DMK chief M Karunanidhi’s dream project, the Sethusamudram Shipping Channel Project, is set to hit international headlines, for all the wrong reasons.
In what could be a major embarrassment to the UPA Government, a high-level team of marine scientists, environmentalists, geologists and marine engineers, appointed by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has found that the Sethusamudram Shipping Channel Project (SSCP) is detrimental to the maritime and environmental resources of the island nation.
The experts were shocked to learn that India, which swears by Panchsheel principles and firmly believes in non-interference in the affairs of other countries, has blatantly violated all global norms like the International Law of Seas and MARPOL Convention, in conceiving the project.
In a report submitted to the Sri Lankan Government, the high-powered team has expressed dismay that though the 167-km long channel lies close to the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) between India and Sri Lanka, the Indian Government has not taken into account the environmental and maritime impact the project could have on Sri Lanka.
As per the International Law of Seas accepted by the United Nations in 1968, India should have sought the concurrence of Sri Lanka before launching the project.
“The Sethusamudram Channel lies close to the IMBL between India and Sri Lanka. Both countries should get the concurrence of each other for any construction activities which fall near the IMBL. India has violated this age-old practice and Sri Lanka will definitely take up this issue,” a source close to the Sri Lankan Government told The Pioneer.
He said Sri Lankan leaders, irrespective of party affiliations, were upset over the indifference shown by the UPA Government towards the island nation while taking up the SSCP.
“You can expect a strongly worded statement by the Sri Lankan Government any time now. The Sethusamudram Project in all likelihood will end up in the United Nations,”said the source.
The MARPOL Convention (International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from ships) is a marine environmental convention designed to minimize pollution of the seas including dumping, oil spillage and exhaust pollution.
It was formed on October 2, 1983 (as a mark of respect to Mahatma Gandhi) and as of December 2005, 136 countries, representing 98 per cent of the world’s shipping tonnage, are parties to the Convention. It has been accepted all over the world that the Gulf of Mannar as well as the Palk Bay are ecological hot spots and nothing should be done to disturb their present status.
The scientific team appointed by Sri Lanka found that the initial dredging, infinite maintenance dredging and subsequent shipping through the channel would be disastrous to Sri Lanka.
Ariyaratne Hewage, secretary, Sri Lankan Education Ministry, was the chairman of the committee while Professor Shantha Hennayake, a geologist of international repute and deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Peradeniya, was the vice-chairman .
The recommendations submitted by the committee to the Sri Lankan Government ( a copy of the executive summary is with The Pioneer) has noted that though the region through which the channel is being built was an ecologically and environmentally fragile area, no action has been taken by the Indian Government to minimize the environmental and maritime impact it could have on Sri Lanka.
Sri Lankan experts have noted that the studies, primarily the project document and the Environmental Impact Analysis (EIA) study carried out by India, prior to the commencement of the SSCP, are inadequate for a number of reasons. “These studies have not identified and evaluated the full extent of the impact. The channel design has not been optimized for minimum impact. The most pressing concern for Sri Lanka is that none of the Indian studies have proposed any mitigation measures for the impact occurring on Sri Lanka,” Prof Hennayake told The Pioneer over telephone from Colombo.
He said Sri Lanka has nothing against India building any channels or canals, as long as they do not disturb the ecological and environmental balance of the region.
“However, this is a project which is detrimental to both India and Sri Lanka. Any dredging work along the placid waters of the Palk Bay is a sure recipe to environmental disaster.
“Strangely, India confined the study of the environmental and ecological impact of the project to their side and forgot the existence of Sri Lanka. This is saddening,” he said.
The experts have warned that the marine wealth (especially fish) in the region would be destroyed permanently with the commissioning of the SSCP.
“The Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Bay, lying between the two countries, are unique, biologically rich areas linking two large marine ecosystems. This stretch of the sea is a rich source of all types of fish. Unless we accurately forecast and adequately mitigate the impact of the dredging of the channel this could destroy this sensitive and fragile marine ecosystem located between the two countries. It would also impact the fishing communities on the northern and north-western coast of Sri Lanka as they mainly fish in the potential area of impact on the Sri Lankan side of the channel,” said the recommendations submitted by the expert committee.
What the committee left unsaid is that the majority of those who will be robbed of their livelihoods will be Tamil fishermen who constitute the majority of the population in the two regions.
The study found that modelling studies were also inadequate. “Modelling needs to be backed by better field data to reach levels of accuracy required to satisfy the requirement of such a major undertaking. Increase in volumetric water exchange across Adam’s Bridge due to the canal and its impact on the ecology of the region has not been studied,” said the report.
The SSCP received negative attention globally in 2010 when Stjepan Mesic, then President of Croatia, expressed concern over the UPA Government’s move to demolish the Ram Sethu for constructing the channel. Mesic had told Swami Maheshwarananda Paramhans, a Yoga guru, that he would ask the UNESCO to declare the Ram Sethu as a World Heritage site.