While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has envisaged a port-led economy for India, an audacious campaign by New Delhi to create a deepwater shipping lane between the southern tip of India and Sri Lanka is turning out be self-defeating.
The Sethusamudram project, for which the previous Indian government, led by the National Congress party, sanctioned $124m on June 30, 2012, has stalled due to opposition from environmentalists, political parties and religious groups.
Before winning power in 2014, Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party was a staunch opponent to Sethusamudram, with Subramanian Swamy, one of BJP’s senior figures, even filing a petition to the Supreme Court to block the project in an unsolved case.
However, with an agenda to build up a strong maritime economy, the BJP is now seeking ways to revive the project, but remains hesitant in overturning its earlier stance.
Surrounded by controversy
The Sethusamudram project, first proposed in the year 1860 by a British officer of the Royal Indian Navy, involves extensive dredging to create a 83km long deepwater channel linking the shallow Palk Strait with the Gulf of Mannar.
But the waterway project has been extremely controversial.
Its construction would require the removal of an 18-mile-long coral and limestone shoal linking Pamban Island near Rameshwaram in South India with Mannar Island off Sri Lanka.
That shoal is seen as a mythical bridge by Hindus and Muslims based on old mythology, aside from the environmental concerns.
Several futile attempts have been made to build the canal since 1999.
The efforts were in part because a canal would reduce travel distance, allowing ships sailing between the western and eastern coasts of India to have a straight passage through Indian waters, circumventing Sri Lanka.
As an example, the canal could in theory reduce the distance between Kenyakumari, the southernmost tip of peninsular India, and Chennai by 400 nm, which would cut sailing time by about 36 hours.
“As it would give India a firm grip on one of the world’s most strategic and busiest sea-lanes, the Sethusamudram Project has a very important geo-political dimension,” a Chennai port official who wished to remain anonymous told Lloyd’s List.
There is also the belief that a canal would attract international shipping trading to and from Europe or the Middle East and the east via the Malacca strait.
In 2011, a study conducted on the socio-economic impact of the project pointed out it would generate revenue from dues levied on ships transiting the canal that would subsequently add to the national economy.
The study also mentioned that the canal would enhance coastal shipping in a very large way besides accelerating the development of Vizhinjam, Vallarpadam and Tuticorin ports in the region.
“Major impact by way of cost savings should come for trade between the east coast and west coast of India,” said Mantrana Maritime Advisory director Anand V Sharma.
However, political opposition to the project by the ruling party is expected to remain a major roadblock to the project, despite Mr Modi’s stated maritime ambition.
India’s media reported Union Surface Transport and Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari as saying there was no question of demolishing the mythical bridge while implementing the Sethusamudram shipping channel project.
BJP has now proposed to dredge the canal through an alternative route across the Pamban Sea, yet none has come to fruition.
Also, the canal’s economic benefits are not completely without doubts.
“This project is a commercial disaster. Technically the money spent on the project will not be recovered for a very long period of time,” Progressive Maritime Consultancy senior shipping analyst Sarangan Govindrajan said.
“Except for Tuticorin port, which is handling coal for the Tamil Nadu government, it won’t immediately have any significant effect for the shipowners in the initial years as they have to pay huge fees to cross through the canal. Also, even if the project starts this year, it would take around 10 years to build the canal.”
Trying to put the matter into perspective, Mr Sharma added that passage through this route is not going to come cheap.
“Annual maintenance dredging, cost of pilotage and towage has to offset the cost of fuel savings by using this route. Only then would it would be viable and worth it”, he said.
“If that holds, this project could be developed by private funding or multilateral institutional funding. The controversies with the project have happened more on the religious and political grounds. Any project should be decided based on economic benefit and national interest.”
Ancient Hindu scriptures professed that Ram Sethu, the mythical bridge once said to span between India and Sri Lanka, was constructed by the Monkey god Hanuman for Lord Rama to walk into Sri Lanka and rescue his wife Sita, who had been kidnapped by the demon king Ravana.
The defeat of Ravana is an ode of victory of good over evil which is celebrated as Diwali — the autumn festival of lights in India.
Islamic legend has suggested that Adam used the bridge to reach Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, where he stood repentant for unknown reasons, on one foot for hundreds of years, leaving a large hollow mark resembling a footprint.
As such, Muslims have named both the peak and the bridge after this legend. To them, Ram Sethu is Adam’s Bridge. (Llyods)