Sethusamudram: High costs, low returns, or Adam’s wrath?

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Of the major projects in India that have been cursed, the Sethusamudram shipping canal project, which would link Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar, takes the crown. Experts are divided on the pros and cons of the project. TUSEN explains the economic implications.

Sethusamudram Project: What is it?

The sea between India and Sri Lanka is called Sethusamudram. Because it is shallow, ships sailing between the east and west coasts of India are forced to circumnavigate Sri Lanka. The Sethusamudram Project aims to create a 44.9 nautical mile (83.2 km) deep water channel connecting Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar to create an uninterrupted navigable route around the Indian Peninsula. The project was originally conceived in 1860. After many studies by various committees of experts, it was finally approved in 2005 by the United Progressive Alliance government led by Manmohan Singh at a cost of 2,427 crore.

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What are its economic benefits?

Proponents of the project say the canal will save ships between 8 and 36 hours of travel time between India’s east and west coasts, as they will not have to navigate some 400 nautical miles around Sri Lanka. It will also boost short sea shipping and accelerate development of the ports of Vizhinjam, Vallarpadam and Tuticorin as transhipment hubs, reducing logistics costs for Indian industry. Political parties in Tamil Nadu also believe that the project would create as many as 50,000 jobs and boost the state’s economy, especially the southern districts which are relatively less industrialized.

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Graphic: TUSEN

Why then did the project stall?

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The project started in 2005 but was halted in 2007 after the Supreme Court halted dredging works near Adam’s Bridge of Ram Setu. Hindus believe that the army of Lord Ram built Ram Setu. Over the years, many alternative alignments have been drafted to avoid Ram Setu and many expert panels have given their recommendations, but the project remains in limbo.

What were the other objections?

Opponents say the project would cause massive damage to marine life and corals in the area marked for dredging. The Gulf of Mannar Marine Biosphere Reserve is not far from the project’s path. Some experts have also questioned the economic viability of the project given its high costs and low returns. Most importantly, they point out that only medium-sized ships will be able to pass through the canal when it is completed, and that large ships, which dominate the seas, will still have to circumnavigate Sri Lanka.

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Why is the project in the news now?

On January 12, the Assembly of Tamil Nadu passed a resolution calling on the center to implement the project without further delay. This came days before the Center told the Supreme Court that it was in the process of declaring Ram Setu an ancient monument of national importance. Such a step will disable the most efficient route for the project. The effectiveness of alternative routes is not clear (the project cost has already more than doubled) and if experts are to believe it is unlikely to be picked up and completed.

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