N.K. RAGHUPATHY, Chairman, Tuticorin Port Trust (TPT), asserts that environmental viability has been given prime importance in the Sethusamudram project right from 1996. In reply to concerns voiced by environmentalists that the Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project (SSCP), if implemented, will cause irreversible damage to the ecology of the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Bay, he said: "We looked at the environmental viability of different canal alignments and the most viable route has been chosen. Then we finalised the techno-economic feasibility report."
According to him, the latest alignment has several advantages compared to the earlier ones. First, the project does not involve any dredging in the Gulf of Mannar except in Adam's Bridge. Secondly, in Adam's Bridge, only a 6 km stretch of sandstone will be dredged, "without any loss of flora and fauna". Thirdly, the sea where dredging will be carried out in Adam's Bridge in the Gulf of Mannar will be 6 km away from Van Tivu in the Tuticorin harbour area and 20 km away from the Shingles island near Rameswaram. These two islands are among the 21 islands that form the National Marine Park. So one has to come to the technical conclusion that the environmentalists' apprehension is unfounded, Raghupathy says. The plying of ships will not endanger the coral reefs, he asserts.
Environmentalists fear that there are two ways in which the plying of ships could endanger the ecology. Dredged spoil dumped in the vicinity of the islands could cause mass, suspended sedimentation. The canal would cause a change in the magnitude and direction of currents in the Gulf of Mannar because it will be 300 metres wide, and the changed currents will flow towards the 21 islands.
Raghupathy denies that this will happen. The NEERI Environmental Impact Assessment report has pinpointed places where the dredged spoil would be dumped. It has established that if the dredged material is dumped at a depth of 25 metres and below, the flume would surface 1.5 km away. But the dumping sites identified are 25 km away from the Marine Park. "So there is no possibility of sedimentation reaching the islands because of the huge distances involved," he says.
NEERI has done a mathematical modelling called Depth Integrated Velocity and Solute Transport (DIVAST) on the change in the direction and magnitude of the sea currents. "It established that during high spring tide, currents will reach a maximum (speed) of 0.7 metres a second along the canal alignment, not towards either the Indian coast or the Sri Lankan coast. So the apprehension that there will be a change in the direction and magnitude of the current, thereby endangering the 21 islands is also not supported scientifically," Raghupathy says.
India is a signatory to the maritime conventions for maintaining environmental standards. It plans to press for international recognition that the entire area comprising the Gulf of Mannar, the Palk Strait and the Palk Bay leading up to the Bay of Bengal should be declared a sensitive area. According to the TPT Chairman, the Tuticorin port, in its 30 years of existence, has ensured strict controls on ships disposing of waste. There were only a few instances of oil spill near Tuticorin. He is confident that the same standards could be applied to ships disposing of ballast, bilge or oil when they traverse the canal. So the apprehensions of environmentalists are without any foundation, he says.
The NEERI report acknowledges that the sea-borne activity in the form of logistic and support services during the construction of the canal will have a "significant adverse impact on the traditional fishing activities by the licensed fisher folk and consequently on their income levels". In the Palk Bay, extensive dredging will be done over 66 km, not continuously but in different stretches. "The contention, therefore, that there can be a partial loss of livelihood (for fishermen) during the construction phase is not unfounded," Raghupathy says. There will be a reduction of less than 10 per cent from the total area available for fishing during this phase, he claims.
On the fishermen's allegation that the canal would limit their access, Raghupathy says that when a 200-metre-long ship cruises at 15 knots an hour on the canal, it will take "only a few seconds" to pass a point on the canal. "There can be an impact (that is, the fishing boats would have to wait) but only for a few minutes or a few seconds at a time," he asserts. He rules out the possibility of any collision between the ships and fishing vessels.
He, however, makes it clear that "it is not going to be possible" for fishermen to cast their nets in the navigable area. "To that extent, for about 172 km, starting from Adam's Bridge to the Bay of Bengal, for a width of 0.3 km, about 51 sq km of the total area will not be available for casting nets. As far as transit from east to west and west to east is concerned, they (fishermen) would have unrestricted access except when the ships are transiting, which I would say, at any given point of time in a day would only be for a few minutes - seven to 10 minutes a day," Raghupathy argues.