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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Lankans will be benefited by Sethu project, says Jaffna geographer

Most Sri Lankans, whether Sinhala or Tamil, flay India's plan to dig a shipping canal through the Palk Strait. But some leading Tamil academics support the project on the grounds that it will benefit Sri Lanka as well as India.

They point out that the project will specially help the economic development of the impoverished and war-devastated Sri Lankan North, which is predominantly Tamil.

The first to speak out in Sri Lanka, in defence of the controversial project, was Prof Pathmanathan of Peradeniya University. And now comes Prof P Balasundarampillai, leading geographer and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Jaffna.

In an interview to Hindustan Times in Colombo on Monday, Prof Balasundarampillai said that the ship canal would bring business not only to the many small ports on the Tamil Nadu coastline, but also to the currently languishing northern Sri Lankan ports of Mannar, Thalaimannar, Kankensanthurai (KKS), and Point Pedro.

He shot down the argument that Colombo port would suffer as a result of the canal. He said that the kind of shipping now coming to Colombo would not be using the canal, at least in the near future. Colombo receives ships of 65,000-dwt capacity (the Panamax class carriers or mother ships), but the canal will not be able to take ships larger than 20,000 dwt, unless it is deepened considerably more than envisaged so far.

Ships coming from the Suez Canal and heading for Australia and the Far East would not be using the Sethusamudram canal at all, but would either continue to touch Colombo or go to the new port of Humbantota. The only ships from the West that will be using the canal are the ones which have to call on ports on the eastern Indian coast, or in Bangladesh.

It will take a long time for the canal to be made deep enough to take the mother ships. Colombo port will thus continue to receive all such ships, and trans-shipment, which constitutes 70% of Colombo's business, will continue to be brisk here.

Colombo has reached limit of expansion

Colombo's problem is not lack of business, but overcrowding, and the solution for this lies in developing other ports in the island, such as Humbantota and Trincomalee, and not in opposing the Sethusamudram project, Prof Balasundarampillai says.

Humbantota and Trincomalee are ideal for receiving the kind of big ocean going vessels and containers now calling at Colombo. Trincomalee is one of the finest natural harbours in the world. Humbantota is on the main East-West shipping route. Trincomalee will get big business because Sri Lanka's trade with East Asia and the Far East is increasing. Tuticorin, and other Indian ports served by the canal, are not as well situated as these Sri Lankan ports.

In fact, the government fears that the crunch as regards Colombo will come in 2008 when over crowding will have become unbearable. The port has no room to expand, Prof Balasundarampillai points out. Government therefore thinks that it is very important to start work on the Humbantota harbour by 2006. A Chinese company has already been asked to do the project.

The Lanka Indian Oil Corporation (LIOC), in collaboration with the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC), is developing Trincomalee as a major bunkering port using the refurbished giant oil tanks at China Bay. There are 99 of them, but only 15 are currently in use. The scope for expansion is therefore enormous. The infrastructure in Trincomalee has to be developed. But given its economic and strategic importance, there will be no dearth of international parties wanting to participate in projects there.

No adverse impact on environment

Prof Balasundarampillai says that the environmental aspects of the project have been looked into in-depth through over 30 studies. He himself has seen in the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, and another institute in Taramani, amazing facilities for computer simulation of ocean conditions.

The Indian government is satisfied that the project is environmentally safe. Scientifically worked out safeguards, as per national and international norms, have been included to make it an environment-friendly project, the Lankan geographer notes.

Taking the environmental issues one by one, he says that there is no truth in the allegation that the coast of Jaffna will be eroded, and that hundreds of islets off the coast will be sunk, and marine life will be washed away by waters rushing into the Palk Strait and Palk Bay from the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, as a result of the digging of the canal.

According to Prof Balasundarampillai, the major currents in the seas off the West and East coasts of India, and South Sri Lanka, are too far away from the canal area to affect water flows in it. Because of this, the depth of the canal will continue to be shallow and the water flow, low, he says.

"At any rate, for ships to move, the currents and the water flow will have to be regulated and this will be done by the design of the canal," he points out.

According to him, much of the criticism of the project is due to ignorance of new and advanced canal building and dredging technology now available in the world. This is the not the first time in the world that a ship canal will be dug he points out. There are ship canals in Europe and in Japan too. A whole tunnel, linking England and France, has been dug, and the English Channel is none the worse for it.

Dredging of the sea is necessary for building and maintaining harbours and this is constantly done with no harm being done to the adjacent coastline. There is offshore oil rigging all over the world. And India has ample experience of it through digging in Bombay High.

"Sometimes the wells go up to 300 to 400 metres deep into the sea off the coast," the geographer points out.

The North Sea is full of oilrigs and there has been no adverse impact of these on the Scandinavian countries or Great Britain, he says.

As for the disposal of the dredged material/waste, there are tried and tested ways and means to dispose them off. The government of India has assured that the Gulf of Mannar biosphere will be unaffected by the canal.

There are indeed fears about pollution and oil slicks due to increased shipping in the narrow sea. But Prof Balasundarampillai says that effective pollution control measures exist, and that these have been factored into the project. Apart from economic and technical feasibilities, any project now will have to get clearance from pollution control agencies. India has very strong and vocal environment protection groups and government is not unaware of the trouble that these can create. There are international laws to be adhered to also.

Fisheries will not be affected

The geographer debunks objections based on the fear that fishing will be adversely affected by the increased shipping in the narrow sea. He points out that increased shipping has never affected fishing even in the busiest seas in the world like the English Channel and the North Sea. There has been no adverse impact on either the environment or fishing, by digging a tunnel linking the UK and France under the English Channel, Prof Balasundarampillai says.

The ships coming to the canal will be moving in single file, one up and the other down. They will not be dispersed. Thus, they will not be a hindrance to the movement of fishing boats in the area, he says.

Moreover, the influx of fresh water from the India Ocean and the Bay of Bengal due to the digging of the canal will actually bring in more fish and newer varieties of fish into the Palk Strait, Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar area.

"Fishing in Sri Lanka is adversely affected by bad fishing practices and other causes. In the Sri Lankan north, fishing is affected by massive poaching by Indian fishermen and years of disruption and government restrictions because of the war. The Sethusamudram project, as such, will not have an adverse impact on Sri Lankan fisheries," Prof. Balasundarampillai argues.

Why India is pursuing the project now?

Tracing the 145-year history of the Sethusamudram canal idea, the geographer says that there are three reasons why the project seems to be seeing the light of day now, at long last:

(1) The tremendous economic development that India is now undergoing has made the project affordable;

(2) The increasing awareness in India of its security requirements and its bid to be a regional power with a blue water navy;

(3) The shrill demand from Tamil Nadu that the long delayed project be started forthwith.

"India is now able to afford the project which is to cost Rupees (Indian) 2,427.4 crore or $400 million. It is going to fund it from its own resources," the Jaffna-based don points out.

India also wants to be a regional power with sway over the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. The canal will help its ships and submarines go from coast to coast without circumventing Sri Lanka and thus save 254 to 424 nautical miles in distance, and 21 to 36 hours of sailing time.

Indian coastal trade will get a boost, even as Indian naval ships will be able to patrol the long peninsular coastline more effectively. Criminal and other undesirable activities in the Palk Strait can be monitored and checked better if it is made navigable.

Then there is the domestic political compulsion to carry out the project. Two of the leading members of the ruling coalition in New Delhi at this point of time, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) led by the veteran Tamil leader M Karunanidhi, and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) led by the firebrand Tamil nationalist Vaiko, have been pushing hard for the project at the Central government level. They are in positions of power thanks to coalition politics.

The ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu is scared that the DMK and the MDMK is going to walk away with prizes for establishing the project. And according to the DMK, the AIADMK government is putting spokes in the wheel. But even the AIADMK cannot stall the project, given the fact that it is an emotive issue in the state.

The Congress, which is the leader of the coalition in the centre, is also interested. Congressman and Finance Minister P Chidambaram, who represents Sivaganga constituency in south Tamil Nadu, is very keen that the southern districts of his state make rapid strides in economic development. Chidambaram sees the development of ports on the south Tamil Nadu coastline as a necessary pre-requisite for the development of the hinterland. As he himself told parliament, the Sethusamudram project is a "long cherished dream" of the people of Tamil Nadu.

The thickly populated but backward areas of Ramanathapuram, Dindigul, Sivakasi, Pudukkottai, Thirunelveli, and Kanyakumari, besides Tuticorin, will see economic development with the development of ports in the area and the arrival of sea borne business opportunities.

Sri Lanka should see project positively

Prof Balasundarampillai says that Sri Lanka would do well by taking advantage of the Sethusamudram canal and developing the northern and northwestern ports. Simultaneously, it should develop Trincomalee and Oluvil in the East, and Humbantota in the south.

It is India, which is going to spend the money and develop the Palk Strait as a sea-lane. Sri Lanka should take advantage of this fully, and develop its own ports in the region to share the additional business that will flow into the region.

Kankesanthurai will join ports servicing South Asia, which has a population of 1.5 billion, if the Sri Lankan government seizes the opportunity thrown up by the Sethusamudram project and develops it into a major port, and a trading and industrial centre.

And if channels from the canal to the northern Sri Lankan ports like Thalaimannar and Kankesanthurai are opened, Sri Lankan coastal shipping will also benefit. Sea freighting is any day cheaper that using other modes of transport. This holds good for India and Sri Lanka, Prof Balasundarampillai says.

He points out that India is not infringing Sri Lanka's rights in any way by digging the canal, because the canal is entirely in Indian waters. Since the canal is only 300-metre wide, ships will have to go single file and therefore there is no chance of encroachment into Sri Lankan waters.

"Sri Lanka should see the project positively and it should be pro-active in making use of it for its own benefit," he urges. Perhaps, as the Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe put it, Sri Lanka should see the Sethusamudram project as an "opportunity' and not as a "threat".

Addressing the concern of the Tamils specifically, Prof Balasundarampillai said in a recent article in the Tamil daily Sudar Oli that the primary, major and immediate beneficiaries of the Sethusamudram project will be the Tamils of Tamil Nadu and the Tamils of North Sri Lanka, because it is the ports in their areas which will prosper immediately.

Source: Hindustan Times

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