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


Among large projects in India that are jinxed, the Sethusamudram shipping canal project, which would connect Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar, takes the cake. Experts are divided on the pros and cons of the project. Mint explains its economic implications.

Sethusamudram project: What is it?

The sea separating India and Sri Lanka is called Sethusamudram. As it is shallow, ships plying between India’s east and west coasts are forced to go around Sri Lanka. The Sethusamudram Project seeks to create a 44.9 nautical mile (83.2 km) deep water channel linking Palk Strait and Gulf of Mannar to create a continuous navigable route around the Indian peninsula. The project was originally conceived in 1860. After many studies by various expert committees, it was finally approved in 2005 by the United Progressive Alliance government led by Manmohan Singh at a cost of 2,427 crore.

What are its economic benefits?

Supporters of the project say the canal will save ships anywhere between 8 and 36 hours of travel time between India’s east and west coasts, as they won’t need to sail about 400 nautical miles around Sri Lanka. It will also give a fillip to coastal shipping and ensure faster development of Vizhinjam, Vallarpadam and Tuticorin ports as transshipment hubs, thus bringing down the logistics costs for Indian industry. Political parties in Tamil Nadu also believe that the project would create as many as 50,000 jobs and uplift the economy of the state, especially its southern districts which are relatively less industrialized.

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Graphic: Mint

Why then has the project stalled?

The project commenced in 2005, but was halted in 2007 after the Supreme Court stayed dredging work near Adam’s Bridge, or Ram Setu. Hindus believe Lord Ram’s army built Ram Setu. Over the years, many alternative alignments avoiding Ram Setu were drawn up and many expert panels have given their recommendations, but the project remains in limbo.

What were the other objections raised?

Opponents say the project would cause enormous damage to marine life and corals in the area that has been 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 considering its high cost and low returns. Most importantly, they point out that only medium-sized ships can pass through the canal when completed, and large vessels, which dominate the seas, will still have to go around Sri Lanka.

Why is the project in the news now?

On 12 January, the Tamil Nadu Assembly passed a resolution urging the Centre to implement the project without further delay. This came days before the Centre told the Supreme Court that it was in the process of declaring Ram Setu as an ancient monument of national importance. Such a move will knock out the most efficient route for the project. Efficacy of alternative routes is not clear (the project cost has already more than doubled) and if experts are to be believed, chances of it being taken up and completed are remote.

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