(First published in The Pioneer dated April 3, 2012)
The UPA Government’s sustained prevarication on the contentious Sethusamudram project appears to have run out of steam, with the Supreme Court seeking a straight response from the Government on whether ‘Ram Setu’ should be declared a national monument. “Take a decision whether or not to”, the court tersely told the Congress-led regime on March 29. Faced with this ultimatum, the Government has to now make its position clear, which will in turn decide whether the held-up controversial Sethusamudram project to open a new shipping route will be finally scrapped or realigned.
The court’s directive came in response to a petition filed by Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy who has sought ‘national monument’ status for the stone bridge said to have been built to enable Ram to enter Lanka to rescue Sita and slay Ravan.
The Supreme Court had halted work at Ram Setu in August 2007 on an application filed by Mr Swamy who argued that the project was rooted in “illegalities.” He had then told the court that the Government had neither considered other options nor done proper studies before clearing the project.
Ram Setu (or Adam’s Bridge) is a chain of limestone shoals that links Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu to Mannar in Sri Lanka. Various estimates place the length between 30 km and 48 km and up to three kilometres wide. It was discovered by NASA space missions including the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission in February 2000. The mission beamed photographs that clearly showed a bridge-like link in the region.
Pressured by the DMK which has backed the project as it believes that will shore up Tamil Nadu’s port economy (as also the party’s coffers) — the regional party had even taunted Hindus by wondering whether Ram had been a civil engineer to construct the bridge — the UPA regime has been dragging its feet on a possible realignment of the Sethusamudram route that would save the Ram Setu. For long, experts have demanding that the ship channel project itself be scrapped as it has become a white elephant. Meanwhile, the initial project cost spiralled from Rs 2400 crore in May 2005 to more than Rs 4500 crore when it was last estimated some two years ago. And it does not promise to stop at that, if a quick decision is not taken either way.
All this while, despite stiff opposition from various quarters to the project, the UPA clung on to its pet scheme and even sought sanction from the Cabinet Committee on Infrastructure and the Public Investments Board for the revised estimate. It had also hoped for a green signal from the Supreme Court and also from the Expert Committee it had set up to study a possible realignment of the sea canal route.
But, regardless of the mythological angle to the issue, several people have repeatedly questioned the financial viability of the Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project. They have pointed out that only nominal time and money would be saved — and that too by some vessels on certain routes — in taking the proposed route that the project would create to connect Palk Bay with the Gulf of Mannar between Sri Lanka and India. They say these minor savings would not be an incentive for ships to take the Sethusamudram lane, adding that the conclusions on the scheme’s feasibility in the Draft Project Report prepared by L & T-Ramboll Consulting Engineers was not based on ground realities.
Mr Swamy has throughout maintained that the project should be terminated. “It is completely flawed and a financial deadweight. It must be done away with. It is not just a question of realignment, the Sethusamudram project itself makes no business sense”, he stated. Mr Swamy said ports such as Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu could be developed into a container hub to enhance maritime business in the State. “The proposed canal can handle vessels with a maximum 30,000 dead weight tonnage. Most ships are above that and would not be able to use the route”, he had remarked.
According to a report by infrastructure economist Jacob John and published some time ago in a leading magazine, while ships coming from Europe and Africa are expected to comprise 70 per cent of the projected users of the proposed Sethusamudram route, their savings would be very low when compared to “coastal” vessels whose origin and destination are both Indian ports. Yet, the “non-coastal” ships with minimal savings will need to pay the same tariff as those whose savings are considerably larger. This would deter the non coastal vessels from taking the proposed canal route. Since the canal tariff is likely to comprise as much as 60 per cent of the project’s earnings, failure of non coastal ships to take the canal route would be disastrous for the corporation.
Mr John also pointed out that the time-saving projected by taking the canal route was not very significant for the non coastal ships. In his report, Mr John commented, “The repeated claims of the project that it will save up to 30 hours of shipping time, sounds suspiciously like a shoe sale that offers a discount of up to 50 per cent. Like the discount sale, where the offer is probably for a few items in the store, the savings of up to 30 hours are valid for just a single journey: Between Tuticorin and Chennai.”
Moreover, while the total distance that a vessel has to travel may get cut down by the proposed channel, the ship’s speed slackens on the route since the waters are shallower. For instance, Mr John calculated that, while a trip from a port in Africa to Kolkata through the existing route would be reduced to 3112 nautical miles by the proposed route as against the existing 3217 nautical miles now, it would actually take 3.5 hours more for a vessel by the new and shorter route.
Like Mr Swamy, who had then suggested developing Tuticorin port as a major container hub to boost marine trade in Tamil Nadu, Mr John too offered an alternative. He proposed that the Government simply offer “subsidies to all ships that reach the Indian east coast after going around Sri Lanka.” The subsidies, he added, could be funded from earnings that the Government may receive by placing the total project cost amount in a fixed deposit or investing it in some other financially sound project.
Another report titled, ‘Socio-economic Impact of Sethusamudram Project’, by Kannan Srinivasan of The Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management, Kerala, too concluded that the project’s economic gains were hard to identify. “It is difficult to see any economic benefit from the project immediately. Based on the data available, the economic feasibility is not established by the reports”, it stated.
Forced by the hue and cry over the manner in which it was handling the project, the UPA had in June 2008 appointed a panel headed by noted environmentalist R K Pachauri to study a realignment that would skip the Ram Setu, or Adam’s Bridge, region. But then nothing happened thereafter, prompting the apex court back in end-2009 to question the delay.
The options before the UPA Government are now two: Either it scraps the project or realigns the route. Since the project is all but dead, it might as well opt for the former, in the process saving itself from further fruitless expenditure and at the same time leaving believers of Ram Setu happy.