Rohan J. AbeywickremaEdit

(Manitham, 23 May 2005) [1]

Hereafter Sri Lanka seems to have concluded that it will have a major impact on the hub-status of the port of Colombo

Sri Lanka seems to have decided to object to the construction of the canal based on this presumed loss to the maritime business in Sri Lanka. A seems to have found a good excuse in the environmental aspects to object to the construction nil.

The study by National Environmental Engineering Research Institute in India evaluated 3 depths. The forecasts for traffic by Shipping Corporation of India for the 3 drafts are as follows.

According to the NEERI study the average time saved per voyage is 25 hrs. (Saving of 300 NM at a speed assumed at 12 knots)

This saving does not take in to account the maneuvering time and reduced speeds when transiting through the canal.

The real saving could be estimated at around 12 hrs for a 12 knot vessel.

Sethusamudram canal saves 12 hrs

Panama canal saves 20 ¼ days Suez canal saves 30 ½ days

If a vessel is transiting from Singapore to Aden via Dondra Head If a vessel is transiting from Singapore to Aden via Senthusamudram canal.

The difference in distance is NEGLIGIBLE, if not more.

Assuming the canal depth is 12.5 meters the vessels that can transmit will have only a draft of about 11 meters.

The Vessel having depth to 11 meters will have a maximum capacity of about 2000 TEUs.

The sizes of vessels operating in the East West route is much bigger that the 2000 TEUs that can transit through Sethudamudram Canal.

Under those circumstances the vessels which are operating in the East West route will not use the Sethusamudram canal.

Evaluating the scenario of Kochi becoming a transshipment hub

The assumption is that the main line vessels will come via Dondra Head .

Only the feeder vessels operating through the East Coast of India & Bangladesh would use Sethusamudram canal.

Estimated number of feeder vessels sailing to this region as per current operations are 36 and these 36 sailings will transit the Sethusamudram canal.

What are the other vessels that will transit the canal?

The Shipping Corporation of India estimates 2004 vessels per year in total.

Averaging 175 vessels per month and 6 vessels per day. Is India building the Sethusamudram canal only for 6 – 7 vessels to transit the canal in a day?

Vessels sailing from Chennai to Colombo also benefits from the Sethusamudram canal

Chennai – Cololombo Via Sethusamudram canal - 524 NM and via Dondra Head - 590 NM

All main line vessels will anyway have to go past Colombo.& these vessels would be spending a longer time to reach either Tuticorin or Kochi compared with Colombo.

The source of income & tariff of charges is not available in NEERI study.

The cost of building the canal at 12 meters depth is estimated to be Indian Rs. 24 bll or USD 600mll

Has India evaluated the cost benefit for this investment adequately which seems to have little or no commercial advantage?

Then why are they preparing to build this canal?

The article titled “ Geo-Strategic implications of Sethusamudram” by Taraki in the Daily Mirror of Wednesday 06th October 2004, is an eye opener.

The Strategic importance of this by-pass should also be understood in the light of New Delhi’s ambitions to become the Indian Oceans predominant naval power.

As we all know K M Panikkar, the architect of India’s naval doctrine, argued in his works more than fifty years ago that New Delhi should recognize the significance of the Indian Ocean for the development of its commercial activities, trade and security. (“The strategic Problems of the Indian ocean” and “ India &Indian Ocean” – published in 1944-1945)

Regretting the “unfortunate tendency to overlook the sea in the discussion of India’s defence problems”, Panikkar remarked; “India never lost her independence till she lost the command of the sea in the first decade of the 16th Century”

Advocating that the “Indian Ocean must remain truly Indian”, Panikkar suggested the Albuquerque-style security of India by firmly holding distant places like Singapore, Mauritius, Aden and Socotra, the arid island off the coast of Yemen.

He also emphasized broadening of the political hemisphere of the Indian State, so as to include Ceylon and Burma for defence purposes. Cautioning against the Chinese trust, he wrote that the “movement towards the south may, and in all probability will be reflected in the naval policy of resurgent China.

In later years, another popular Indian author, K B Vaidya, in his work “ The Naval Defence of India” – keenly supported the ideas of Panikkar.

However , until the seventies India was largely pre-occupied with the defence and security of its mainland and invested little in naval power.

Two events at the time jolted the defence planners in Delhi to take a more serious view of the Indian Ocean neighborhood in terms of India’s security.

The acquisition of Diego Garcia by the US . America’s decision to send the aircraft carrier USS enterprise to the Bay of Bengal in December 1971 in a show of support for Pakistan during the Bangladesh war.

The strategic defence review of the Indian Navy published in 1998 stipulated four specific tasks. 1. Sea based deterrent 2. Economic and energy security. 3. Forward presence and 4. Naval diplomacy.

The Sethudamudram Project would help India overcome many of these concerns and worries about holding the power balance over the strategic sea-lanes in its hands in this part of the world.

This is the context in which we in Colombo should examine the geo-political implications of Sethusamudram for Sri Lanka. And no one can ignore Jaffna’s proximity to the project.