Sethusamudram shipping canal project and the eternal silence of the Indian earth scientists

C. P. RAJENDRAN
Centre for Earth Science Studies,
Akkulam,
Thiruvananthapuram 695 031, India

CURRENT SCIENCE, VOL. 89, NO. 2, 25 JULY 2005

The controversial Sethusamudram project excavating the 56-km-long shallow sea between the Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar and creating a narrow shipping passage linking the east and west coasts of India received a formal go-ahead signal from the Union Cabinet recently, according to press reports. This project (estimated to cost currently Rs 2233 crores) has been under fire for being unmindful of possible environmental impact. A note, critical of this project, by Ramesh (incidentally a medical practitioner, not a geologist or oceanographer) was published in Current Science (Ref.1). The major scientific objections raised by him regarding this project are: (a) The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, Nagpur, which had been entrusted with the environmental impact assessment (EIA), has not taken recent studies on the sedimentation dynamics of the project area into consideration; therefore their conclusions are questionable. (b) The impact assessment studies have neglected the role of cyclones (not to speak of the rare incidences of tsunamis) in dispersing the dredged material, a major risk factor of the region. (c) The EIA has only looked at the sedimentation dynamics of a small area, but ignored the adjacent portions, including the Palk Bay strait - an area noted for unusually high sedimentation rate. (d) The nature of the substratum of the region is not known: is it soft or hard? This information is important to decide on whether to dredge or blast the sea bottom and to plan for safe disposal of the dredged material. (e) The EIA study is ambivalent in identifying sites for safe disposal of dredged material, without creating an environmental mess for the organisms living in the sea (Sri Lanka has a major stake here). (f) The impact of changed bottom topography as a result of dredging or blasting on the movement of currents is not known. Ironically, the medical practitioner who is affiliated to an NGO has registered all the afore mentioned objections (see his full report in http://www.geocities.com/sethuship canal), and I am yet to see any geologist or oceanographer raising any concern on this project.

Personally, I believe all the objections raised remain valid unless and until these issues are resolved by an independent group of experts. Have we considered other dangers, for example, the prospect of grounding or straying, from the canal alignment, of a rogue ship containing coal or oil or even a collision of such ships, and the ensuing ecological disaster? On the other hand, if ships are going to be guided by tugs, there will certainly be a huge toll that would work out to be more expensive than sailing around Sri Lanka (see Ramakrishnan, K. S., The Hindu, 21 December 2004). Finally, only the Indian Navy will essentially use this route! Another issue is whether we have worked out a realistic cost-benefit analysis of this project? In a recent statement, the Union Minister for Shipping, Ports and Highways mentions that this canal will have a 'dissipating effect' on tsunamis, if they strike the east coast (The Hindu, 6 June 2005). He further states that the Ministry is now ready with scientific data to answer any questions on this project (including a tsunami model of deep sea wave propagation in a post-project scenario).

I am curious to know how our scientists (not the ones who are doing EIA for the sponsors) respond to such projects, which obviously require an interdisciplinary approach. What is appalling is the complete silence from the earth sciences community of the country. I think here we have an excellent geological problem and an area where we can effectively intervene. Are we to leave all these important decisions to some influential bureaucrats and politicians who are clever enough to hide under some technicalities and poorly whetted reports? What about the national academies and other professional bodies of Indian scientists? Are they not supposed to take their positions on such important issues based on considered opinions of independent experts; in this case, particularly from the earth scientists? Sethusamudram, as the name suggests, is part of an ocean that is being constantly bridged by natural sedimentation processes, and nature has been at this work for hundreds of thousands of years. I am sure, going by the rates of sediment build-up, in hundred of years there would be a land bridge connecting Rameswaram with Sri Lanka. Why disturb this process for questionable purposes? The technical, scientific and economic credibility of this project must be convincing and it should not be another disaster in the making. The concerned Ministry and institutes must present their results in an open forum consisting of both national and international experts on such matters as well as other concerned persons and stakeholders.

Reference:

Ramesh, R., Curr. Sci., 2005, 88, 536-537.