Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sethusamudram project — Trials and travails

The Sethusamudram project was first conceived in 1860. After several reports and studies, it was only in 2000-01 that the Government allocated Rs 4.8 crore and an SPV was formed. The channel will cut short the sailing distance for ships to the extent of 425 nautical miles (780 km) and up to 30 hours of sailing time.
Raghu Dayal
Joining the Ivy league of the world’s best known maritime waterways (Panama Canal, Suez Canal, Malacca Strait), albeit not of their size or strategic significance, will soon be the Sethusamudram canal, across the Palk Straits between India and Sri Lanka, linking the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar, through Rameswaram island.
Currently, ships traversing between India’s east coast and west coast are obliged to circumnavigate Sri Lanka due to a sandstone reef, termed Adam’s Bridge (a chain of islets and shallows linking India with Sri Lanka) located southeast of Rameswaram, close to Pamban, which connects the Talaimannar coast of Sri Lanka. The depth of the sea here being only about 3 metres restricts ships to navigate.
The Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project (SSCP) constitutes the country’s first effort to dredge a navigation channel that is located 30-40 km offshore. It is also the longest sea bed dredging project ever to be taken up by India.
With two legs – one in the Adam’s Bridge, where the average depth is only about 3 metres, and the other leg in the Palk Strait where the depth averages 6-8 metres – the present Sethusamudram channel is over 20 km from the Shingle Island off the Gulf of Mannar near Dhanushkodi, running parallel to the India-Sri Lanka Medial Line, at a minimum distance of 3 km within India’s own territorial waters.
The length of the proposed channel is expected to be 167.57 km, with its southern leg at Adam’s Bridge area 34.92 km long, the northern leg in Palk Strait 54.33 km long, and the intervening Palk Bay stretches in the central portion 78.32 km long.
While the northern and southern legs, involving the shallow sea bed of the Palk Bay and Adam’s Bridge, will need to be dredged for a depth of 12 metre, the central leg requires no dredging. The SSCP, when completed, will be 167 km long, 12 metres deep and 300 metres wide at the bottom, and would enable ships to navigate through the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay, and enter the Bay of Bengal directly.Historical background
Cherished for long that the country should have a continuous navigable sea-lane within its own territorial waters, there were as many as nine proposals made between 1860 and 1922 for a ship channel to be carved across the narrow strip of land, linking the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Bay for providing a short-cut for ocean-going vessels to navigate between the two coasts of India.
Initially proposed in 1860 by Commander A.D. Taylor of the Indian Marines, the proposal envisaged cutting a canal across the Tonitorai Peninsula at a place about 20 km west of the Pamban Pass.
At an initial estimated cost of about £90,000, subsequently revised to £1,500,000, the scheme was to excavate a deep cutting about 4.5 km in length through the dry land and deepen to five fathoms for about 5 km on each side to connect it to the harbour on the south and the deep waters on the north.
Another proposal a year later by Townshend, contemplating silting the canal through the Pamban Pass, was found to be impracticable.
Prior to various proposals individually submitted by Sir William Dennison, Acting Governor of Madras, in 1863, Stoddart in 1871, and Robertson, Harbour Engineer for India, in 1872, a Parliamentary Committee of Her Majesty’s Government recommended in 1862 an alignment situated some 3 km east of Pamban, crossing the island in a straight northerly direction.
After a 12-year interval, the South India Ship Canal Port and Coaling Station Ltd., UK, surveyed and considered the construction of a canal across the Rameswaram Island.
In fact, the Secretary of State for India granted this company a perpetual concession, but the Madras Government advised the Government of India in October 1890 to give up the scheme as the shoals at the Palk Strait between Pt. Calimere and Pt. Pedro would prevent the proposed canal being made use of by vessels of deep-sea draught.
The project languished for long until, in 1922, Sir Robert Bristow, Harbour Engineer of Madras, having studied all previous submissions, put forth his proposal for an alignment somewhat similar to that adopted by the South Indian Railway Company in 1903 across the Rameswaram Island. After Independence
Nothing tangible did, however, happen until the country’s Independence. In 1956, a committee under Sir A. Ramaswamy Mudaliar considered a 7.8-metre draught land canal crossing the main land at Mandapam at an estimated cost of Rs 1.8 crore. Some modifications were suggested by Capt H.R. Davis in 1959 by way of an alternative alignment across the main land maintaining the same draught.
In 1963, the State Port Officer, Madras, examined the feasibility of increasing the draught from 7.8 metres to 10.8 metres, entailing an estimated cost of Rs 21 crore.
In 1967, the Government appointed a committee under Dr Nagendra Singh, Secretary, Union Ministry of Shipping and Transport, and again, in 1981, constituted another committee under H.R. Laxminarayan, Development Adviser (Ports).
The former suggested an alignment in the Rameswaram Island Crossing called the DE alignment near Thankachemadam, while the latter proposed a new alignment across Dhanushkodi. The project cost was estimated at Rs 282 crore.
In 1996, yet another report came out – from Pallavan Transport Consultancy Services Ltd, which was directed by the State Government to update the Laxminarayan Report.
The consultants proposed a number of infrastructural facilities in addition to the canal which, no doubt, constituted the major component of the project.SPV formed
At long last, the Government moved towards implementing the project, when the 2000-01 Union Budget included a provision of Rs 4.8 crore for its feasibility study. An SPV – Sethusamudram Corporation Ltd – has been entrusted with the responsibility to execute the project. A debt equity ratio of 1.5:1 is contemplated for its funding, with a contribution of Rs 495 crore by the Central Government, and partnership from the ports of Tuticorin, Chennai, Ennore, Visakhapatnam and Paradip, besides Shipping Corporation of India and Dredging Corporation of India.
Designated in February 1997, by the Union Ministry of Surface Transport, as the nodal agency for the project, Tuticorin Port Trust has been scaling up its business prospects of domestic transhipment containerised cargo. Sethusamudram Corporation Ltd has proposed a container transhipment hub to be constructed at Colachel, a minor port in southern Tamil Nadu.
Although the project at Colachel had been proposed by RITES in its Port Vision 2020, and a feasibility study was prepared in 1998 by the State Government, and updated in 2000 by a Malaysian enterprise for a greenfield port, a detailed project report has been contemplated afresh by the State Government.
The project is of strategic importance, as it will facilitate easier and quicker access between the country’s coasts for Indian Coast Guard and naval vessels.
The channel will cut short the sailing distance for ships to the extent of 425 nautical miles (780 km) and up to 30 hours of sailing time.
It will signify a shorter navigation route between Kanyakumari and Tuticorin and other east coast ports of Chennai, Ennore, Kakinada, Visakhapatnam, Paradip, Haldia and Kolkata, apart from Chittagong in Bangladesh. Domestic movement of cargo along the coast should likewise reap the benefit. (The author is a former Managing Director of Concor.)

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