The Sethusamudram project consists of dredging operations on the Palk Strait across what is known as the Adams Bridge. This is supposed create a canal across the strait. It will facilitate movement of ships from the western to the eastern coast of India without the need to circum-ambulate Sri Lanka. This can to save ship travel by thousands of miles annually.
Instead of dredging on the Palk Strait (which may be an issue for many people) there is another option. A Rail Tunnel can be drilled under the sea bed from India to Sri Lanka connecting Dhanushkodi on Indian side to Talaimannar on the Sri Lankan side.Unfortunately, this project has run into some controversy which is religious as well as political in nature.
The advantages of such a project are manifold. First of all-Environmental costs. The cost of dredging in the Palk Strait has heavy environmental repercussions. There will be increased turbidity and pollution of the sea due to the dredging operations and increased movement of ships in that region. This will harm the rich and fragile ecosystem of the Palk Strait. But if an underground Tunnel under the sea bed is drilled from India to Sri Lanka right under the Adams Bridge (Rama’s bridge) we can forego the need to dredge the Palk Strait. Environmental cost almost becomes nil as the Tunnel is under the sea bed.
The purpose of a dredging operation on Adam’s Bridge is much different than the purpose of drilling an undersea bed Tunnel between the two countries. Let us see them in perspective. A dredging operation will lead to better connectivity between east and west coast of India, it is national in scope, and it will reduce travel time and fuel costs. Whereas an undersea bed Rail Tunnel improves North-South connectivity Not to mention that it will be a project international in scope.
One may point out that both the projects are not truly comparable. But I only want to draw comparisons in terms of the environmental and political costs (not to mention religious controversy) as well as the long-term purpose that an undersea bed Tunnel between India and Sri Lanka can achieve. Secondly the economic implication of connecting India and Sri Lanka by land (Technically under the seabed) is immense.
People from both India and Sri Lanka will be positively benefitted. The movement of people, goods, services and money thru this Tunnel will facilitate economic development of the entire south Asian region as a whole. Hence, by connecting the two countries the first step in the South Asian Free Trade Zone direction can be taken. Third, the strategic implications of this Tunnel for both India and Sri Lanka will be immense.
India and Sri Lanka can, by constructing this Tunnel jointly, assure each other and the world that their development is in everyone’s interest. Sri Lanka can obtain a very large market for its Products (like Tea and Textile) and Services (like Tourism and Port services) in India at a lower cost.
The Rail Gauge of Sri Lanka is the same as that of India, (i.e. Broad gauge). This provides great scope for inter-operability of trains between the two countries. Thus, the Tunnel will be operationally feasible. This way, India can bring the Sri Lankan people into the south Asian mainstream. Plus there will also be political goodwill generated between India and Sri Lanka. This will augur well in the long run with respect to a South Asian Free Trade Area.
Moreover, economic initiatives on both sides with stakeholders like business houses, workers, and service providers will receive a great fillip if the Tunnel is built. Indian markets can expand as Sri Lanka has vast economic potential. The deep sea ports of Sri Lanka can cater to Indian markets by extension if this Tunnel becomes a reality (Indian Ports are very well connected). Similarly, Indian ports can accommodate Sri Lankan needs, earning valuable foreign exchange for India. India can later extend the HIGH SPEED RAIL network (that we are currently planning) into Sri Lanka, thus taking the first step to a South Asian High Speed Rail Corridor.
We know how the Channel Tunnel benefitted the cause of the European Union. It also enhanced the economies of UK and France. A similar thing awaits India and Sri Lanka and the day when South Asia becomes a free trade zone will not be far away. As far as the cost-effectiveness of this future project is concerned, calculations show that it may cost around 5-8 billion dollars for both the sides together. India can also extend a line of credit to Sri Lanka to facilitate Sri Lankan participation in the project. The spectrum of stake holders may also be broadened by allowing SAARC or ASEAN to invest in the project.
There will also be many spin-offs from the project. For starters, it will generate direct permanent employment for thousands of youngsters on both the sides of the Palk Strait. And the indirect employment benefits may run into millions of jobs created. Plus, India and Sri Lanka can make enormous strides in construction and manufacturing. It can also develop intellectual property in related areas. This will be invaluable in the long run in making SAARC a knowledge based economic bloc.
It is possible for India and Sri Lanka in this region to undertake a project of this magnitude and complexity. India has enough of skilled manpower and technical know-how to undertake this project in a cost effective manner. India has sent (and actually landed) a probe on the Moon and sent a spacecraft to Mars. Drilling under the sea bed here on earth is well within our reach. It is true that further detailed studies-geological, hydrological, various assessments etc. have to be done to take this project ahead. But whatever the challenges that this project may throw up, India and Sri Lanka can well stand up to it.
(This idea was first presented at IRITM-Indian Railways Institute of Transport Management, Lucknow in May 2014.It was also published in the author’s Blog and book-“Future Track India” in December 2014.Recently, the author’s idea of building a tunnel to Sri Lanka was announced for implementation at a cost of Rs 24,000 crores.)