Debating India

The 145-year-old dream takes shape finally

Saturday 2 July 2005, by ANNAMALAI*S.

The Sethu project, for which the foundation is to be laid today, has a long and interesting history

It has taken 145 years for a British marine’s dream to take shape. The Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project, for which the foundation is to be laid by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Madurai on July 2, has a long and interesting history. The project for digging up a ship canal across the `Thoni Thurai’ peninsula to connect the Bay of Bengal with the Indian Ocean was conceived by Commander A.D. Taylor of the Indian Marines in 1860. A British parliamentary committee surveyed the Rameswaram island and suggested the digging of a canal one mile west of Pamban in 1862. In 1863, Sir William Dennison, Governor of Madras, chose a site one mile east of the recommended one.

The committee’s recommendation was endorsed by Sir John Stoddart, Chief Assistant to the Surveyor-General of Ceylon, in 1871. In 1872, Sir J.D. Elphinstone requested the Secretary of State for India to direct George Robertson, Harbour Engineer, to "visit Pamban and examine the proposal." He selected a new site at Rameswaram.

Twelve years later, the South Indian Ship Canal Port and Coaling Station Limited started a project for construction of a 100-foot wide canal across the Rameswaram island. The Secretary of State for India granted the company "a perpetual concession" reserving the right to purchase the canal.

The Government of Madras wanted the Government of India to reject the proposal on grounds that vessels of deep-sea draught could not use the canal. After protracted correspondence and because of the rising financial cost, the proposal was dropped.

In 1902, the South Indian Railway Company came up with a Rs. 60-lakh proposal, with an anticipated annual income of Rs. 7.59 lakhs. But it was not pursued vigorously. he Technical Committee kept all the proposals in abeyance in 1945 in anticipation of India’s freedom.

In 1947, the Government of Madras included the project in its port development scheme and suggested deepening of the Pamban Canal by at least 20 feet to allow the passage of vesselsof below 2000 tonnage. In 1955 the Union Government appointed a five-member expert committee, headed by Sir A. Ramasamy Mudaliar. It favoured the execution of the project along with the Tuticorin development project - as they were "closely interrelated" - at a cost of Rs. 9.98 crores. The Government sanctioned the Tuticoin harbour project in 1959, included the Sethu project in the `Advance Action’ list and formed a committee with Nagendra Singh, Secretary, Ministry of Shipping and Transport, as Chairman. C.V. Venkateswaran was appointed Chief Engineer for the committee in 1965.

Venkateswaran submitted a comprehensive report in 1968. It was revised and the cost updated to Rs. 53 crores in 1971 and further to Rs. 72 crores in 1974. Meanwhile, the Tuticorin port, an integral part of the Sethu project, was commissioned in 1975.

When the Union Government expressed inability to implement a "technically viable and economically costly" project due to a paucity of funds, James Isaac Koilpillai, former Chief Engineer and Administrator, Tuticorin harbour project, prepared a detailed report on "technical feasibility and economic viability" in 1980 with comments from V. Sundaram, then Chairman, Tuticorin Port Trust. The cost of execution at that time was Rs. 110 crores.

Based on this report, a special committee, headed by H.R. Lakshmi Narayanan, Development Adviser, was formed to make thorough investigations and elicit the views of the stakeholders. It submitted its report in 1983 and the cost was estimated at Rs. 282 crores. On November 16, 1986, the Tamil Nadu Assembly passed a "unanimous resolution" for the immediate execution of the project. It directed the Pallavan Transport Consultancy Services in 1994 to "reappraise and revalidate" the scheme report. The report was submitted in 1996.

After a lull, hopes were revived in January 1999 when the then Defence Minister, George Fernandes, announced at the Kothandaramar temple near Dhanuskodi that the Sethu project would be completed in three years. The then Prime Minister, A.B. Vajpayee, also spoke of the Government’s determination to make the project a reality. The UPA Government expedited clearance for the project and L&T Ramboll Consulting Engineers prepared the final detailed project, suggesting the new alignment, in February 2005.

See online : The Hindu

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