Sethusamudram project is not worth pursuing

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Sethusamudram project is not worth pursuing

Technically, economically and ecologically, the cutting across the bridge is a bad investment that will not serve the country's interest

It has been reported that earlier this week, the Supreme Court asked the Government of India to spell out within six weeks its stand on the Sethusamudram project. There is strong opposition to this project on religious grounds, since it is believed that the natural structures existing in that area are the remnants of the bridge built by Lord Rama for his army to cross the Palk Strait into what was then known as Lanka. Damaging them is, therefore, considered a sacrilege.

The apex court would no doubt consider all aspects of this project, which has received attention for decades. But, on purely technical and economic grounds, it is a bad investment which would not serve the country’s interest. The purpose behind the project is to cut down on shipping time and distance between the eastern and western parts of India. After several alignments and pathways for building a canal across the formations at the southern tip of India were found infeasible on various grounds, the then Chief Justice of India suggested in 2008, an alignment labelled as 4A to be assessed for feasibility. For carrying out the mandate of the Supreme Court, the Government of India set up a committee of experts to study the project under the chairmanship of this writer.

As would be expected, those who wanted the project implemented — largely driven by vested interests — put continuous pressure on the Chairman of the committee for early culmination of its mission. But to carry out a rigorous assessment of all the technical, economic and ecological implications of the project, measurements and analysis of data were required for a complete 12-month cycle, since ocean currents and other factors alter seasonally during the year-long duration.

Hence, it was essential to assess the extent of sedimentation and its accumulation to estimate the type and cost of dredging that would be required; the effects of oil spills (which are inevitable with such transportation); and various forms of damage that would be expected on marine ecosystems in the vicinity. Several institutions, including the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa, and the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, worked diligently to collect a wealth of essential data, and carry out in-depth analysis to predict several variables related to full capacity operation of the project.

This required high level skills in a range of disciplines, including engineering, hydro-meteorology, marine ecology, disaster management, and economics, etc. The channel to be constructed was designed as a two-way structure for vessels up to 50,000 DWT. The design ship speed was set at eight  knots and the depth of the channel was to be maintained at 12 metres and its bottom width at 300 metres. A range of conditions had to be considered in assessing future operations and their impacts, such as the impacts of climate change — most notably sea level rise — and the possibility of cyclones and tsunamis. But it was not possible to study in-depth projections of climate change and its impacts, because this would have required the use of global climate models and downscaling them to apply specifically to that site. That would have been time consuming and expensive.

However, an additional height of two metres was allowed in the structure for projected sea level rise during the life of the project. This was essential because in the Panama Canal, it has been estimated by DNV-GL, the 150-year old authoritative organisation, that within a few decades the water regime would change appreciably due to climate change.

The committee also highlighted the possibility of the death of corals due to various reasons such as sedimentation, diseases and algal overgrowth. Further, it pointed to other ecological impacts of the project which would be harmful. The committee’'s thorough and painstaking effort led to the conclusion that “the project, including the possibility of adopting Alignment 4A, could potentially result in ecological threats that could pose a risk to the ecosystems in the surrounding area and, in particular, to the biosphere reserve.”

Also, in economic terms, the rate of return on investment would not even have met the Planning Commission’s criterion of 12 per cent, despite some of the projections used for estimation being unrealistic and far too optimistic. Consequently, the committee concluded that “it appears questionable whether Alignment 4A represents an attractive or even an acceptable option. Given the doubts raised by the detailed analysis which has been carried out, it is unlikely that the public interest would be served by pursuing the project on the basis of Alignment 4A.”

At the completion of the work of the committee, a debriefing session was held with the leadership of the Ministry which was servicing the committee. In that session, the Chairman of the committee was told that the conclusions of the report were fine, but these could not be acted on by the Government due to the sensitivity of the issue. It was suggested that perhaps the Government would decide on supplementing the committee’s work with an analysis of the possible impacts of climate change, and evaluate whether the conclusions required any change in that light. The Chairman informed them that this would be reasonable and a prerogative of the Government, since explicit modelling of climate change and related impacts had not been included in the study. 

Against this background, it came as a shock to the hundreds of persons who worked for the committee, to provide the scientific, economic and ecological foundations of its work, that the Government decided to reject its report. This was done without any further discussion with the committee or informed debate on its findings.  It can only be surmised that one constituent party, which was part of the governing coalition at the Centre and which was aggressively pushing the Sethusamudram project wanted the report scrapped, and nothing less. Sadly, the intellectual underpinnings of the committee’s report were thrown out of the window.

This project involves religious sentiments and beliefs that this article does not address, except to state that decision-makers cannot ride roughshod over religious sentiment, irrespective of denomination or faith, for narrow economic gain. But in the case of the Sethusamudram project, significantly there would actually be a clear economic  loss and serious ecological damage, that the country cannot accept.

What stands out in this case is that the Government rode roughshod over outstanding scientific expertise and innovative research, which provides a sad commentary on the respect for intellectual quality in decision-making at our highest levels. Perhaps, the late Professor Raj Krishna’s comment was truly apt that “Government is knowledge proof.” Should it surprise us then that our best scientific talent leaves our shores to seek prestige and professional fulfilment overseas?

(The writer is former chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2002-15)

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