Thursday, March 17, 2011

Supreme Court to Decide on Sethusamudram Ship Channel Plan

By P. Manoj | Live Mint

The shipping ministry is ready to process a 90% escalation in the cost of the stalled Sethusamudram ship channel project, but a final decision will rest on a ruling from the Supreme Court, two ministry officials said.

The court is hearing plea filed by individuals and groups opposed to the project—which requires slicing through a reef between India and Sri Lanka that’s considered sacred and ecologically sensitive.

“Once the R.K. Pachauri committee submits its report and the Supreme Court allows the work to continue, a meeting of the public investment board and the Union cabinet will be held to approve the revised project cost of Rs.4,600 crore,” said one of the two shipping ministry officials mentioned earlier.

The earlier project cost of Rs.2,427.40 crore approved in 2005 has been fully utilized, necessitating a revised bill for the project, he added. Only about 40% of the total project work is completed. The near twofold rise in costs is mainly a result of higher dredging prices over the two years of delay in executing the project.

A second shipping ministry official confirmed the development. Both the officials did not want to be identified. A spokesperson for the shipping ministry declined to comment.

Billed as India’s Suez Canal, the Sethusamudram project is expected to reduce the sailing time between the country’s east and west coasts by as much as 30 hours, or 424 nautical miles, by creating a channel between the Indian mainland and Sri Lanka. A nautical mile is 1.82km.

Currently, ships have to endure a long detour around Sri Lanka due to the presence of a reef known as Adam’s Bridge, or Ram Sethu.

The Sethusamudram project involves boring a 167km long, 300m wide shipping lane connecting the Gulf of Mannar and Bay of Bengal via Palk Straits and Palk Bay, cutting through Adam’s Bridge.

Hindus consider the reef sacred. They believe Ram’s army built a bridge from near Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu to be able to reach Sri Lanka for an epic war. Environmentalists fear the project will destroy the sensitive ecology and marine life in the region.

Dredging in the Adam’s Bridge region had to be stopped following a Supreme Court order on 31 August and 14 September 2007 asking the government to set up an expert panel on the matter.

Work on the non-controversial Palk Straits region continued till July 2009.

The Centre set up a panel of experts headed by Pachauri, director general of The Energy and Resources Institute, a non-profit body working on sustainable energy, to consider an alternative alignment for the project. The panel is yet to submit its report. Pachauri did not respond to an email sent on 10 March seeking comments on the status of the work entrusted to the committee and a possible time frame for submitting the report.

The Sethusamudram project required dredging 82.5 million cu.m of sand and rocks from the sea bed. When the work was stopped in 2009, only 33.99 million cu.m had been dredged, but the cost was fully utilized. Dredging for the new lane started on 2 July 2005 and was to be completed in 180 weeks, or about 3.5 years.

Experts say the stoppage will undo the work already done.

“Whatever work has been done has been undone,” said G.Y.V. Victor, a certified dredge master and secretary general of the Eastern Dredging Association of India. “If and when the dredging work re-starts, it has to begin from scratch because the areas that were dug to create the new lane must have accumulated silt by now.”


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