SETHU PROJECT: A WHITE ELEPHANT IN THE MAKING
Arun Kumar Singh
THE GOVERNMENT'S recent decision to set up a panel of experts, headed by Dr RK Pachauri, to look at alternate routes for the Sethusamudram Shipping Channel Project (SSCP) is indeed welcome.
Given Dr Pachauri's experience and reputation, it can be expected that this six-member panel will take a holistic view of the project, which includes security concerns raised by the Director General Coast Guard recently.
These concerns have added a new dimension to the already complex issues ranging from inflamed religious beliefs to flawed comparisions with the Suez and Panama canals.
About the SSCP: It is an open sea channel that is 167 km long, 300 metre wide, with a 12 metre depth (to permit two-way transit by ships below 32,000 Dead Weight Tonnes). It has three legs — southern, central and northern — and dredging is to be carried out only in southern and northern legs. This will involve dumping 70 million cubic metres of dredged mud in dumping sites located in depths greater than 25 metre.
Let us assume that the SSCP is finally made "operational", as originally envisaged, and that the projected 3,055 ships, of which, 60 per cent ply international routes, use the channel in the first year itself. But what are the security threats these ships are likely to face?
The LTTE has shown enormous ingenuity and fanatical determination when employing its 3,000-strong "Sea Tigers" and the smaller but suicidal "Black Sea Tigers" in seaborne attacks not far from the proposed SSCP site. In addition, the LTTE has frequently used crude seamines to disrupt Sri Lankan shipping on its east coast.
LTTE's "Air Tigers" have modified Czech-made light aircraft to carry out reasonably-accurate night bombing attacks on Sri Lankan airports — SSCP area falls within strike range of these aircraft.
The Palk Bay area has dense fishing boat activity, with some 10,000 boats operating in a small area. This heavy traffic would provide the LTTE an ideal environment should it decide to carry out surprise attacks. A ship sunk in the channel would not only result in loss of life and marine pollution, but also block the channel for a prolonged period. In case of a ship being hit by a sea mine, the Navy would need to clear the channel by mine sweeping which takes days, sometimes weeks.
Another threat to SSCP would be hijacking of ships by the LTTE which could be used in terror attacks to block the SSCP or ports like Tuticorin, Colombo, Chennai by sinking a ship at strategic place. In all, such cases insurance rates will go up and ships will avoid the area, thus affecting the economies.
Can "reasonable" security be provided for the SSCP? The answer is yes, if (and this is a big "if") finances are made available to acquire additional patrol boats, maritime and fighter aircraft, helicopters, hover craft, mine warfare vessels and shore-based radars along with instant communications, data link and real-time intelligence.
And provided we accept the possibilty of collateral damage amongst the over 10,000 Indian fishing boats which operate in the restricted Palk Bay area. The cost of this security cover would exceed the Rs 2,400 crore capital cost of the SSCP. Given the long lead time required to recruit and train additional manpower, along with building security infrastructure, this activity should have started in 2005 so that security is in place when SSCP becomes operational — originally, the SSCP was to be commissioned in 2008. There is no indication that additional security requirements have been factored in the plans.
The security issue becomes relevant only if the SSCP is economically viable and poses no other major problems. Unfortunately, the SSCP is not economically viable for many reasons. It is designed to take ships below 32,000 DWT, while international shipping is heading for larger ships above 60,000 DWT .
Also, adding to the woes is the fact that the rapidly-growing Indian Coastal Shipping is reducing its ship size from 4,000 DWT to 1,900 DWT, and thus will contribute little by way of toll tax to the SSCP. Simple calculations show that international shipping from the Cape of Good Hope, Persian Gulf and the Red Sea areas will actually save time and money if it bypasses the SSCP (where it has to pay toll tax, use up time to embark and disembark a pilot, and proceed at very slow speed in the channel to avoid grounding damage due to "squatting effect") and goes around Sri Lanka. For the same reasons, even Indian coastal shipping will find it more economical to avoid the SSCP and go around Sri Lanka.
The Rs 2,400 crore SSCP may not earn enough profits to pay back its original capital cost.
It must also be noted that the SSCP, which reduces the distance by mere 340 to 434 nautical miles (nm), cannot be compared to "true inland canals" like the Suez and Panama which save thousands of nautical miles, and are not exposed to the vagaries of ocean currents, rough weather or seaborne attacks.
This means that the SSCP is located in one of the five known "high siltation" areas. This means that regular "maintenance dredging" would have to be carried out, perhaps every 1 to 3 years, to keep the channel open and safe for shipping.
Indeed, dredging is the primary reason for the high cost of SSCP. Add to this the fact that the Tamil Nadu coast is cyclone prone and, according to statistics, has been hit by 64 cyclones between 1891 and 2001, with 23 hitting the SSCP site.
To conclude, there are enough reasons to take a good hard look at the SSCP. There really is no point in first creating a target for the LTTE and then spending enormous amounts of time, money and effort to protect a white elephant.
VICE-ADMIRAL ARUN KUMAR SINGH retired as Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command, Visakhapatnam