raising their collective voice against it. The protests may not deter the government from going ahead with the project as the gains outweigh the losses.
· Ships from the east coast of India to the west coast have to circumnavigate Sri Lanka. This is because of a Sand Stone Reef called Adam's bridge, at Pamban, near Rameswaram, where the depth of the sea is hardly 11 feet.
· In order to reduce the steaming distances and take advantage of navigation along the coast and within India's territorial waters, British Commander A.D. Taylor of the Indian Marines conceived, in 1860, a proposal for cutting a ship canal called the Sethusamudram Ship Canal through Rameswaram island, connecting the Gulf of Mannar with Palk Strait.
· After Independence, the Indian government constituted the Sethusamudram Project Committee in 1955, with Sir Ramaswamy Mudaliyar as chairman. He pegged the initial capital outlay for the integrated Sethusamudram-cum-Tuticorin Port Scheme at Rs 998 lakh and contemplated a draft of 26 ft.
· In 1963, Tuticorin Harbour Project was sanctioned but the government decided to include Sethusamudram Project for advance action.
· In 1975, the Tuticorin Harbour Project was completed and the traffic exceeded the forecast made.
· In January 1981, Ministry of Shipping and Transport (Port Wing) constituted a committee that estimated the cost of the project at Rs 282 crore.
· In 1994, the Tamil Nadu government requested the Pallavan Transport Consultancy Services Ltd, Chennai, to appraise and revalidate a 1983 report as a result of which the latter submitted its report in March 1996. The cost estimates indicated in the report for: 1. 30' draft Rs 685 crore. 2. 31' draft Rs 760 crore. 3. 35' draft Rs 1,200 crore. They added that it would be worthwhile to implement the project initially for 31 feet draft and increase it to 35 feet wherever the approach channels are deepened in Tuticorin and Haldia.
· In 1999, Defence Minister George Fernandes announced that the government would complete the project in three years.