Thursday, February 28, 2013

Setu Channel – a view from Srilanka





Palk Bay and Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project

Our own Panama Canal Palk Bay project has huge positive externalities


Jayantha Gnanakone


The article with all due respect to India's politician's exposes the ignorance in the technical aspects of the SSCP, as the astute politicians of Tamil Nadu and Congress Party display. This Canal project and a billion dollars in investment is based on a pack of lies spread by the highest authorities in India. This is rather disgraceful and a shame. There is no time saving in transiting the canal when one considers the slow speed (7-8 knots) the ships would be required to navigate in the canal, delays for embarking and disembarking of Pilots, other administrative procedures and miscalculated distance. The GOI is very deceptive about actual distances saved. When one does the calculation of distance and time for a trip from Bombay to Madras or Calcutta (which is the coastal shipping) then the time saved is very minimal and might be less than 3 to 4 hours compared to the claim of 24 - 36 hours. The present days ships travel at 14-15 knots and not 8 knots in the high seas. Future ships will travel at 20-25 knots and the modern day container ships will travel much faster. The Navy ships achieve speeds between 30-40 knots.

Any time saved is negated by the costs of transit, which will be approximately $10,000 dollars per ship and more. There would be an Insurance Premium when transiting the canal, which is additional, and the canal will be subject to weather and labor delays occasionally.

Further more most of the ships cannot use the canal, which has a draft restriction of 11-12 Metres, which would only permit ships less than 30,000 Tons. All the oil tankers, bulk carriers, and container vessels are precluded from using the canal due to the draft restriction, even if they wished to. Even the coal ships to Tuticorin from the East Coast of India need to navigate around Sri Lanka, which again might not be still any time lost or at best be around 3 hours. Suez and Panama Canal saved 22-29 days and not a few hours. They also accommodated 90 per cent of the ships commercially used. Both canals were surrounded by land and the environmental impact was negligible or non-existent and brought some positive economic activity in Panama, and Egypt.

The losses to the fishing industry would be in hundreds of millions of dollars annually both to Sri Lanka and India. The daily production would be substantially reduced which would also slightly affect the GDP but effectively in hundreds of millions of dollars. The annual catch of fish in Sri Lanka in 2003 was 254,000 tons and in South India it could be even ten times higher. The loss of livelihood among the very poor and weak community like the fisherman of India and Srilanka would be over 500,000-750,000. There are others engaged indirectly in the industry, affected by the drastically reduced catch, and loss in livelihood. The breeding grounds and hatching areas would definitely be severely impacted. Additionally the fauna and flora also would be destroyed together with the bio diversity of the Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar, which is priceless.

Pollution would occur on a daily basis and god forbids if there is an accident or deliberate act of war or terrorism. If an oil tanker is grounded the oil pollution not only would it block the canal for days but will impact the marine life and beaches and the price tag can be over hundreds of millions of dollars. Destruction and damage to the coral reefs again will have impact on several fronts. Local tourism would be negatively impacted if the beaches become polluted slowly but surely.

Removing 86 Million Cubic meters of deep ocean sand including coral reefs will have countless marine life destroyed and their habitats permanently ruined and disturbed. In certain areas there could be serious drilling of hard surface, which NEERI report does not address. Rare marine life might disappear forever from these waters. No proper area has been demarcated for dumping this amount of dredged material.

NEERI report does not address the sedimentation issues, silting possibilities, and under water ocean currents when the canal is constructed. There would be increased turbidity, which was never studied by NEERI. The effect of another TSUNAMI might create change in the water flow, which could sub! merge certain parts of South India and Northern Sri Lanka and during the cyclone season, submerge small islands either temporarily or permanently. Danuskodi is a good example. The possibility that the canal may create a deepwater route for another devastating tsunami is real. This would cause destruction never seen before not only in and around the Palk Bay, but the Gulf of Mannar and beyond. Some say that the impact might go all the way to Kerala. During cyclones and tidal waves "high energy waves" would likely to develop within the canal, causing unforeseen damage to the canal area as well as the regional coast. The amount of dredging estimated has been really understated, considering the heavy inflow of sediments after the Tsunami.

Thus additional dredging in the total stretch of 165 km would become the order of the day. Increased, nonstop, unplanned, unscheduled dredging would destroy a sea having one of the highest levels of primary marine life very unique! in the world. There would be heavy cost overruns, which has not been disclosed at this time.

The salinity of the Jaffna peninsula would be affected and the farmers soon will become bankrupt. There are no studies done at all by NEERI on how all these would be affected and impacted especially in Sri Lanka. GOI needs to safeguard the rights of all the people who might be possibly affected and provide sufficient guarantees and insurance with financial protection immediately and in the future. Otherwise, they could also be subject to class action suits at a later stage and liable for heavy compensation. India should be seriously concerned about the alien tort act actions, brought by Burmese environmentalist against the Burmese government and other multinationals in the USA. This rarely used law forced multinationals and the Burmese government to agree to pay millions of dollars in compensation to the villagers due to the environmental damages caused by the oil pipelines. Shipping Corporation of India being a major shareholder in this project is not only subject to International laws but the more liberal "admiralty laws" where assets of ship owners are easily frozen, ships arrested, in far away foreign ports, by even frivolous claimants. Tuticorin Port Trust the nodal agency for this project and the dredging corporation of India, and all other Port trust corporations are subject to the admiralty laws, and alien tort laws in addition to laws of the Indian constitution. A lot of water has flown under the bridge since multi nationals like Union Carbide literally got away with murder in Bhopal. That will never happen to the people of SOSA and both GOI and GOSL and all the shareholders (Shipping Companies and 6 Port corporations) would be held accountable now or in the future for all the damages to environment and the people. The Tamil foreign minister of Sri Lanka is one of the most experienced and eminent jurist in the world. He is fully awa! re of the ramifications and consequences of violating the Law of the Sea Conventions of the United Nations, and other International Law.

The Law of the Sea regulations of the United Nations mandates that neighboring states need to be consulted and sufficient safeguards and guarantees are provided against losses to commercial and civilian livelihoods. The UN mandated convention rules of 1982 was ratified and signed by both Sri Lanka and India.

There is a school of thought that India is hurriedly pushing this project through the cabinet without proper investigations and consultations with Sri Lanka as a "vote getting exercise" for the Tamil Nadu state elections which is due early next year. If this is the way democracy is practiced by India it is nothing but a shameful act. If India forces Sri Lanka to compromise it's legal position due to the GOSL's political and economic weakness, both governments would be equally culpable.

Further more  GOI is using this canal project to enhance the military and provide Nuclear Submarine base in the canal, with the nuclear fuel supplied by the Koodankulam Nuclear Project. This nuclear facility would produce 40 percent of India's nuclear fuel, and it is no secret that India is developing nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Where would India store such nuclear weapons once it is manufactured near the canal, using the nuclear fuel supplied by nuclear project in nearby Koodankulam. The dangers of war will be greatly impacted for the region if the (SOSA) South of South Asia region is nuclearized and militarized. Would the GOI guarantee the people of SOSA and Sri Lanka that such fears are without foundation and baseless? A statement by DMK or Congress politicians is insufficient and worthless.

The only commercial port in Sri Lanka could also be severely impacted when it is openly declared by the GOI, and SSCP Corporation that after the canal is completed they intend to stop In! dian container cargo being transshipped through Colombo. This would have a big impact on a small country. Mighty powerful nations should display more understanding and compassion to their fragile and weak neighbors already devastated by a 22-year civil war contributed partially by India, and the recent Tsunami. India should not use their economic powers to hurt their neighbors commercially.

There are rules that protect small nations like Sri Lanka in the Law of the Sea Convention regulations. India needs to respect such laws. Finally, if there is no time saved in avoiding the circumnavigation of Sri Lanka due to politicians themselves being mislead or ignorant of the facts, what is the earthly use in the GOI going ahead with the project risking so many sectors, and hurting so many? GOI might as well spend this billion dollars is upgrading the entire minor and major ports, railways and highways infrastructure which would be beneficial to all and will not hurt anyone. That is only 200 million dollars per year, for 5 years, of federal funds in at least 2 states of Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. There is also no gurantee that the SSCP would generate profits for 20 years and the GOI might be forced to keep pumping money in a "white elephant project". NEERI is not competent to conduct a financial report and commercial viability of the SSCP. Central government manipulating the voting pattern must be certainly against the constitution of India if not in "letter" and or "spirit". GOI can also assist the poor Sri Lankan fisherman and farmers as well as help them to protect their environment and marine life with some of these funds. It would be criminal to utilize federal funds of India to hurt the poor in Sri Lanka.

SSCP would probably be the only offshore project in the world in which the GOI would go forward with the execution of the project, despite the several warnings of the high risk factors and dangers associated with the project. What is immediately required is a thorough investigation by a group of independent international oceanographers with the assistance of local professionals from India and Sri Lanka, who would carry out their responsibilities and duties without fear or favor. Thereafter both India and Sri Lanka can decide how best to proceed with this canal project which has severe impact on several fronts for both nations. Since the project mooted 144 years ago has still not begun one more year to take into consideration proper safeguards would not hurt anyone including the voters of Tamil Nadu State elections next year. If GOI decides to bulldoze their way with this project there is no doubt that the Sethusamuderam canal is designed to become a monumental disaster.


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