Setusamudram Ship Channel Project -- where is it headed?
By Commander John Jacob Puthur, Indian Navy (Retd.)


In conclusion, I must submit that it is rather presumptuous to compare Sethusamudram canal with Suez or Panama. Those canal save over ten thousand nautical miles of passage for the vessels, and also accommodate larger DWT vessels. For a vessel coming after a long ocean passage of thousands of nautical miles few hundred saved may make little difference to the overall profitability of the shipping industry to warrant a traverse through a narrow canal almost in 'open sea' at a rather slow speed of 8 knots. Such a low speed traverse with dangerous shallows on either side will hardly be a pleasant experience for the master of the vessel, whatever may have been the outcome of the ship-manoeuvring studies.

Finally, I must again submit, let the dredging go on, as that's the only way to test of siltation of the dredged areas. I think it's a price worth paying to get to the grips of the phenomenon of coastal sediment dynamics in a monsoon regime that has eluded many a marine scientist and coastal engineer in India. The canal's outcome will be the proof of the theory, either way!

I have been studying the phenomenon for a long time now. We can actually solve the siltation problems of many a port along our coast. While siltation problem of ports can be mitigated to a very great extent I doubt whether there will be such possibility for the Sethusamudram Ship Canal itself, that is, just in case they decide to go ahead in spite of siltation.

To the best of my understanding the canal will silt and go on silting, so long as it is being maintenance dredged. But, if they do choose to shelve the project once the siltation becomes apparent, no one will notice any difference on the seabed. The nature will restore itself in next to no time. Environmentalists on either side needn't get too worried, at least for a while

At the outset, a 90 nautical mile transit through a narrow canal, just 300 metes wide, constrained by shallow depths either side, and at a slow speed of 8 knots would make a warship 'sitting duck'. Such a passage, nearly 12 hour long, virtually defenceless, so close to waters of another state, let alone the underwater dangers due to shallows either side would be sufficient to give jitters to any captain or fleet commander. It is lot safer to traverse through deeper waters with sufficient sea room when the warships can move at top speeds, even if that meant a slightly longer passage and some extra fuel. Moreover, both our coasts have independent fleets that are reasonably well equipped to deal with all the contingencies along their respective coasts without having to summon resources from the other fleet at short notice and that too frequently.
Therefore, Navy has little to gain from Sethusamudram Canal.

But sure enough it will increase Navy's workload considerably. A canal such as this is highly susceptible to offensive 'mine-laying' by the enemy. In fact, mines can be laid by number of ways that are indeed extremely difficult to detect - from air, from small fishing boats, and even merchant vessels. Therefore, minesweeping in the canal would become Navy's routine task, particularly during periods of tension. Say, if a merchant vessel does run over a mine, in addition to the environmental consequences, the canal itself would be sealed off for days if not weeks to clear the wreck.

Even a deliberate sinking of a rusted old trawler within the canal, probably as an act 'nautical terrorism', can seal off the canal for days. And if that should happen unnoticed, the matter would come to light only when a larger laden vessel runs over the wreck. The consequences can be catastrophic. Thus guarding the 167 kilometres long canal would be an immense burden on the Navy, Coast Guard, and perhaps on a special maritime police specially created for the guarding the canal. Has anyone considered the costs?

In any case such a force would be necessary in to counter yet another threat such canals face - the threat of piracy. All canal, river or narrow strait transits of ships have spawned pirates. Slow moving vessels close to land are an easy prey to attacks by pirates. Examples abound - our own very Hoogly River transit to the Port of Kolkotha, Malacca Strait and many other river or canal transits in the East and Fareast. The pirates arrive in small speedboats to board the slow moving vessels using ropes and grapnels. Usually they cart away whatever they find on deck, coils of ropes and such other items, but there are also number of cases when crew have been attacked and other valuables stolen. A special force duly aided by several navies, including our own, deals with the piracy problem at the Malacca Strait. There is little doubt that Sethusamudram Canal will also spawn a new breed of pirates, and perhaps some of them may be used to fund terrorism on either side. The cost of dealing with this problem will no doubt be huge, and rightly should be termed as operational cost. Has that been considered?

Whatever then may be the environmental or security impact; there is little doubt that the Sethusamudram Canal would adversely affect local fishermen. Their work and also the their area of operation will be restricted due to increased shipping activity. In addition, these poor fishermen will be subject to harassment on account of frequent security checks. The harassment of fishermen by Navy and Coast Guard along Saurashtra Coast post 1993 Mumbai blasts is a matter hardly discussed in the press but very real indeed for those poor folk. Along with harassment on security grounds, these fishermen also suffered serious economic losses due to blatant confiscation of catch by those involved in ensuring security - fence eating the crop. I have written about this matter to the concerned long ago to highlight the issue after being an eyewitness to one such incident, notoriously called 'fishex' within the Navy.

There's little doubt that the livelihood of local fishermen would be affected with cascading effect on the local economy. The EIA reports have only harped on the marginal reduction in fish productivity due to the canal, hence anticipate little impact on the local fishing industry. But the fish productivity is not the only factor that affects the local fishing industry.

Environmental impacts aside, the economic impacts due to the canal are not altogether favourable, both in the short and long term, which should justify such a huge expenditure for creating the canal. It is anybody's guess that there are other motives for going ahead with the canal.

Dredging is not an industry known for ethical business practices. Most of what they do happens underwater, away from any probing scrutiny. Only a hydrographer and the concerned dredging team would know the actual volume dredged, for working out payments. Here there's enough room for manipulation with least chances of detection. No one would question variations in depths up to 0.2 metres, but that would make immense difference to dredging cost. With roughly 90 kilometres of canal being dredged to a width of 300 metres, the dredging cross-sectional area is 27 million square metres. And if there were a difference of just 0.1 metres in dredged depth it would mean a dredged volume of 2.7 million cubic metres. The average cost of capital dredging for this project is Rs. 208/- per cubic metre. Therefore 2.7 million cubic metres of dredged volume would mean a difference of Rs. 56.16 crores, and for 0.2 metres it would be Rs. 112.32 crores. There's no way anyone could question this. Yet more manipulations can be done that will also belay easy detection.