India’s Sethu Canal Project :Que Sera Sera for Sri Lanka

by Willie Mendis

( January, 18, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) India’s Sethu Canal Project is currently at the centre of a "Category 5 spiritual tornado" which has formed in the Palk Straits. It is moving at deadly speed and the Rama Sethu or Adam’s Bridge is directly in its path. In its present alignment the Rama Sethu will therefore suffer heavy destruction, causing severe distress to the millions of Hindus in India who venerate lord Rama whom they believe built it to cross over to Lanka with his Vanara Sena to rescue Sita from the clutches of Ravana and to take her back to India. The links of the Rama Sethu to Sri Lanka was reported in the Daily News of 12 November 2007 which reproduced a print that appeared in Zee News. The latter had commissioned a Team of investigative journalists to trace the evidence of Lord Ram and his times, in India and in neighbouring Sri Lanka. They discovered in the island nation one of the most important places mentioned in the epic Ramayana. In Sri Lanka, they visited Sita Eliya close to Nuwara Eliya where they saw statues of lord Ram, his brother Lakshman, Sita, and of Hanuman. They reported that it was the place where Sita stayed after Ravana had abducted her. They also reported that close to Sita Eliya they saw a mountain structure at a distance, which resembles a sleeping Hanuman in his giant form. Furthermore, in proximity to Sita Eliya they had visited the Chinmaya Kovil inside which was a huge 16 foot granite statue of Hanuman that was a copy of the mountain structure, except that it was in a vertical position. The journalists reported that hundreds come everyday to offer prayers at this Kovil, which included both expat Indians as well as Buddhist Sri Lankans. Nonetheless, they found that people in Sri Lanka generally regard Sita Eliya as a beautiful place to picnic, and that only a handful knew either about Rama or Ravana. Accordingly, the backdrop to the Rama Sethu may not be as strong in the island nation as is its bonding with the Palk Strait. Hence, the reason why India’s decision to create a navigable channel in the latter began to impact public interest in Sri Lanka in varying degrees.

Although the original proposal to create a channel in the Palk Strait was conceived in 1860 by a British marine commander, it was considered seriously for the first time only in 1955 after India gained its independence. The objective at the time was to connect the Gulf of Mannar with the Palk Bay to link with the Tuticorin Harbour Project, which was already on the drawing boards. Its rationale seemed justified because the ships at that time were smaller break bulk vessels operating between Europe and South Asia. This prompted the Sri Lanka Government to consider a Cabinet Paper which suggested the moving of the import-export trade from the seaport of Colombo to KKS to attract the liner shipping lines traversing the proposed Sethu Canal in the Palk Strait. Nonetheless, what eventually happened was that the Indian Government went ahead only with the Tuticorin Harbour Project, and the Sri Lanka Government decided to shelve the entire episode.

Meanwhile, it is pertinent to mention that in the 1890s, the Consultant Engineer of the Railways in Madras had proposed a rail link to connect Madras to Colombo via Rameshwaran and Mannar. It too did not materialize for reasons not known, although the Pamban Bridge was later built to connect Rameshwaran island to the Indian mainland, and a Bridge was also built to connect Talaimannar with the island’s mainland at Mannar. The Palk Strait - in between was traversed by ferry carrying passengers and goods between the two countries. On the other hand, in 2002, the Sri Lanka Government proposed to India to revive the proposal to build a Land Bridge across the Palk Strait. The latter, which had a good reception in New Delhi, was referred to the backwoods by the Tamil Nadu Government which considered that the proposal was mooted at an inappropriate time when a major conflict was raging in northern Sri Lanka.

The Sethu Canal Project was however kept alive in India, especially by the interest groups in the south. In February 1999, the Union Minister of Defense formally inaugurated the project to excavate the Palk Straits. The latter implied that the stated aim of ships to avoid circumnavigating Sri Lanka, included naval ships. The planning of the project had reportedly been undertaken by the Indian Navy and Coast Guard. Consequently, it appeared that the first stage of the project was to commence with a canal to serve naval objectives of India, to be followed by expansions to serve commercial shipping. The Indian Government firmed its intent by allocating funds in its 2000/2001 Budget to undertake a feasibility study. The techno-economic aspects of the latter was assigned to the Shipping Corporation of India which established that the project was viable. The study of its environmental aspects was commissioned to NEERI. By the time the latter was completed, the then Indian Government under Prime Minister Vajpayee’s stewardship, was defeated at the General Elections.

The present Indian Government which assumed office in May 2004, formulated a Common Minimum Programme to reflect the aspirations of its coalition partners. It committed to expeditiously complete the Sethu Canal Project which was tasked to the Union Minister of Shipping, Transport and Highways, who was a DMK party member of the alliance from the Southern State of Tamil Nadu. His vision was project implementation. Consequently, at record pace, the Sethu Project cleared all hurdles and was formally launched by the Indian Prime Minister on July 2, 2005. It was targeted that the dredging of the canal will be completed in a time frame for it to be made navigable by November 2008. A Special Purpose Vehicle called the Sethusamudram Corporation Ltd was established to steer the project to its eventual operation.

The project since its pre-approval stage has had to confront a litany of protests from inerest groups within and outside India. It’s launching ceremony itself was not attended by Ms. Jeyaram Jayalalitha the influential former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu State, who is also the leader of the AIADMK. The project authorities have been in and out of Indian Courts, as several parties had filed petitions on various concerns of public interest. The Courts had however held against the petitioners.

During this time, the bilateral implications had also hotted up as a consequence of the media blitz that followed the decision to implement the project. The latter prompted Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry to issue a Press Release on 14 October 2004, indicating that the Government had appointed an Inter- Ministerial Committee to report on the implications of the project on Sri Lanka. Its importance was highlighted by the present and former Presidents of Sri Lanka who had included the project as a key item on their agenda when they met with the Indian Prime Minister. Both sides agreed to set up Expert Committees to identify concerns that could then be considered by the Indian Government for it’s mitigation. It was even a matter raised in Sri Lanka’s Parliament in July 2005, for which Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister assured the House that, "Sri Lanka will take all the necessary steps to safeguard the wellbeing and the interests of our people and our country. He added that, "we would naturally do this in a calibrated and graduated manner opting first for a co-operative and consultative approach. At the moment, we are engaged in that exercise. We will consider further action thereafter if and when necessary. Should the canal be determined to pose adverse effects to Sri Lanka, the Government will explore appropriate measures and take all necessary steps to safeguard our interests."

What has happened to date is now history. Its outcome of real interest to Sri Lanka has however emerged from a totally unexpected source. The Rama Sethu has returned to the forefront of the Palk Strait. It has forced the Indian Government to take an "about turn" in its initial response to a petition being heard by India’s highest Court. This unprecedented flip-flop action of a government reflects the seriousness of the issue before the Supreme Court. It had two matters to be resolved. One was to consider the declaration of the Rama Sethu as an archaeological monument The other was to determine whether the alignment of the canal through Rama Sethu shall remain unchanged. The day of reckoning is near, as the Supreme Court had accepted the Government’s request for a three month period for it to submit a fresh affidavit in place of the two it has withdrawn, after providing an opportunity for representations to be considered on the matter. In the latter connection, the government had appointed a Committee of Eminent Persons whose report is now awaited. It is however pertinent to mention that the credibility of some of the Members of the Committee has already been challenged, and that even the scrapping of the entire committee has been sought. In this situation, the Supreme Court has become the focal point on the matter, as the stakes involved transcend key issues of national and international importance. The Court has already ruled that dredging work should be halted in the precinct of the Rama Sethu, and that no damage shall be caused to it in any way. In the meantime, it was recently reported that at the Court hearing scheduled in the next few days, the Counsel for the Government may ask for an extension of time for the submission of the fresh affidavit.

For Sri Lanka, the aforesaid does not matter as the 167 km long, 300-meter wide canal itself remains intact. What is at stake is the making of a choice in its alignment. At present, the dredging involves four sections of the canal’s total length. One section in the Palk Strait area comprising a length of 13.57 kms is already being dredged by the Dredging Corporation of India. Another section of 40.86kms to be dredged, is also in the Palk Strait. Two other sections to be dredged consisting of 11kms and 20.05kms are at the Rama Sethu area. The latter is what is being disputed. Any change therefore in the alignment of the Canal maybe a matter for consideration by Sri Lanka’s Committee of Technical Experts. Such change has however been already regarded as not possible by India’s key project proponents. Be that as it may, it will be apt for Sri Lanka to be appraised of the emerging status of the project. The latter has become somewhat delicate as it has been agreed between the leaders of both India and Sri Lanka that, "continuation of the interaction between the concerned technical experts from both sides (are to be held) as and when necessary." Consequently, the issue will be which country determines the necessity for a meeting. In this connection, it is pertinent to note that Sri Lanka’s request for a meeting made some months ago, is yet under consideration by its Indian counterpart.

Furthermore, the leaders had also agreed that Sri Lanka’s proposal for economic co-operation within the Palk Bay area will be presented in the form of a Paper, which would then be the subject of study by an India–Sri Lanka Expert Group whose report could be considered during the on going CEPA negotiations. The latter is apparently in limbo as the Agency tasked by Sri Lanka to negotiate on matters pertaining to CEPA has not made any headway on the Palk Bay proposal.

Be that as it may, it will be pertinent for the Government of Sri Lanka to reflect on the potentials of its international commitments related to the Trans-Asian Railway and the Asian Highway. Both India and Sri Lanka have initialed its covenants. Its implementation has a direct connection to the Palk Strait regardless of what happens to the Sethu Canal Project. Sri Lanka is therefore at the gateway to an unfolding future involving a scenario which necessarily entails the visioning of a Transnational Spatial Strategy across the Palk Strait. The latter will hold the key to configure the development proposals envisaged in the Palk Bay area.

In the meantime, it must be remembered that Sri Lanka and India cannot quarrel. Whether it be over the Sethu Canal Project, or Palk Bay development, or even Kachchativu Islet, our two countries are coupled with a long history of common heritage. As the revered Mahatma Gandhi thought, " It is – at least it should be – impossible for India and Ceylon to quarrel." The latter makes it difficult to go beyond the assurances on record in the Hansard regarding the extremes that may arise on the Sethu Project. On the other hand, the future of the Palk Strait may rest on the Rama Sethu. The ground reality for the island nation may therefore lie in the popular lyric of yesteryear, Que Sera Sera, whatever will be, will be.

( The Writer, Professor Emeritus, University of Moratuwa )

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