The Sethusamudram Canal Project, which will cost the government a whopping Rs 2400 crore, is once again mired into a controversy as a new report prepared by navigational experts has questioned its economic viability with solid statistical backup.
The canal being built from the Gulf of Mannar to the Bay of Bengal is expected to be a continuous navigable sea route around the Indian Peninsula which according to the proponents of SSCP will cut down shipping time and cost drastically and earn substantial income to the exchequer.
But this according to the experts is a pipe dream and is likely to become not only a security and environmental disaster but also a white elephant draining valuable national income. According to maritime experts it is a deadweight project sure to sink.
The report, to be published soon, a copy of which has come to us from one of its authors, is an indepth study taken up independently by a team of infrastructure and environmental economists and marine experts and has exposed huge loopholes in the arguments advanced by the Shipping Minister T.R. Balu. The Minister'sobstinate, obsessive defence of the project and the centre'scavalier attitude in going ahead with it in its present format do not make any economic sense, if the expert opinion is any guide.
We have a detailed write up on the subject in this issue by one of the experts. The project seems to have been approved by the centre in indecent and inexplicable hurry. It did not consider the post-tsunami environmental aspects though experts had repeatedly warned against going ahead before reworking on the safety aspects. Navigational experts point out that in coast-to-coast travel from the west to east coast of India the travel time saved by the canal route will be negligible and hence it is unlikely that shippers use the canal.
The project was given the go ahead on the premise that almost 70 per cent of traffic and revenue will come from noncoastal ships meaning those ships that travel into the country from Europe, Africa and elsewhere. For these ships? projected saving in distance and time is on an average less than a day and this saving is economically unviable considering other added disadvantages like costs of dredging the canal every year, use of higher quality fuel to keep carbon deposits in the canal at a minimum. All this will reduce any running costs saved by ships by taking the shorter route, these experts point out.
There are already reports suggesting lack of business by this route. Though the canal is proposed to be operational by 2008 end, so far no national or foreign shipping companies have signed on the dotted line. This has prompted experts to further question whether it is worth putting in billions into a project that is unlikely to mop up substantial returns.
Added to the economic concerns is the fear of terror strikes. LTTE has displayed considerable ingenuity and daring in sea-borne insurgency and has carried out several attacks on Sri Lankan naval ships. It is pertinent to note, the experts say, that the SSCP is a next-door neighbour in the area of operations of the Sea Tigers.
Any alert government would have taken into consideration all these fresh arguments against the viability of the project, instead of standing on ego. The Chennai High Court has recently cautioned the authorities against destroying the natural heritage which millions worship as Ram Sethu. The project was controversial from the beginning. In fact, it was strongly opposed by various people on various grounds and that was why it took over six decades to get central clearance. It violates all sentiments of the Indian; religious, environmental, ecological, security and economic. It is sensible for the centre to take a relook at the SSCP in the light of emerging new evidences.