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Rational scepticism

Rational scepticism

Author: Ramaswamy R. Iyer
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: August 4, 2008
URL: http://www.indianexpress.com/story/344202.html

Introduction: Forgotten in the Sethusamudram debate are real concerns about viability

During the last year or so, one has been watching with growing dismay the debate on the Sethusamudram project getting increasingly focussed on one single aspect, namely the question of the sacredness of the site, to the exclusion of all others. It is a matter for some relief that the sacred-site issue itself, through the question of alternative alignments, has provided an opening for a re-examination of the project. The proposed expert panel headed by no less a person than Dr R.K. Pachauri seems very promising, though it is not clear from the reports whether it includes financial analysts, economists or sociologists. One fervently hopes that the terms of reference of the panel will not be too narrowly set.

It is useful at this point to examine the questions that will have to be gone into, some of which have been raised in the past but have been lost in the furore. Naturally, one can do so without presuming to advise the distinguished panel, or, for that matter, taking a position on the various issues.

First, there is the question of what the project will achieve. It is claimed that by going through the channel instead of around Sri Lanka, ships will save travel time and fuel. What, however, will be the quantum of saving? The critics say that comparisons with the Suez and Panama canals are misleading, because those canals avoid the need for going round large continents (Africa, South America) whereas the proposed channel will only obviate going round the relatively small island of Sri Lanka. The travel time saved will not be months or weeks but perhaps only a day or even less. The critics further argue that the saving in time by a shortening of the route will be offset if ships find it necessary to go slowly through the channel; this may affect even the saving of fuel and therefore of costs.

Second, assuming that despite those caveats there will still be a significant saving of costs, the critics argue that this may be more than offset by the charges that the ships will have to pay to the channel authorities for using the channel. On the other hand, if those charges are kept low, the channel authorities may find their operations uneconomic. The argument is that (If in fact the ships do not save money, why should they use the channel?)

Third, it has been argued that only coastal ships of a modest size can pass through the channel; that it cannot be used by big ships; and that these will continue to go round Sri Lanka. It is of course possible that despite that limitation (if it is true) the channel may still make economic sense, but that is a proposition that needs to be established.

Assuming that there will be significant gains from the project, what price are we willing to pay for them? Apart from the financial costs, there are the ecological ones. During the construction stage the impact of the project on coral reefs and aquatic life is bound to be severe. Unfortunately, this is not one-time damage. Unlike the Suez and Panama canals which were built on land, this channel is being cut through the sea-bed. The sea will close it up again if it is not maintained. Maintenance here means continuous dredging through the life of the project. In other words, the violent disturbance of aquatic life and coral reefs will continue for ever. Another point that has been made is that the existing ridge, whether natural or man-made, affords a measure of protection to the coastal area from extreme events such as tsunamis, and that the project will destroy that protection.

There is also the Precautionary Principle: one should refrain from a major intervention in nature unless one knows what the consequences will be and whether they will be acceptable. It is not for the critics to prove that the project will cause harm to the ecological system; it is for the proponents to prove that it will not.

On the social and human aspects, it is necessary to examine whether the project will have an impact on the livelihoods of fisherfolk in the area, as has been claimed; the people concerned seem to be very worried, and their concerns will have to be gone into.

Finally, some critics have raised security concerns, and Sri Lanka is reported to have reservations on this project, but we may leave those aspects to the government. They may not be within the scope of the Pachauri panel.

Let us return to the crucial question. If the project will have serious ecological and social costs, and if there are substantial doubts about the economic viability of the channel, then why is it being built? That is the question to which we need an answer.

The writer is an expert on water resources and an honorary research professor at the Centre for Policy Research

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