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The Palk Strait: Nature's bi-lateral buffer zone

Professor Willie Mendis
Senior Professor, University of Moratuwa


December 26, 2004, was particularly significant to the Indian Ocean. A tsunami resulted from the 9.3 Richter scale underwater earthquake with it's epicenter off Indonesia's western coast near it's Aceh province on the northern tip off Sumatra. It had a devastating effect on the coastal states which fronted the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka suffered its worst natural disaster in history. It's summary toll as reflected in the assessment undertaken by the ADB / JBIC / World Bank, mirrors the scale of damage to the island nation.

All of the above damage happened within a span of a couple of daylight hours. It's fallout will however continue to be felt for an entire generation.

Just a mere three months before 26 / 12, Sri Lanka's public pulse was beating heavily over another issue of grave concern in the Indian Ocean. It's focus was across the Palk Strait linking the Gulf of Mannar and the Bay of Bengal. At it's epicenter was India's proposed 'Sethusamudra Ship Canal Project (SSCP)'. The groundswell resulting from it fuelled by a massive media hype was equally earth shattering on both sides of the Palk Strait.

On the Sri Lanka side, it's Ministry of Foreign Affairs was compelled to issue a press release on 14 October 2004, to calm the rising tide of public concern over the proposed SSCP. It's opening sentence uniquely reflected a valiant effort at damage control, as follows :

"During the past weeks, there has been extensive public discussion regarding the perceived implications arising for Sri Lanka from the Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project to be implemented by the Government of India".

The press release added that, "overall, the views expressed in the public domain in this regard have arisen because of the possible broad repercussions of the project on Sri Lanka in environmental and economic terms, as well as concerns arising from its proximity to the territorial seas and the landmass of Sri Lanka". It further informed the public that the government had taken these concerns on board and had appointed an Inter-Ministerial Committee to report on same, while simultaneously being engaged in a process of consultation with India. Just over two weeks after the issue of the press release, the visiting President of Sri Lanka met with the Prime Minister of India.

At same, the two leaders agreed that an exchange of views on the economic and environmental aspects of the SSCP in relation to Sri Lanka would be arranged between the technical experts of both countries. More significantly, the Indian Prime Minister assured the visiting President that, "any issue that may have adverse effects for Sri Lanka will be resolved in Sri Lanka's favour".

On the other hand, this project which was one specified in the Common Minimum Programme of the United Progressive Alliance government elected to power at the Centre in the 14th Lok Sabha, was not called off. Seven weeks after the aforesaid meeting of the two leaders, the dreaded tsunami struck in the Indian Ocean. It reeled the SSCP to the backburner of public domain in Sri Lanka. Consequently, there was no public discussion to learn about the outcome of the Inter-Ministerial Committee Report.

However, a very discreet article appeared in a local daily datelined 14 March 2005, making reference to a meeting between the technical experts of the two countries held in New Delhi in January 2005. The implication of it's header speculated whether the public hype on India's Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project was 'much ado about nothing'. It's intrigue therefore fuelled the notion that the experts' meeting has had the desired effect of downplaying the project in Sri Lanka's favour. The public would therefore welcome news of the Inter-Ministerial Committee Report, and of the outcome of the meeting held between experts, with the Sri Lanka team reportedly led by the Chairman of NARA.

Meanwhile however, on the Indian side of the Palk Strait, the reports which have emerged suggest that although the momentum had slowed, the processing of the pre-approval stage for environmental clearance has now steered the project to its penultimate phase.

Understandably, for a project of this nature, it has been the most time consuming stage involving the logistics of holding public hearings in the coastal districts fronting the channel alignment. In same, the Tuticorin Port Trust (TPT), the nodal agency for the project, has been actively pursuing its speedy completion. It began its work on 09 June 2004 with the filing of the Application with the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), to obtain the 'no objection certificate (NOC)', in order to get the environmental clearance from the Union Minister of Environment & Forestry (MoEF). This had triggered the logistical chain in support of public hearings that necessitated the distribution of the EIA Report & its Executive Summary to all District Environmental Engineers in the relevant coastal districts. It's drama however began when a writ petition was filed on 17 December 2004 in the Chennai High Court by the Coastal Action Network (an environmental NGO), seeking the Court's directions on the grounds that the public hearings were not in compliance as required by law. The Court ruled that 'the petition was premature and instead directed the Collectors of the six coastal districts to complete the hearings expeditiously'. The ruling had caused controversy when the Court had also observed as follows :

"In the name of environmental protection, scientific and technological progress of the country should not be obstructed. No doubt, the environment must be protected, but at the same time we must never overlook the basic aim of our country, which is to make India a powerful & modern state".

The above had prompted a critic of repute in India to write that, 'the Chennai High Court should have analysed the petition based only on its legal merits, which amounted to looking into any discrepancies in public hearings for this project vis - a - vis the prevailing regulations`85`85`85`85.. rather than come out as a supporter of the Sethusamudram Project'.

The TPT vigorously pursued the Court directive for the expeditious completion of the public hearings. Thus, when the last hearing had been completed on 02 February 2005, the Chairman / TPT had addressed a letter to the TNPCB on 07 February, requesting that the NOC be sent expeditiously to the Union MoEF, in keeping with the Court order. The Chairman / TPT had also called on the Chairperson / TNPCB on 10 February. In addition, he had sent a reminder on 18 February to the TNPCB about the NOC. However since the TNPCB was maintaining a deliberate & stoic silence, the TPT field a petition in the Chennai High Court to punish it's Chairperson for contempt of Court for deliberate disobedience & non - compliance of the High Court order. It was reported on 07 March 2005, that a Division Bench of the Court had dismissed the petition after the Tamil Nadu Government's assurance and explanation that its attention was focused on rehabilitation and providing relief to victims of the December 26 Tsunami. The Tamil Nadu Government also assured Court that the NOC would be given shortly. It follows from the above that it will not be long before the Centre will need to decide on a time - frame for the implementation of the SSCP. The TPT had also acted in parallel to put in place the organizational & technical delivery systems for the project. Thus, a Special Project Vehicle (SPV) had been approved by the Union Government in September 2004, with IRs. 350 crores pledged in funding. In addition, visits had been made to the Suez & Panama Canal Authorities, followed by the drafting of an M.O.U. to be entered into with the Suez Canal Authority. The latter & NEERI's EIA Report are now reportedly being clarified by the Prime Minister's office.

Further, the TPT had followed up on the EIA Report with the preparation of a 'Detailed Project Report (DPR), by commissioning an independent consultancy firm, Larsen & Toubro Ltd Ramboll (Denmark) and IFU (the Danish Industrialization Fund for Developing Countries). The DPR had been reportedly submitted in end November 2004, providing the detailed design & alignment of the canal, shore facilities required, & infrastructure. It had also included three additional surveys comprising i) a hydrographic study to understand the sea characteristics & it's depth upto 1 km, ii) a new study to estimate the quantity of maintenance dredging to be done in the canal using radioactive isotopes, and iii) a new study on ship maneuvering behaviour in the ship canal using mathematical modelling.

In these circumstances, it can be inferred that the SSCP is very much alive in the post - tsunami period. Accordingly, if it is reflected in India's Comprehensive Maritime Policy now being drafted, it may provide further impetus for the project's advance to a time - frame of implementation. In this connection, it was significant that the TATA Consultancy Report of December 2003 on the development of coastal shipping had concluded that, "to cut down on sailing distance & time, the Sethusamudram Canal Project is the answer, keeping in mind not only the advantages to Indian coastal shipping". Since then however, the Vallarpadam International Container Transshipment Terminal at Kochi, has come on stage. It's first phase will have a capacity of one million TEUs to be handled by a 600 - metre quay, six Super Post - Panamax Quay Cranes, and an on - dock railhead serviced by rail mounted gantry cranes. In addition, the new Terminal will be connected by a new four - lane bridge & highway access to the "golden quadrilateral" road network. These new developments suggest an immediate future of many concerns in the Indian Ocean generally, & on the Palk Strait in particular. It follows therefore that for Sri Lanka, it is timely to trigger the BCIS - anchored "Centre for India - Sri Lanka Studies". It's focus on the Palk Strait would become a justifiable priority, although with the combined impact of the tsunami rebuilding process, it may pose a huge challenge. Yet, both are essentials in nation - building. It is ironic that the proponents of the SSCP maintain that the tsunamis pose no threat to it, because its channel will be in the sheltered portion of India's east coast. In other words, it is perceived that Sri Lanka will shadow the threats from a tsunami. Yet, the disruption of the Palk Strait which has evolved as a natural buffer for the benefit of both countries may not then help Sri Lanka to shelter the SSCP.

Hence, with the financial feasibility for India's coastal shipping being a prime lever for the SSCP, coupled with the emergence of Vallarpadam ICTT, the new Maritime Policy being also envisaged by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), may need to include an innovative win - win concept to retain Colombo as the hub - port in South Asia. It may thus be worth the while to revisit the tripartite agreement which nearly materialised during the late Minister Ashroff's stewardship, between the SLPA, Shipping Corporation of India & the Ports Authority of Pakistan. Its outcome might offset the scorecard for the SSCP in the shadow of Sri Lanka with no guarantee for its protection in the Palk Strait when it could no longer serve as the natural buffer between India and Sri Lanka.