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Nuclear threat from Sethu Canal

by D.S.

At long last the curtain on the SS Canal project has been raised. The curtain proclaiming shipping and trade benefits from the project provoked environmentalists, marine biologists, shipping experts etc., both in India and Sri Lanka to cry "halt". Indian proponents enjoyed teasing the opponents, with misleading figures and claims such as that the canal would help save 36 hrs of sailing for ships besides promoting coastal trade. After the curtain is raised the nudity of these claims is visible.

Soon after the approval of the Cabinet Economic Affairs Committee was obtained on May 9, 2005, thanks to a final push from Sonia Gandhi, Chairperson of UPA Government, both Finance Minister Chidambaram and the Shipping Minister revealed the real motive of the project. Finance Minister P. Chidambaram said "while rates of return are satisfactory the externalities cannot be quantified. There are externalities of defense, security and anti-smuggling".

Shipping Minister Baalu who lobbied the Government day and night, and bulldozed his way as alleged by Chief Minister. Jayalalitha, said "there is a serious concern of security in the area and the Sethu Project will address the problems fittingly". On the D day July 2, 2005 when the Indian Prime Minister officially launched the project, Chidambaram said again `EC the benefits of the project should not be viewed from the angle of money alone as the project would help strengthen India’s security." So after the curtain is raised the real motive is revealed.

At a national seminar in Chennai on July 12, the consensus has been that "the canal project should be viewed from the national security angle. Such a perspective will obviate the need to weigh the economic benefits or potential return on investment". An Indian Navy officer has said "there is a clear security angle to the Sethu Project." V. Suryanarayan Professor of Maritime Studies, Calcutta University said there, "The channel would enhance the nation’s defence capabilities and this aspect has not received the attention it deserves from strategic specialists and media personnel."

The canal is being dug raping a virgin marine biosphere, for the sake of India’s security from perceived threats to India’s dream of dominating the Indian Ocean from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Straits. K. M. Panikkar, the architect to India’s naval doctrine wrote, "Indian Ocean must remain truly Indian" and urged the broadening of the political hemisphere of the Indian state so as to include Ceylon and Burma for defence purposes. Fearing a Chinese threat he added "movement towards the South may in all probability be reflected in the naval policy of a resurgent China".

It was in this de-stabilizing pursuit of India’s dream that Rajiv Gandhi maneuvered to obtain exclusive rights for the use of Trincomalee harbour through an exchange of letters when JRJ. was forced to sign the notorious Indo-Lanka agreement in 1987. As if to remind the Sri Lankan authorities, every Indian VIP visiting Sri Lanka never fails to make the pilgrimage to Trinco.

Numerous opponents of the canal project may be totally exhausted after chasing a wrong signal given by the proponents of the canal, in a typical naval strategy. Shipping experts called the bluff by proving that the canal will not be commercially viable or be attractive to shipping lines. The average cost of using the canal by ship could be more than USD 10,000 and extra insurance costs and the time saved would be negligible due to slow steaming required, adverse weather conditions frequently affecting the area, etc. Only ships less than 30,000 dwt will be able to use the canal and all other ships will have to circumnavigate Sri Lanka when sailing between the east and west coast of India.

Recognizing the non-viability, India’s finance and shipping ministers have arranged five South Indian ports to underwrite the losses of the Sethu Corporation Ltd. for nine years. Neither domestic nor foreign investors have shown any interest in the project.

Since the objective is security from emerging perceived threats from China, it may be futile to seek to convince the proponents of the USD 560 million grand folly of the absurdity of what they are doing. The immediate tragedy, though, is the brutal destruction of the marine biosphere and other natural heritage shared by India and Sri Lanka for centuries.

India’s sovereign right to protect itself from perceived threats has to be recognized. However, if any of the security measures is likely to affect adversely a neighboring state or states, they too have the right to be consulted and to seek a tribunal under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea if India fail to adopt necessary safeguards or to stop the project altogether. Several friendly countries such as USA / Canada / Singapore / Malaysia have settled such problems through tribunals.

Nuclear Threat

The most frightening development which could affect all the neighbouring countries of India is the plan to use the canal to provide a naval base for nuclear submarines and for vessels carrying nuclear fuel supplied by the nearby Koodankulam nuclear plant. This plant is planned to produce 40% of India’s nuclear fuel which will have to be shipped through the canal to places where nuclear weapons are being manufactured. For obvious reasons India does not want to risk such vessels circumnavigating Sri Lanka. Where will nuclear weapons be kept once manufactured? A terrorist attack on a ship transiting the canal with nuclear fuel or a nuclear vessel could kill even the unborn children in neighbouring countries . The nuclear weapons being manufactured by India no doubt are weapons of mass destruction. Is it a co-incidence that both Koodankulam nuclear plant and the Sethu Project are planned to be operational in the same year - 2008?

In India itself citizens are now demanding to know the safety aspects of Koodankulam 2000 mega watt nuclear power project on the coast of Tamil Nadu, the nuclear fuel complex at Palaya Kadal and the fast breeder reactor at Kal Pattikam where 30% of its staff lost their lives due to tsunami.

It is also disturbing news that the Indian Prime Minister during his current visit to Washington has lobbied to obtain from the US nuclear know-how and nuclear fuel. US and other members of the nuclear club stopped the supply of nuclear fuel to India after India’s second round of nuclear tests in May 1998. India also refuses to be a party to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NNPT). US law bars export of technology that could aid a nuclear programme of any country that has not signed the Treaty. It is evident no doubt that relations between US and India are stronger than ever before owing to perceived common threat from China which is fast securing the oil route from the Persian Gulf to China.

A nuclear accident in the Sethu Canal could have devastating affect on all the SAARC countries. Hence they have a right to demand a guarantee from the Government of India that the canal will not be used as a base for nuclear submarines or ships and that ships carrying nuclear fuel or weapons will also not be allowed under any circumstance.

India leased a nuclear submarine from Russia which was used by Indian Navy to gain experience and know-how in the operation and maintenance of nuclear subs. After gathering the knowledge and experience India is now planning to build nuclear submarines in India with the assistance of Russia. Public utterances by the Indian politicians that the canal is being cut to prevent terrorist attacks, are as hollow as the London tube tunnels. Like the London tunnels, the canal will be a Godsend to the terrorists to attack ships using frogmen or ramming them with suicide bombers. In any event, threats from terrorists is not a long term factor taken to account by the Indian defence establishment. The real and long term threat to India’s pursuit of its naval doctrine to dominate the Indian Ocean, is from China which is very effectively securing its oil route from the Persian to home ports. India fears that China will use the island of Marao leased from Maldives to deploy nuclear submarines fitted with sea launched Dong Feng missiles.

As Deepak Sharma, special envoy of Nepal’s king has said during his recent visit to Sri Lanka, all the countries of SAARC must discuss regionally sensitive issues such as the Sethu Project before implementation. He added that "Nepal is observing with concern the development of the Sethu project and that environmental, social and geopolitical impact of such a project would be felt by all the member countries". Hence we are all stakeholders.

Arundhathi Roy in her book "Algebra of the infinite justice" has explicitly documented how the Indian Government in implementing the Sardar Survor project contemptuously ignored World Bank and global protests. Sethu project may suffer the same fate, particularly if we are misled by the sweet promises of Indian leaders who have no intention to honor them. However SAARC member countries, the potential victims of a nuclear tragedy, must get cracking before they come under a nuclear cloud.

If India is given membership of the Security Council with veto power, India could prevent even the Security Council from imposing any sanction for nuclearizing and militarizing the Sethu Canal. Inevitable damage to environment marine life or shipping could be a tragedy, but a nuclear accident in the canal would be a calamity.