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Sethusamudram kick-starts TN poll battle 

A long cherished shipping canal project which would slash the distance between Indiaís east and west coasts by 780 kilometres, gets the Cabinet nod, virtually setting the stage for the electoral battle for Tamil Nadu Assembly next year. 


The Rs 2427.40 crore Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project, which would cut shipping distance between Indiaís Eastern and Western coasts, got the Union Cabinetís nod, just three days after the DMK failed to make an electoral triumph against Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu.

The Sethusamudram Project is DMKís pet project, with the late party founder Anna Durai being one of the initial votaries of the project and thus its clearance has set the tone for the big electoral battle for Tamil Nadu Assembly next year.

The canal would cut distance of up to 424 nautical miles or 780 kilometres and sailing time of about 30 hours for ships between Indiaís east and west coasts.

A Special Purpose Vehicle, Sethusamudram Corporation, would be set up with a debt-equity ratio of 1.5:1, to implement the project, which would help Indian ships to avoid circumnavigating Sri Lanka. This, in effect, means apart from the financial benefits expected to accrue from the project, the country would also gain in defence, security and anti-smuggling fronts. 

The Sethusamudram project is to be funded by the Centre, which would bear the bulk of equity at Rs 495 crores. Other players would be Tuticorn Port Trust and Shipping Corporation of India who would contribute Rs 50 crore each, Dredging Corporation of India, Chennai Port Trust, Ennore Port Ltd Vishakhapatnam Port Trust and Paradip Port Trust(Rs 30 crore each). 

As per the Cabinet Commitee on Economic Affairs, the remaining equity of Rs 226 crore is being proposed to be raised through a public issue, private placements and user charges.

The Union Government would be the guarantor for the domestic as well as foreign debt.

The Sethsamudram Corporation would also be provide with an interest free loan of Rs 390.05 crores to kick start the ambitious project, which involves dredging 82 million cubic metres.

The other partners including port trusts would provide loan of 

The project would link the Arabian sea with the Bay of Bengal by dredging the shallow waters to the north of Sri Lanka to create a canal across the Gulf of Mannar, Palk bay and Palk Straits. 

In an apparent bid to avoid delay in commencing the project, then Centre has decided to earmark a section of the channel for the Dredging corporation of India. This would involve dredging of about 13 million cubic metres of the total 82 million. The billing for his would be in tune with the final contract, for which global tenders would be issued shortly. 

Political fishing in troubled waters

The Sethusamudram was first conceived by Commandor Taylor of Indian Marine. In the period between 1860 and 1922 nine proposals were made, only to be relegated to the backyards of history. 

Following Independence too, Sethusamudram remained a pipe dream. Five proposals for the project gathered dust. DMK founder C N Anna Durai was a major votary of the project, raising the issue in Parlaiment.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha, who is seen as wary of the project at present for the fear that the political spin-off would favour her archrivals in the DMK, had earlier endorsed the project and appealed to he Centre to clear it during her first stint as CM. Though she clearly has apprehensions, she cant risk being seen as anti-Sethu project and hence she is evading the issue. 

During the United Front regime (1996-98) too Tamil Naduís political parties had made an earnest bid to get the project cleared. 

A commitment from the center first came in 1998, when the then Prime Minister A B Vajpayee committed backing for the project, while participating in a rally in Chennai, organised by Vaikoís Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam.

The final push came with the ushering in of the United Progressive Alliance Government at the Centre, of which DMK is a major ally. The DMK worked meticulously for the project, demanding the shipping as well as the environment ministry in the UPA framework, with the sole aim of getting the project cleared. When the DMK got both the Shipping and Environment Portfolios, with T R Baalu and Raja at helm, it was clear that the clearance for the Sethusamudram project would be only a matter of time.

But a politically wary Jayalaitha was not keen to let her rivals corner the glory. Jaya made an abortive bid to stir up public fury against the project, albeit clandestinely.

After Tuticorn Port Trust was made nodal agency of the project, doubts were raised in many quarters about adverse environmental impact of the project. So public hearing, were organized in coastal districts of Tamil Nadu to hear the peopleís views and to allay their apprehensions. Most of the public meetings were disrupted by AIADMK activists.

A petition was also filed in the High Court challenging the mega project, but the court dismissed it.

Then came tsunami. Post tsunami, the Prime Ministerís Office reportedly raised objections. The PMO questioned the validity of the environmental impact assessment pf the project, which was prepared by the National 
Environment Research Institute, which it said had failed to factor in 
probable adverse impact due to natural factors like tsunamis and cyclones.
But an expert panel which studied the project informed the PMO that they foresaw no tsunami threat vis-a-vis the project, clearing the muddied waters which blocked the Sethusamudram project. 

The Sethusamudram project is not just another shipping project now. It is one of the electoral planks on which the battle for Tamil Nadu Assembly elections would be fought next year. For Jaya, it is a bitter pill. She canít disown it. She canít swallow it either. She had tried to claim credit for the project by citing MGRís efforts for the project, but abandoned it halfway knowing fully well that the DMK is in a better claimant for the projectís legacy.

For the DMK, it is the fulfillment of a long-cherished dream. The DMK sees the Sethusamudram project as a bulwark which would thrust them on to Fort St George, the seat of power which has now Jayalalitha in saddle. A Jaya buoyed by a stunning electoral performance in Assembly by-polls after a rout in Lok Sabha polls.


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