Greens worried about Sethusamudram project

New Delhi, Nov 28 | Updated: Nov 29 2004, 05:30am hrs
An ambitious project to scoop out the seabed between Tamil Nadu coast and Sri Lanka to create a channel for ship navigation is worrying environmentalists and a section of the scientific community. The safety and stability of the canal project is a matter of concern, warns a 71-page report by Doctors for Safer Environment, a Coimbatore-based voluntary group.

The proposed Rs 2,000 crore Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project (SSCP) involves cutting an 83-km-long channel 800 metres wide and 12 metres deep across the Palk Bay situated between Tamil Nadu coast and Sri Lanka.

It will allow ships to sail from Indias west to east coast on its own territorial waters (avoiding circling of Sri Lanka) thereby cutting short the distance by about 730 kilometres and saving up to 36 hours of sailing time.

But this perceived advantage has to be weighed against unknown and unconsidered environmental and ecological costs, warns Radakrishnan Ramesh, author of the report. He and his team have analysed a pile of published oceanographic, meteorological and geological data to show that the project is ill-conceived and unsafe.

Creation of the navigational channel would require the removal of about 88 million cubic metres of dredged material and its dumping somewhere else nearby. The material, equivalent to seven million truckloads, can completely fill the Chembarambakkam lake in Chingleput district, the largest natural lake in Tamil Nadu.

Critics of the project allege that such a quickly dug big trench will cause a sudden tilt, drift, and a gravitational pull and instigate other violent geological processes that might drastically alter the 5 to 20 million-year-old (miocene) limestone bed of northern Sri Lanka and its islands thereabouts.

These are only a subject for speculation, admits Richard Cathcart, a renowned US geographer specialising in macro-engineering. But questions concerning the geology of the Palk Strait, disposal of huge quantities of excavated material, stability of a high-cut of several meters in such environments, among others are still to be discussed and debated by geo-engineering experts of this region and others, he says.

All valid public fears concerning future negative structural geologic and various uncommon geomorphic event-processes must be allayed (before undertaking the project), Mr Cathcart wrote in Current Science, a journal of Bangalore-based Indian Academy of Science

The SSCP is the longest seabed-dredging project planned so far in India and the first to be located 30 to 40 km away from the coast. The shipping minister TR Baalu after visiting the Panama and Suez Canals announced on November 8 that an agreement is likely to be signed with the Suez Canal authority for technical collaboration.

Mr Ramesh says the government has rushed this mammoth project simply on the basis of one single report from Nagpur-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) without debate by a broader spectrum of the scientific and engineering community.