Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project  (SSCP)

Military Aspect of Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project  (SSCP)

Usha Ramanathan

TAMIL TRIBUNE, October 2005 (ID. 2005-10-02)
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1. Introduction

2. The Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project

3. Military Aspects

4. Pros and Cons of Military Use

[Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project is also known as Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project.]

1. Introduction

There is a huge donkey standing in the middle of the room. No one is acknowledging it but every one is talking about the cats and dogs and even the cockroaches in the room. All are pretending as if the donkey is not there.

Everyone is talking about commercial viability, job creation, job loss, plight of fishing communities and environmental impact of the Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project (SSCP) but almost no one is discussing the military aspects of the canal and how it would impact the people of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Tamilnadu politicians who are part of the ruling coalition of the Indian Union Government project the canal project as a purely commercial venture that would bring untold wealth and benefits to Tamil Nadu. They sweep aside environmental concerns, plight of the fishermen and other negative aspects. It does not serve their purpose to talk about the military use of the canal. Politicians opposed to the project are highlighting environmental concerns and the livelihood of fishing families; even they would not touch the hotwire of military use lest they be burned as anti-national. The concerned apolitical community activists who protest on environmental and fishing grounds also do not touch the military issue lest their protests be black balled as anti-national. This article looks at the military aspects of Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project (SSCP). Since environmental and other aspects have been discussed in a number of other articles (by others), those topics will not be discussed here. This is not to say that those are not important aspects to consider; they are important and should be considered.

2. The Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project  (SSCP)

Although India has a continuous coastline around three sides, ships cannot sail from the east to the west or from the west to the east hugging its coastline because of the "Adam's Bridge", a sand stone reef near Rameswaram. This stone reef prevents ships from sailing from Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal through the waterway separating Indian peninsula and Sri Lankan island. So ships have to go around the Sri Lankan island. Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project (SSCP) builds a canal through the stone reef connecting the Gulf of Mannar to Palk Bay, thus allowing ships to sail from Arabian Sea to Bay of Bengal without going around the Sri Lankan island. The proposed canal is 300 meters wide and 10 metres deep. The concept is similar to the Suez Canal and Panama Canal (although these canals save sailing time by several days whereas the Sethu Samudram Canal saves only several hours).

In addition to Indian ships going from its east coast to the west coast and vice versa, foreign ships sailing along the Indian Ocean route may also use the canal (and pay a fee to the Indian Government). For example, smaller oil tankers taking oil from the middle east to China, Japan and southeast Asian countries are likely use the Sethusamudram Channel and cut the navigation time around Sri Lanka. The channel, however, will not be able to handle larger oil tankers and they will have to go around Sri Lanka.

3. Military Aspects

The Sethu Samudram Canal was mooted as early as 1860 during British colonial rule as a civilian (commercial) project; but no funds were allocated. After Indian independence, leaders of Tamilnadu often pleaded with the Indian Union Government (central government) to build the canal, citing economic benefits to Tamil Nadu. The Indian Government, which is often accused of discriminating against Tamil Nadu and other southern states in major industrial projects and fiscal grants, did not pay much attention to their pleas, until the military angle of the canal came into play.

India went into major military build up, including nuclear weapons development, in the 1990s and onwards. Expensive military hardware was purchased from international market and domestic production was also increased. Indian navy's purchases or co-production agreements include aircraft carriers, destroyers, nuclear submarines, submarine simulators, ship-launched ballistic missiles and ship-and-submarine launched cruise missiles (with plans to arm them with nuclear warheads).

As we mentioned earlier, Indian navy ships going from its east coast to west or vice versa have to go around the Sri Lankan island. It not only increases navigation time by several hours, it also exposes these ships  to hostile action as it goes around Sri Lanka, which is not a dependable ally. (Sri Lanka allowed Pakistan Air Force to refuel in the island during the 1971 India-Pakistan war. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Sri Lanka considered giving naval facilities to United States of America (USA) at the Trincomalee harbor; only India's strong arm tactics and a proxy war prevented this.) The Sethu Samudram Channel would allow Indian warships to move from east to west and west to east with the relative security and secrecy of its own coastline. It was this military consideration that kindled Indian government interest in building the channel.

In 1997, Government of India asked the Defense Ministry to study the feasibility of the Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project (SSCP). Notice that it was not the Shipping Ministry but the defence ministry that was asked to study the feasibility. It was a military project from the very conceptual stage; any commercial/civilian aspect was secondary. The defense ministry came up with a positive recommendation and drew up a conceptual plan for the channel. Indian Government presented the channel as a purely commercial/civilian project to the Tamil Nadu public. Even then there was opposition from the fishing community. These fishing families are living and fishing in the region for centuries. Their lives and livelihood would be uprooted.

Indian Government formally started the Sethusamudram Ship Channel construction in 2005 at an estimated cost of Rupees 2,427 crore (24.27 billion Rupees). Indian Government never undertook such a costly project in the south. Is this a civilian project or a military project? Although the defense ministry undertook the feasibility study and developed the conceptual plan, now the execution of the project was handed over to the Ministry of Shipping, projecting it as a civilian project.

The proposed width of 300 metres and depth of 10 meters can accommodate all current navy ships and those expected to be commissioned in the near future. However, many of the current oil tankers transporting oil from the middle east to Japan, China and southeast Asian countries cannot pass through the channel. Thus the potential commercial use and revenues from foreign ships are reduced.

4. Pros and Cons of Military Use

 In a democracy, people make the major decisions through their elected representatives. In order to make wise decisions, it is imperative that all facts be placed before the people. This was not done in this case of the Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project (SSCP). People are kept in the dark of the military use and its impact on people living in the region. The purpose of this article is to present them to our readers.

As discussed in the previous section, the Sethusamudram Ship Channel allows Indian navy ships to go from west coast to east coast quicker and in the relative safety of its own coastline. This is the military benefit. How does this military use of the channel affect the people of Tamil Nadu. Does it impact on the safety and security of the people of Tamilnadu?

In a war, India's enemies would surely want to deny Indian navy the safety and "quickness" of moving its warships from one coast to another through the canal. They would conduct aerial strikes and/or missile strikes to sink a ship in the canal and block it. Not every country has or would use precision guided bombs and missiles. This puts the people of the region at great risk. Nuclear warheads may even be used in the aerial/missile strikes putting parts of southern India and Sri Lanka to radiation havoc. If India were to move nuclear powered naval vessels through the canal, even conventional strikes could release radioactivity and put parts of southern India and Sri Lanka at grave risk.

People of the affected region should be told of the military use and the dangers it brings to civilian population. People have the right to weigh the risks and rewards and make their preferences known to the government. A democracy cannot function as a democracy under information blackout.

NOTE: The name Sethusamudram is sometimes spelled as Sethusamudrem, Sethusamuthram, or Sethu Samudram. Rameswaram is sometimes spelled as Rameshwaram, Rameshvaram or Ramesvaram.

[SUMMARY: Military aspects of the Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project (SSCP) and the conventional and nuclear war risks to Tamil Nadu, South India.]


Indian navy chief, Admiral Arun Prakash, speaking at a news conference in New Delhi on December 2, 2005, made essentially the same points we made in the article about military aspects.

Admiral Arun Prakash said that the channel would significantly reduce the time taken by Indian navy ships to go from the east coast to the west coast and vice versa. He added that the reduction in time would have "excellent operational implications". Presently the journey takes between 18 and 24 hours. 

He also said that the channel would be large enough for the passage of all major Indian warships but would not be large enough for some large commercial ships.

FIS060130    2005-a1d

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