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Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)

What the cats missed…
India set to dredge a channel via Gulf of Mannar

10th January 1999

India's Defence Minister George Fernandes held a press conference near the Kothandaramar temple in Thanushkody on the southern tip of the subcontinent, the point closest to Sri Lanka on Wednesday. He announced that his government would complete in three years the digging of the Sethu Samuthiram channel, an ambitious scheme that had gathered dust on the drawing boards for 138 years.

The minister said that a corporation would be formed to undertake the massive project and that in the first phase a 44.9 nautical mile long channel linking the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk strait will be dug. The project will cost 7.65 billion Indian rupees

It was originally conceived in 1860 by the British Commander A. D. Taylor of the Indian Marines.

The matter was little noticed in the Sri Lankan Press, although it was being hailed in Tamil Nadu as a giant economic step with far reaching implications for the south Indian littoral.

The historic event at Thanushkody stirred not a single pontificating cat in the intellectual hearths of Colombo (Didn't they slumber through the trade accord, sparing us not with even morsels of their wisdom on the matter?).

Even the untutored layman can grasp the consequences of the channel for Sri Lanka's economy. The plain fact is that the Colombo port will be the first victim of the channel. The PA's economic ambitions about developing container facilities at the Colombo and Galle ports with a view to making them pre-eminent in the region have to be reviewed now.

And the full impact of the Indo-Lanka trade treaty will have to be assessed in the light of the Sethusamudram project. But let's first look at the facts.

The Hindu provided further details about the channel in its lead story on Friday "Hopes about the implementation of the project soared when the Union Government appointed the 'Sethusamudram Project Committee' in 1955, headed by Dr. A. Ramaswami Mudaliar, which was charged with the duty of examining the desirability of the project. After evaluating the costs and benefit, this committee found the project "feasible and viable".

Several reviews of the proposal followed this till Mr. Vajpayee annouced his Government's commitment to execute the project.

What is of paramount importance to the country is the strategic advantages that would accrue from the project. Though the country has a peninsular coast running to 3,554 nautical miles, it does not have a continuous navigational sea lane running within its territorial waters. Ships navigating from one side of the country to the other have to circumnavigate Sri Lanka due to the presence of Adam's Bridge, a sand stone reef, near the Rameswaram coast. A memorandum submitted to the Central Committee on Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project by the State Government on August 11, 1981 pointed out that the canal will "afford secret and sheltered passage for our Naval ships and Coast Guard vessels.

"Otherwise, they will have to suffer exposure to the foreign countries in the Indian Ocean and also suffer more wear and tear voyaging around Sri Lanka".

The distance between Cape Comorin and Chennai would be reduced to 402 nautical miles from the present 755 after the completion of the project. The distance between Cape Comorin and Vizakappatinam will be 719 nautical miles against the present 1,014, between Cape Comorin and Calcutta 1,098 (1,357), Tuticorin and Chennai 335 (769), Tuticorin and Vizakappatinam 652 (1,028) and Tuticorin and Calcutta 1,031 (1,371).

Apart from effecting savings in fuel the project is expected to provide a tremendous boost to the economic and industrial development of coastal Tamil Nadu.

"The project will be of particular significance to the Tuticorin harbour which has the potential to transform itself into a nodal port such as Singapore and Colombo. The State Government has announced its proposal to develop 13 minor ports, including Ennore, Cuddalore, Nagapattinam, Thondi, Valinokkam, Colachel and Kanyakumari, and the Sethusamudram canal will improve coastal shipping. There is also a possibility of introducing passenger and freight services along the coast

"The normally drought-prone Ramanathapuram district will be the major beneficiary of the project in terms of providing employment. The maritime skills of the people living in the Rameswaram and Pamban areas could be harnessed for the development of the region. There is also scope for the development of a major port, like Port Said of the Suez Canal, in the district.

"Apart from improving the fishing trade, the canal will be a major tourist attraction". (From the Hindu web page Friday, Jan, 8) Colombo has occupied a strategic position in the sea-lanes from southeast and east Asia to Bombay, the west Asian ports etc., mainly because the much shorter route through the Palk strait to the Gulf of Mannar and thence to the traditional trade routes going north west in the Indian ocean was not navigable due to the Adam's bridge.

This is why dredging a channel through this sand bank which forms a series of perfidiously shifting islets from a short distance in the sea beyond Talaimannar to the Thanushkody peninsula in southern Tamil Nadu was deemed important by the British.

Colombo's position in this sea-lane was enhanced with the arrival of container shipping. The income from expanding the container terminal facilities at Colombo and constructing them at the proposed Galle harbour would have contributed substantially to the government's coffers.

The development of Tuticorin into a key port with container facilities can seriously hit what may not be wrong to call the monopoly we hitherto enjoyed at this geographical point on the east-west sea-lanes of the Indian Ocean.

An official at the Ministry of Ports and Shipping on Friday acknowledged unofficially the potential problems Sri Lanka has to face as a consequence of the Sethusamudram channel, including an inevitable fall in revenue.

On the other hand it is worth remembering that Tuticorin, Nagapattinam and other minor ports on Tamil Nadu's southern coast used to dominate the Indo-Sri Lanka trade until the early fifties. Tuticorin's impact on the economy and demography of the western and northwestern coast of Sri Lanka is well known.

The channel will certainly help these port towns of Tamil Nadu regain at least partially their former stature vis-a-vis Sri Lanka. Those benefits of the Indo-Lanka trade pact that are expected to accrue to India will, in practice, go to Tamil Nadu once the Sethusamudram project is complete. Sheer costs will count then as now. It will be cheaper to buy goods in Tamil Nadu and bring them to Colombo through the expanded Tuticorin port.

This aspect has to be considered in conjunction with the proposed industrial development projects in the southern parts of Tamil Nadu, including the nuclear plant and chemical factory in Tinnevely.

If localised regional trading blocks are the future of economic development, then Colombo might have to start paying more attention to Chennai, at least by the time the Sethusamudram channel nears completion.

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