In a strange and ironic twist, the Indian government has cleared the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project at the worst possible time, when scientific reports done by Indian establishments and others clearly indicate that the Palk Bay has been left reeling under the excessive stress caused by the December 26 Tsunami. These reports also suggest that the Tsunami has left most of the Bay’s biotic and physical resources partially or fully challenged. Regardless of this fact, the Indian ministry has decided to go ahead with the canal dredging work in three weeks time from now.

More ironically, this work would commence at the Palk Strait - a place least studied by the would-be dredgers or by the organization that had prepared the SSCP technical feasibility report. The estimated quantity to be dredged would be 12 to 13 million cubic meters initially. This amounts to 22 to 26% of the dredging work estimated for the Palk Strait area, or 13.6 to 16 % of the dredging work estimated for the entire project. That means that the first one seventh of the dredging work would be initiated within the next 20 days.

The DramaEdit

The Indian Department of Ocean Development’s (DOD) report on Tsunami damage, published in late March, has documented that the sedimentation rate at the coral reefs around the Pamban Island had increased two-fold during the tsunami. A team of scientists from led by Dr.V.J.Loveson of the Council for Industrial and Scientific Research (CISR) New Delhi, studying placer deposits in the area, says an estimated 40 million tonnes of Titanium alone has been deposited in the entire stretch of 500 kilometre coastline hit by the Tsunami. The Zoological Survey of India’s report talks about the consequences of excessive dumping of silt by the Tsunami on the Palk Bay Bay ecosystem. Independent surveys conducted at Kodiakkarai, in Tamil Nadu, in January have revealed that the sea is now half its depth than what it was prior to the Tsunami.

The Indian government has not thought it important to consider the project’s viability in the light of the above studies. Also, it did not occur to Indian government that these study conclusions indicated that the total amount of material that has to be dredged now would actually be many times higher than the original estimate put forward by the project proponents.

Between 1891 and 1995, the Palk Bay and adjoining regions have witnessed as many as 23 cyclones – which means one cyclone every 4 to 5 years. Studies by Dr Sanil Kumar of India’s National Institute of Oceanography, Goa have indicated that during these cyclones, sediments get dumped in Palk Bay. In addition, the region has witnessed three Tsunamis (1881, 1883, 1941) prior to the current one. All these facts indicate that the amount of dredging that would be necessary would actually be many times higher than the amount estimated by National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur.

This irony came to the forefront in a news report published by The New Indian Express in its March 28, 2005 edition. The report said: “In an official note issued early this month, the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) is said to have questioned risks from aspects such as sedimentation due to cyclonic disturbances and threats due to future natural calamities like the tsunami. These issues had not been covered in the environmental impact assessment by Nagpur-based agency NEERI. Its Director S Devotta told this website's newspaper that his agency had not received the PMO note. However, he agreed that NEERI had not covered the sedimentation issue because ‘we had asked the Tuticorin Port Trust to address this aspect with the help of another agency’’ Devotta also stressed that there was no thought on the possibility of tsunamis in this region when the assessment report had been submitted in August 2004. ‘That is why NEERI did not address a tsunami scenario in its study. After the tsunami, any ocean development project - not just the Sethusamudram project - would have to look into this new aspect,’ he conceded.”(emphasis mine).

So, here is a project, where the very agency which first calculated the amount of sediment to be dredged has now openly accepted that it had not studied the issue of sedimentation. The NEERI has also admitted that it had not considered the post-Tsunami scenario. What its director failed to tell the newspaper was that his agency had also not considered the issue of cyclones that frequent the region every 4 or 5 years. However, the Indian Prime Minister’s Office had raised all these questions in its official press note dated March 8, 2005. With respect to this, The New Indian Express report dated 20 May, 2005 reported: ““However, post-tsunami, the plan landed in fresh difficulties, with the Prime Minister’s office reportedly questioning the environmental impact assessment (EIA) study by National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI). The PMO wanted fresh evaluation, as information about the effects of tsunamis and cyclones on the project had not been factored in and noted there were huge gaps in the current knowledge about sedimentation. Subsequently, a team of experts studied the project and made it clear that Gulf of Mannar would not face any threat from the tsunami in the future and the apprehensions expressed by the PMO were cleared.” (emphasis mine). That makes this drama more interesting! The above-mentioned study by experts that had the power to clear earlier doubts raised by the Indian Prime Minister’s office on the project’s feasibility has been completed in a record time of 13 days (April 1-13). What NEERI was unable to achieve in its two years of study (13.05.2002 to 9.06.2004), this anonymous group of experts had accomplished in a matter of just two weeks! The meaning of the Drama

Post-December 2004, three simulation models by Prof. Steven N. Ward, of the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA and Prof. Aditya Riyadi, of Pusat Penelitian Kelautan Institut Teknologi, Bandung, Indonesia, have given a clear picture about the pattern of tsunami wave interaction with Palk Bay. These models have been confirmed correct by the data on tsunami waves received from JASON 1 satellite and also by the various post tsunami field surveys. These simulation models indicate that the northeastern, central, eastern portions of Palk Bay received waves of higher energy and thus these areas remained more turbulent during the Tsunami. This means, the extent of sedimentation and thus the extent of damage to the marine ecosystem in this part of the Bay should have been much higher than the other areas of the Bay. Incidentally, all these areas fall well within Sri Lanka’s territorial waters.

The above said simulation models have also indicated that the waves traveling into the Palk Bay both from north and south have a tendency to travel toward the eastern and central half of the Bay during tsunami. Dr. Usha Natesan of Anna University, Chennai has made a similar observation in 2002 from her study on the role of satellites in monitoring sediment dynamics. As stated earlier, all these areas fall within Sri Lanka’s territorial waters.

The NEERI’s bogus estimate on the amount of dredged material is not the only issue that should concern us. The Technical Feasibility Report (TFR) it had prepared along with the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) raises a still more serious issue. It states: ““The costs may face upward revision as it has been observed that in more than 50% of the dredging contract there has been very large cost overruns mainly due to poor soil investigation. Investigations carried out in this study are based on sub-bottom profile except for three borings in Adam’s Bridge and there is apprehension that hard strata will be encountered in Palk Bay/Palk Strait area. If bottom strata turn out to be rock, the dredging costs will change drastically, as blasting might be required.”(Executive Summary, SSCP TFR, NEERI, page XVIII, emphases mine).

Even for its bogus estimate of the amount of dredged material, the NEERI report had not identified specific dumpsites. With respect to this, consider the following assessment: “The total quantity of spoils that would come from capital dredging is supposed to be 81.5 to 88.5 X 106 m3. The quantum of dredged spoil that would come from maintenance dredging is supposed to be 0.1 X 106 m3 / year. Specific dumpsite has been identified only for 8.5 to 9.5 % of the total dredged spoil. Idea about the nature of the dredged spoil is available presently, only for about 38.5 to 40.5 % of the total dredged spoil. No idea exists at the present time on the nature of the dredged spoil that would be generated for 59.5 to 61.5 % of the total dredged material. We do not know the exact dumpsites for about 90.5 to 91.5 % of the dredged material.”

So where would they dump the material they would be dredging 20 days from now? With no consistent answer to this question, the project is getting ready for its launch.

Where would the dredged materials travel during normal times and during the times of cyclones and tsunami? As indicated by the studies of Dr. Usha Natesan, Steven N. Ward and Aditya Riyadi, they would be getting dumped in the Sri Lankan portion of Palk Bay. Blasting, if resorted to in Palk Strait, would sound the final death knell for the Palk Bay ecosystem.

The Tad S Murty puzzleEdit

Dr. Murty is an expatriate Indian who had served as the chief editor of the reputed International Tsunami Journal “Science of Tsunami Hazards” for over two decades. He is considered as one of the leading scientists on tsunami in general and on the tsunamis of the Indian Ocean in particular. The Indian Prime Minister’s office invited him late this January for knowing his views on the establishment of the tsunami warning system for India. As he finished his briefing on the tsunami warning system for India he had something else also to share with the Indian authorities - that was on the proposed alignment of the SSCP with respect to tsunamis that the Indian east coast might be subjected to in the future. “I like this (Sethusamudram) project’, he said, ‘but there is a flaw. The entrance to the channel should be reoriented towards the eastern side. Otherwise, there is a chance that it may create a deepwater route for another devastating tsunami. This may cause huge destruction in Kerala.”

The average speed of the tsunami wave in the deep sea had been calculated to be around 800 to 850 km per hour. However, the speed with which it had moved into Palk Strait was astonishingly slow. It worked out to be just 30 km per hour. For Nagapattinam continental shelf, it was around 200 km per hour. The simulation models of Steven and Aditya point to us that the areas through which the most turbulent waves have entered Palk Bay both from North and South are the areas where the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal is to be located. It is this point that has been of concern for Dr. Murty. When he said Kerala would face destruction, what he actually meant was that drastic consequences were in store for the entire shoreline extending from Dhanushkodi to Ernakulam, and from the Delft Island to Colombo. The steeply placed Palk Bay, it may be inferred from his statement, has actually shielded the above said shoreline from the harsh impact of the Tsunami waves approaching it from Bay of Bengal located in the northeast. The deepwater route of the SSCP has two acute bends in its course. These bends would obstruct the waves gushing through the canal, and thus there would be excessive sedimentation in the upper and lower courses of the canal. The impact of the high-energy waves on the bends would destroy these bends, thus paving way for the waves to enter the central portion of Palk Bay. Sediments carried by these waves would make the central portion of the Bay much shallower. Prior to the Tsunami, it was said that this 78 km stretch in the project would have had an adequate depth of 12 meters. Post-Tsunami, there has been no study on this. And, with a canal that has the potential to transport high-energy waves from north and south during cyclones and tsunamis in place, this area will certainly become a candidate for dredging. This would also increase the amount of turbidity in Palk Bay considerably. With all this, the amount of material that has to be dredged would dramatically increase.

Thus, continued dredging in the total stretch of 152.2 km would become the order of the day. Increased, nonstop, unplanned dredging would destroy a sea having one of the highest levels of primary production in the world.


The SSCP would probably be the only offshore project in the world in which the project planners have committed publicly that they have not considered the high risk factors and would go forward regardless of this fact. Even the worst tsunami that humankind has witnessed was unable to break the pertinent vow of the project proponents to remain ignorant of every environmental parameter capable of destroying the project’s viability.

Instead of concentrating on an analysis of the factors which indicate that the project is unviable, the project proponents have been busy constructing fictional discourses on its potential utility. Of course, the best fiction churned out has been the canal’s apparent ability to contain the threat posed by Sea Tigers led by Col. Soosai. The target of this born-to-win discourse was Congress president Sonia Gandhi, and true to expectations, this has achieved its instantaneous results. This discourse’s fictional force simply blew the realism of the Indian Prime Minister’s office and the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project is now well under way!

For the project proponents, ignorance is bliss. And the Indian external affairs minister Natwar Singh can be expected to make a case for this Orwellian sentence during his visit to Sri Lanka on June 9. It is for Sri Lanka to decide whether it is willing to be part of this fiction?

I thank Mr.Ramesh Gopalakrishnan, London, for his help rendered in editing this article.