National Seminar on
Ecological Balance and Sethusamudram Canal
1st October, 2004.
Address by Prof. S.Muthukumaran

At the outset let me congratulate the Alagappa University especially its Department of Oceanography for organizing this National Seminar. Our universities are being accused of sitting on ivory towers and working in isolation without any concern for the society which supports them. The fact that this university has organized a seminar on the Ecological Balance and the Sethusamudram Project soon after the Government of India announced its intention to go ahead to execute this project shows that this university is willing to do what all it can for fulfilling the aims and aspirations of the people of this region Therefore, this university and the organizers deserve all praise. At this point of time there are some who are raising certain anxiety about the effect of this project on the ecology of this region. Under these circumstances, it is appropriate that this university has given due importance to this aspect of the project in this seminar.

According to the available official records, the Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project was first envisaged in the year 1860 by Commander A.D. Taylor of the Indian Marines. It was investigated several times thereafter by Government of India. Mention may be made to the Reports by Sir Robert Britow, Harbour Engineer in 1921, Sir A.R. Mudaliar Committee in 1856, Dr. Rajendra Singh and Venkateswasrn in 1968, J.I. Koil Pillai in 1980 and Lakshmi Narayanan Committee in 1981. Tamil Nadu Government also got a report prepared in 1996 by the Pallavan Transport Consulting Services Our country boasts of a very long coast line (6582 kms.), but there is no continuous marinable route around the peninsula in our own territorial waters. When the Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project is completed, there will be a direct approach to the Tuticorin port from the ports of Tamil Nadu along the coastline without a necessirty to go around Srilanka. In the proposal as finalized for execution, there will be two legs of the canal. One will be the Bay of Bengal Channel traversing the Palk Bay; the second will be across the Adams’s Bridge; when completed ships up to a draft of 12.8m can pass through this canal.

The advantages are obvious. They include, enhancement of port connectivity in the region; boosting of earnings of foreign exchange due to increased activities in the ports of the region; minimizing of the distance between ports on the peninsular India, resultant economic development in southern Tamil Nadu, reduction in unemployment in the region, improvement of country’s security The fears that are expressed include the following: damage to the environment and loss of livelihood of fishermen. It is to be pointed out that some experts are of the view that the execution of the project will lead to an increase in fishing activity and there will be larger catches in Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar. It goes without saying that changes in environment are bound to happen wherever there is activity.

In this connection, we have to consider the following: (1) Is it possible to maintain status quo in nature? (2) Was the coastline in this region remaining the same for several centuries? For both these questions, the answer is an emphatic no. Nature is always vibrant; everything in nature is constantly moving and changing. Therefore, when we talk about the preservation of the ecology, we do not mean a no change condition; but we mean that whenever there is a disturbance, nature is able to regain to a position near about the old position i.e., the environment does not get completely destroyed like a pasture land getting desertified. As long as life is sustained in the locality, perhaps with a different balance in the composition of the living beings, it should be considered that there is not any serious damage to the system. If there is life then changes are inevitable. We have to accept that changes are inevitable and there will be a succession of stable positions.

Secondly, sea level has been changing over the years thereby altering the coastline. There are several theories about sea level changes. Whichever theory is accepted it is clear the sea level has been rising or fluctuating for several thousand years in the past. The changes may be not less than 6 m in the past 6000 years. These sea level changes have resulted in changes in the coastline; with changes in coastline and sea level, the habitat of the marine life has changed and the compositions of the marine organisms have also changed. As a matter of fact in Tamil literature, this region of the sea is known as Todukadal meaning a sea that was dug. This would mean there might have been a time when this region was perhaps marshy due to lowering of the sea level. Then the Tamils of yester years must have dug the region to make way for the ships to navigate. Thus it is clear changes are taking place continuously in the region. Of course, the construction of the project may lead to a sudden change. In other words, construction of this project in a short period may have the same effect as that due to natural causes over a period of a few centuries. Experts are of the view that the changes may not lead to any permanent alteration in the marine life in the region. It is the duty of the scientists to explain to the common man the benefits of the project as well as the changes that it may bring about for life in this region. It is for the Government to assess the impact of the project on the economy and ecology and assure the people that the Government will make sure that the region will be benefited. I am quite sure this seminar which is timely will provide all the information that is necessary for the Government to take the message to the people and make them benefit and enjoy the prosperity associated with execution of this project.


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