Biodiversity of Gulf of Mannar, SL shipping under threat

14 February, 2023


The much-discussed Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project has resurfaced, and Sri Lanka now needs to weigh more disadvantages than advantages because it will somehow block Indian shipments passing through Southern ports including the ports of Colombo and Hambantota and it will damage the natural setting of the Mannar Basin and the marine environment despite the fact that the project falls under the land area of South India.

Tamil Nadu environmentalists say the Indian Government should realise that the environmental degradation of the project outweighs the benefits. The project is planned to be implemented spanning 167 km including Gulf of Mannar, Palk Strait and Palk Bay, out of which 89 km distance will be dredged to a depth of 12 metres, as per reports.

The Sethusamudram Project will undoubtedly be advantageous to India, particularly Tamil Nadu, which sends its shipments via Sri Lanka to reach the West of the country or even within Tamil Nadu, for example from Chennai to Tuticorin because it requires a lengthy detour via Sri Lanka to get to either city.

A resolution has been passed in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly on 12 January urging immediate execution of the Sethusamudram Canal Project. The project was inaugurated by then Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh on 7 July 2005 in Madurai at a cost of Rs 2,427 crores. Later, on 17 August 2007, the Supreme Court stayed the excavation of a canal between Rameswaram and Talaimannar due to the case filed opposing the project.

Undoubtedly, the Sethusamudram Project will increase its marine trade. To get to Chennai, a ship leaving the Southern Indian states of Kerala, Cochin, Karnataka, or Goa from India’s West of Tamil Nadu or from Gujarat must go through Sri Lanka. Travelling via Sri Lanka’s maritime route would need 102 hours and 30 minutes. And it will only take them 1 hour, 45 minutes less if they travelled through the Palk Strait or Sethusamudram which is not much of a difference, say Indian economic experts who are against the project.

It’s also known to be a cyclone coast between Kadalur to Ramanathapuram. This has not been considered in the feasibility studies, say some environmentalists. The removal of sand deposits and the contract will go to politicians of the present Tamil Nadu Government, it is alleged.

Naturalists claim that because of the narrow strait’s width and the abundance of sand deposits in this section of the sea, sand sediment deposits will continue to form, similar to how rivers in Sri Lanka discharge their sand deposits to the Mannar Basin. After the Sethu Project, there should be continuous dredging so that large ships may pass through the Palk Strait. There are about 12 metres of sand deposits there. Sand deposits are clustered. The British were the ones to discover this new path, according to historian and researcher Jayasree Saranathan of Tamil Nadu.

This topic was discussed in Parliament even when Nehru was India’s first Prime Minister. There were recommendations made during Vajpayee’s reign as well, and many people endorsed them. In addition, a feasibility assessment was conducted in relation to the Sethusamudram Project. Funding of over INR 2,400 million was allocated for this project under Manmohan Singh. During the administration of M.K. Karunanidhi, the father of the present Chief Minister, a challenge was brought in the Supreme Court challenging the project, which brought it to a standstill.

However, the project should move forward, according to a resolution that was passed by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin. Despite the project suggestion, the Indian Ministry of Science and Technology claimed that it was difficult to understand how the bridge connecting India and Sri Lanka came to be. The plan was previously rejected by the same two governments of Tamil Nadu and the BJP, but they are now backing it together. According to the report, if this project was to move forward, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu estimates that 50,000 people in the state would get direct and indirect employment. The cause will also impact shipments heading to Sri Lankan ports from India.

According to Hindu devotees, Rama Setu was constructed by Rama. At a depth of six metres, coral rocks are found above sand deposits. Indians are also keen to see this legendary bridge named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Rama’s Bridge, also known as Adam’s Bridge, which is distinctive geographically and is a part of the Hindu legend of Rama Seetha, caused a protracted delay in the project. Hindus from India, Sri Lanka, and other parts of the world hold Rama’s Bridge in high regard. Environmentalists and Hindus are concerned about the destruction of the 16 natural sand dunes that are located between Sri Lanka and India. The present Indian Government promised, however, that it would not dredge near the old Rama Bridge.

In India, there have been questions about the project’s sudden support from the BJP, which backs Hindutva. Many environmental groups oppose the idea because they believe it will harm marine animals’ natural environments, but both the Stalin Government and the BJP also unanimously voted in favour of the dredging of the Sethusamudram.

There have been several cases brought against the Indian Federal Government, opposing the project.

Poovulagin Nanbargal, an environmental organisation based in Tamil Nadu, India that spearheaded a legal battle against Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant is against this project as well. They say after the ban by the Supreme Court, the Hindu separatist forces and the BJP challenged the execution of project by taking a religious stand. ADMK also used the project for their political gains and took a stand against the Sethu Canal Project. It is painful to note that the democratic forces and political parties of Tamil Nadu have decided to complete this project.

The vast expanse of sea around the 21 islands comprising 10,500 square kilometres located in the Gulf of Mannar has been declared as the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve. It is an area of ecological importance globally. The biodiverse region is inhabited by 4,223 species including 104 species of coral reefs, 147 species of seaweeds, 13 species of sea grasses, 280 species of sponges, 92 species of corals, 22 species of sea fans, 160 species of anemones, 103 species of echinoderms, sea conchs, Panguni turtles, seahorses, sea cards, etc. There are more than two thousand species of fish in the Gulf of Mannar region of the Indian Ocean. Endangered mammals such as dugongs and dolphins are also found in the area. (Tamil Nadu Government has created Aulia Biosphere Reserve on 15 February 2022 at a cost of 5 crores to protect the Aulia Sea Sponges and the Dugong Sea Cow. The 21 islands in the Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve are protected by the coral reefs that surround the islands from tidal pressure and sea erosion. Two out of the 21 islands in the Gulf of Mannar (Bhoomarichan, Pravanchali) have already been submerged due to the ongoing illegal smuggling of coral reefs and one of the serious effects of climate change, sea level rise and changing ocean currents. If the sea in this area is deepened for the Setu Canal Project, the coral reefs, which are the natural defences formed over several thousand years in the evolution of the earth, will be affected, and the islands will sink due to the pressure of the waves, and the biodiversity of the area is likely to be completely destroyed.

How can the act of taking measures to protect such an important Gulf of Mannar area on one hand and on the other hand to destroy the biodiversity of the area for commercial purposes in the name of Sethu Canal Project, be justified? Corals, sea grass, and mangroves found in this region are the three most important contributors to the health of the marine ecosystem. These are highly interrelated ecosystems. The trunk of the mangrove forests that mixes with water provides nutrients for seaweed. Along with seagrasses and coral reefs, the area is the grazing grounds for many marine species. Such an ecosystem is going to be destroyed in the name of Sethu Canal Project.

The area selected for the Sethu Canal Project is a natural deposit of marine sediments. Sediments arrive at different depths in each part of the ocean. While there is no detailed research on these till now, deepening the sea for 89 km in this area will lead to various permanent environmental problems. Sedimentary deposits are formed naturally and are continuously deposited. Therefore, problems are expected. Therefore, sea dredging/sediment removal will also continue, which in turn will incur additional costs.

As maritime transport experts say, even from an economic point of view, the project is not viable. In particular, only vessels below 30,000 tons with a draft of 10 metres can go through the Sethu Canal. Ships with capacity above that cannot pass. Generally, only a small number of ships ply between the west coasts. Even if ships less than 30,000 tons go through Sethu Canal, they have to pay customs duty and pilot boat rent. Also, the ships have to reduce their speed while passing through the Sethu Canal, which burns extra fuel. Canals like Suez and Panama save weeks of travel and fuel, and they are dug into the ground. However, the Sethu Canal saves only 30 hours of time and 424 nautical miles, so it isn’t very profitable to shipping companies.

The Environmental Impact Assessment report prepared by National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) in 2012 for the project concealed various facts. There is no reference in the EIA to the impact on marine life caused by oil spills from ships passing through the Sethu Canal. The main allegations made by Greenpeace about the EIA are that the report does not talk about the change caused by hydrodynamics and geomorphology due to the Sethu Canal deepening area.

It is said that if the Sethu Canal project is implemented, thousands of people will get jobs in Tamil Nadu. But if the project is executed, the livelihood of lakhs of fishermen belonging to 140 fishing villages from Ramanathapuram to Tuticorin will be lost. Sethusamudram Project will only benefit the owners of the dredging company and industrialists like Adani who will build the port, but for the millions of fishermen it will not be development but downfall and they will be shifted from their self-reliant economy to daily-wage labour.