Contrary to the impression in certain quarters in Sri Lanka, India did not keep Sri Lanka in the dark over its plan to cut a shipping canal in the sea between the two countries, a well-placed official source in New Delhi told Hindustan Times.
Reacting to official and media criticism in the island that India had sprung a surprise on its neighbour by taking a decision to launch the Sethusamudram project, the source that Sri Lanka was briefed at a very senior level immediately after the Indian Cabinet took the decision to go ahead with the project.
Even though it was well within India's sovereign rights to cut a canal in its own territorial waters, the Sri Lankan Foreign Office was briefed in view of the friendly and good neighbourly relations between the two countries, the source said.
On the complaint that Sri Lanka was not consulted before the Cabinet took the decision, the source said that the question of consulting Sri Lanka simply did not arise because the canal was to be well within Indian waters.
Moreover, the aim of the project was to facilitate shipping between the western and eastern coasts of India and this was to be done with no hindrance to any activity on the Sri Lankan side, the source pointed out.
Interestingly, no misgivings were expressed by the Sri Lankan side at any stage of the project, which had been discussed for quite a long time. This was the factual position, the source said.
In regard to the complaint that the project proposal lacked transparency, the source said that all the information, including the environmental impact assessment done by the National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) of Nagpur in India, was in the public domain, on the Internet.
The Executive Summary of the NEERI's study had been on the Tuticorin Port's website www.tuticorinport.com since May this year, for anyone who cared to see.
India made the Sri Lankan side aware of this thoroughgoing, scientific study, following reports criticising the project began to be appear in the island's press.
Critical reports were being written in the Sri Lankan newspapers without first studying the technical information already in the public domain, on web, the source said.
India had never withheld any information on the project to the Sri Lankans for it to merit the criticism that it had not been transparent, the source asserted. Need for Sethusamudram project
The need to facilitate Indian coastal shipping was the main motivation for the Sethusamudram project, a scheme which had been discussed on and off since the 1890s.
India does not have, within her own territorial waters, a continuously navigable route around the peninsula due to the presence of a shallow (1.5 metres to 3.5 metres depth) ridge called "Adam's Bridge" between Pamban island on the south-eastern coast of India, and Thalaimannar in north-west Sri Lanka.
Consequently, ships coming from the west coast of India, and wanting to call at ports on the East coast of India, have to go round Sri Lanka entailing an additional distance of more than 400 nautical miles and 36 hours of additional shipping time.
The canal will help save 20 per cent of voyage time and increase trips by 20 per cent.
The Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project (SSCP) envisages the creation of a ship canal to suit different drafts (9.15 metres, 10.7 metres and 12.8 metres) through dredging/excavation in the Adams Bridge and parts of Palk Bay in the far north.
There will be a 20 km long, 300-metre wide canal with 10.7 metres draft with two-way controlled traffic from Tuticorin port to Adam's Bridge. For this purpose, the shallow area at Adam's Bridge will be dredged up to 12 metres depth.
And a similar excavation will be done in the Palk Strait to achieve the required draft over a stretch of about 36 kms.
The dredging will affect the bottom flora and fauna only over 6 sq kms in the Adam's Bridge area, This is only a small and confined area of the Gulf of Mannar biosphere, the size of which is 10, 500 sq kms.
In the Palk Bay up in the far north, only 16 to 17 sq kms will be affected.
The NEERI report says that most of the sensitive biota, viz corals, pearl oysters, chanks, sea cow, holothuroids, and marine algae along the Indian coast and around the 21 islands in the Gulf of Mannar biosphere, are mostly away from the proposed alignment of the canal.
About 32.5 million cubic meters of dredge spoil comprising clay silt will be generated in the Adam's Bridge area. Of this, 8 million cubic metres will be deposited on degraded areas in Pamban Island. And the balance, mainly sand, will be discharged in the sea 25 kms away from the dredging area at depths varying from 35 to 40 metres. In the Palk Strait and Palk Bay areas, 51 million cubic metres of dredge soil will be generated and that will be discharged in the Bay of Bengal at a suitable depth to minimize the impact on the coastal areas of the Palk Bay.
The silt/clay could be used for beach nourishment.
Hydronomic modelling studies using the Depth Integrated Velocity and Solute Transport (DIVAST) model have shown that, even for the highest spring tidal wave conditions, there will be no significant changes in the magnitude and direction of current velocities along the alignment of the canal due to the construction of the canal.
But the canal may facilitate the movement of fishes and other biota from the Bay of Bengal to the Indian Ocean and vice versa. Also, alien and oceanic species could enter the Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar. There could also be a dispersal of species endemic to this area to the seas beyond.
Reacting to reports that the digging of the canal would lead to the submergence of a large number of islands and a part of the Mannar and Jaffna coastlines, an engineer told Hindustan Times, that when a hole or canal was dug in the sea, the hole would suck in water and disperse it. There would, therefore, be no threat to the coast. Increased shipping will of course lead to discharges of waste and other material, but this would not be allowed. Ships would have to comply with the International Maritime Standards and follow the MARPOL Convention 73/78.
A pilot and a trained environment watcher would be on board every vessel crossing the canal.
Fishermen in the Adam's Bridge area will be given time to fish in the area, and use the canal.
As regards fears about loss of work for fishermen because of the canal, Jaffna University geographer Dr Soosai Anandan said that the fear had no basis.
"About 2,000 Tamil Nadu fishing boats intrude into Sri Lankan waters, with the fishermen saying that there is no fish on the Indian side. If there is no fish on the Indian side, how can they complain that the canal will prevent them from fishing there," asked Dr Anandan.