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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Sethu Project - Some facts and fiction

Sri Lanka BUSINESS: Monday, 29 August 2005 - 1:34 AM SL Time
Sri Lanka`s 17 delegates were only interested in the length and the depth of the canal`

' Prof S Ramachandran a member of the Indian delegation to the 2nd round of Indo Lanka talks on the SS project speaking to BBC on 1st August 2005.

`Colombo Port is likely to gain in transshipment volumes. For ports on India`s west coast, the most popular transshipment port is Singapore. With the SSCP Colombo can offer a cost effective alternative. SSCP is also likely to reduce instances of accidental straying of Indian fishermen into Sri Lanka`s waters. SSCP will therefore be a win-win project for both India and Sri Lanka. (Indian High Commission Independence Day Supplement 15th August 2005).

Learned professors observation is symptomatic of an arrogant, newly rich India`s responses to Sri Lanka`s concerns on the impact of the SSCP Project on Sri Lanka`s interests. Sri Lanka`s delegation to the long awaited second round of bilateral talks, consisted of 17 eminent experts on oceanography, marine biology, hydraulics, geology, aquatic resources and marine pollution, drawn from universities and government agencies. By insulting this team professor R has only disgraced himself, if not his team and his country.

BBC reporting from New Delhi on the day bilateral talks were held (and published at 16.37 GMT) also announced that Sri Lankan government has conveyed to India, Sri Lanka has no objection to the SSCP project. That statement of BBC, famous for spinning yarns, belongs to Star Trek type fiction! Sri Lanka`s High Commission in New Delhi promptly enlightened the BBC that Sri Lanka did not give India a go-ahead signal as was reported by BBC. The motto of the BBC appears to be `practical journalism consists in ignoring facts`.

Besides the BBC, the Indian Minister of Shipping too told reporters in New Delhi on 14.04.05 `No, there is no objection from the Sri Lanka government. We have said there is no environment issue involved as it is just dredging work.` Minister and BBC appear to be thriving on spinning yarns.

Facts and fiction continues to flow as seen by the patronizing hopes expressed in India`s Independence Day Supplement. For the information of the Indian High Commission in Colombo India`s Ministry of Shipping published on 1st Nov 2004, in a full page advertisement in all the Indian National papers, proclaiming that with the canal `transshipment of India`s cargo on foreign shores will gradually decrease and after sometime stop altogether. The newly established website of Sethu Samudran Corpn Ltd reproduces this same proclamation or objective to justify the USD560m investment on the project.

Sri Lanka cannot object to India`s attempt to stop its cargo from being transshipped from Sri Lanka`s ports. But why does the HC in Colombo seek to hide that fact and give false hopes by even contradicting the official declarations by the Indian Minister and his able Lieutenant Chairman of Sethu Corporation Ltd who is also chairman of Tuticorin Port Trust. He is also a member of India`s delegation to bilateral talks.

It is interesting to note that the Independence Day Supplement of the High Commission repeats almost verbatim several paragraphs of the advertisement referred to above. But diplomatically, paras referring to the declared objective of India are left out. India HC`s motto seems to be `get the facts first, then distort them as you please`. (Mark Twain)

For the information of the readers, currently most of the containers from India`s west coast ports of Mumbai and Cochin are shipped directly on main line vessels to Europe, US east coast, as well as to the far east including China and Japan. These services are provided with 2500-3000 TEU vessels which are more profitable to operate than the mega vessels. Of the balance some containers (mostly to the US West Coast and Far East) are carried to Singapore by feeder vessels for transshipment. Tuticorin Port on the East Coast of India is the principal port from which Indian cargo is carried by feeder vessels to Colombo for transshipment. Small volumes from Chennai, Cochin and Mumbai are also transshipped from Colombo.

Tuticorin Port is expected to be the principal beneficiary according to the proponents of the Sethu Canal, which will be cut from that port to the Bay of Bengal. Hence the appointment of Chairman Tuticorin Port Trust as the Chairman of Sethu Corporation Limited is understandable. He is as determined as his Minister to stop Indian cargo from being transshipped in Colombo.

Indian High Commission diplomatically omitted the fact that apart from the SS Canal, a major international hub port is being built at Vallarpadam, on the West Coast to compliment the Canal in stopping transshipment of India cargo from foreign shores. The foundation stone for that project too was laid by the Indian PM on 16. 02.2005. Proponents of that project declared at the ceremony that Vallarpadam would bring back India`s containers being transshipped through Colombo. They have even declared that they hope to attract even Sri Lanka`s export/import cargo to be transshipped from Vallarpadam. Hence it is not surprising that belatedly Sri Lankan `business community` has woken up to assess the impending threat by organizing a seminar!

Since these are the facts which cannot be denied, it is a mystery how an Indian diplomat in Colombo expects the Sethu Canal extending from Tuticorin to Bay of Bengal on the east, to increase west coast Indian cargo being transshipped in Colombo. Perhaps there are lies, damn lies and diplomatic lies.

Indian Minister of Shipping speaking about the SS project declared on 24, August 2005, in Chennai that:

a) `there is perfect co-ordination between the two countries Sri Lanka and India

b) the channel would pave the way for development of KKS Port in Sri Lanka.

c) announced the next round of talks with Sri Lankan experts would be held in New Delhi on 1st Aug 2005.

The truth is that it took 7 months for India to respond to GOSL`s repeated request to give a date for a second meeting of experts. The invitation for the 2nd meeting to be held on Monday August 1st was received by the GOSL only on Tuesday the 26th July perhaps expecting GOSL to ask for a postponement. Fortunately Sri Lankan experts were fully prepared to enlighten the Indian experts on the possible adverse impact of the canal on Sri Lanka`s interests. So much for the perfect co-ordination as claimed by the Indian Minister of Shipping.

Secondly despite repeated requests to the Indian Government by Sri Lanka from September 2004 and solemn promises made to our President by the Indian PM, complete copy of EIA and Detailed Project reports were given to our delegation only on 1st August 2005 after the project was launched by the Indian PM. Our delegation had to demand for the complete reports.

As is well known, Pro LTTE DMK of Tamil Nadu and India`s Shipping Minister, a member of DMK are the principal champions of the canal project. Chief Minster Jayalalitha, a strong opponent of the LTTE, refused even to participate in the opening ceremony of the project attended by Sonia Gandhi whose husband was killed by the LTTE. Hence Indian Minister`s attempt to placate the LTTE by raising hopes of the canal benefiting KKS Port is understandable, though fictitious. Facts are a ship sailing to KKS from Colombo through the canal will have to pay canal dues and consume additional fuel due to slow steaming and delays.

Independence Day Supplement also claimed benefits from the canal for the fishermen of both India and Sri Lanka. While this claim belongs to the realm of fiction, the facts are several millions of India fishermen observed Independence Day on 15th August as a BLACK DAY claiming the canal could affect the livelihood of at least 2.5m people in the region. Sri Lankan fishermen too staged demonstrations in Mannar against the project which could deprive the livelihood of several thousand Sri Lankan fishermen. Indian fishermen and their supporters have also filed a law suit with India`s Supreme Court charging that the GOI has not undertaken a proper environmental impact study. Their appeal to the Chennai High Court failed when the HC judge ruled `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 powerful!`.

The High Commission supplement further claims that, `since the channel is only 20 km away from marine breeding grounds there will be no impact on either the coral reefs or mangroves due to dredging or shipping operations`.

Any fishermen would have enlightened the author of the supplement that water cannot be compartmentalized by a canal cut through sand (and not land) and that water flows and fish swim even long distances. Inevitable pollution from ships and turbidity from dredging would drive away the fish and destroy the highly fragile marine biosphere. On what scientific finding the Indian diplomat made this rash assumption is not given.

In a futile attempt to defend the indefensible, the supplement claims that a `monitoring committee to assess the impact of dredging on the environment has been set up consisting of marine biologists and experts in fisheries and agriculture.

Prof. G. Victor Rajamanikam one of India`s eminent coastal geo-morphologist and mineralogist in an interview on 14.08.05 published in the Asia Tribune has stated that the Committee will be able to do only 10% of the total monitoring in the absence of hydrographers, geo-morphologists, sedimentologists mineralogists, oceanographers, climatologists.

Indian Diplomats assurances that the environmentally daring and technologically daunting canal project will not adversely affect the environment, marine biosphere and millions of fishermen in India and Sri Lanka, but will be a win-win project for Sri Lanka are speculations, based on assumptions bereft of any scientific findings.

As professor Raja Mannikam has declared `unless earth system science teams monitor the dredging operations from the start the whole activity will be a failure sooner or later` That would be a win-win situation for the environment and marine fauna and flora of the Palk Straits.

• Independent Journalist

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