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The Sethu Gridlock

by Prof. Willie Mendis, The Island, March 3, 2008

It is therefore of huge importance that the crisis in the waterway should catalyse Sri Lanka to put its own house in order across same. The Palk Strait has come of age and it deserves to be accordingly regarded as that which could truly bond India and Sri Lanka in its pathway to a sustainable future.

The Palk Strait which separates India and Sri Lanka is replete in its history with several events that have however drowned them in its shallow waters. Some of them had murky backgrounds of smuggling and poaching, while others like illegal maritime transport have been less horrific. In contrast, the legitimate occurrences, such as the Talaimannar – Rameswaran ferry service had highlighted its potentials. Nonetheless, all of these have paled into history, although the promise of the waterway itself has sustained. The latter may have been the reason that prompted Sri Lanka to commit the submission of a written Proposal to India on "economic co-operation within the Palk Bay area." Its previous Proposal to build a land bridge had envisioned the creation of a Sri Lanka – South India economic hub. The latter was described by Prof. Jeffery Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development of Columbia University in the USA, as "the cornerstone for economic integration between the two countries, and should be a contributory factor for creating a hub." These however remain only as evidence that India and Sri Lanka have yet been unsuccessful to share a common vision, although both share a common heritage.

On the other hand, Sri Lanka being an island nation perceived an interest in the demarcation of its maritime boundary. It mattered because, in the 1970s both India and Sri Lanka realized its importance due to a combination of several factors. These being the sovereignty over the islet of Kachchativu, illicit immigration and smuggling, the extension of the Territorial Sea to twelve miles, and the developments in international maritime law which was emerging at the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea. The consequence was the resolution of the sovereignty over Kachchativu in Sri Lanka’s favour, and the subsequent delineation in 1976 of the internationally recognized maritime boundary line (IMBL), along the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka. Thus, in reality the common waterway became technically and legally separated in it’s ownership between the two countries, instead of being a shared resource that was commonly owned. Its implications surfaced later in 2005 when India unilaterally determined that the Sethu Canal will be constructed on its side of the IMBL, to suit its own interests in the waterway. The rest that has followed from same is now history. Its noteworthy outcome has however been the gridlock over Kachchativu as well as over the Sethu Canal Project. Regarding the former, a previous Secretary of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry wrote that "the Kachchativu Gridlock is not due to any uncertainty in the Agreements, but due to our own ineptitude, lethargy, the terrorist problem, and our priorities". On the Sethu Gridlock, the late Foreign Minister, Mr. Lakshman Kadiragamar, informed Parliament that, "Sri Lanka will take all necessary steps to safeguard the wellbeing and the interests of our people and our country. We would naturally do that in a calibrated and graduated manner opting first for a co-operative and consultative approach. We will consider further action thereafter, if and when necessary. Should the canal be determined to pose adverse effects on Sri Lanka, the Government will explore appropriate measures and take all necessary steps to safeguard our interests. This is based on well recognized principles of international law to duly have due regard to the rights of other states and to ensure that activities under the jurisdiction or control of a state are so conducted as not to cause damage by pollution to other states and their environment". It is vital for Sri Lanka that the Sethu Gridlock be not allowed to fester like its Kachchativu counterpart which as previously mentioned had been due to "our own ineptitude, lethargy, the terrorist problem, and our priorities".

The Sethu Canal Project drew its perceived birthright when in June 2004, its key proponent declared that, "National development through project implementation is my vision and that is my mission". Consequently, he said that "the 140-year old Sethusamudram Project proposal which had been in the agenda of the undivided and divided Dravidian parties, was moving to a time frame of implementation." True to his word, within one year, on 2 July 2005 the project was launched with a time line set for the canal to be opened for traffic by November 2008. Nonetheless, for reasons that none had foreseen nor anticipated, the chose alignment of the canal route necessitated the damaging of Adam’s Bridge or Rama Sethu during the dredging operations. The immediate impact was it hurting the mindset of the Hindus who religiously worshiped Lord Rama and truly believed that the Rama Sethu was built by his army of monkeys to rescue his beloved Sita who had been abducted by Ravana and taken to the neighbouring island across the waterway. Accordingly, based on a petition filed by a high profile person from the main opposition party seeking a direction to prevent such action, on 31 August 2007, the Indian Supreme Court restrained the Government from causing any damage to the mythological Rama Sethu when constructing the navigational sea route. The Bench ordered that , "till September 14, the alleged Adam’s Bridge or the Rama Sethu will not be damaged in any manner. The dredging activity may be carried out but without damaging the bridge."

The Government filed two affidavits in response challenging the belief that the Rama Sethu was not a natural formation of shoals. Its instant furore by the millions of Hindus in India, compelled the Government to take the unprecedented step of withdrawing its affidavits, and requesting time for the submission of revisions after consulting with all stakeholders. Although, this granted deadline lapsed on 16 January 2008, the Government requested Court for a further extension to file a revised affidavit, explaining that the cultural significance needed more time to study all aspects of the project.

Meanwhile, it has been reported that the ruling party in the Government has done a turnaround on the project itself. The Chairman of its Media Department had stated that, "we don’t want to rush into anything that would hurt the sentiment of the people. In this case it is just a question of respecting the faith of a section of the society without hindering the development of the country." A subsequent report quoted the General Secretary of the ruling party having said that, "we will convince the people and then take up the project." More recently, the Union Minister of Tourism and Culture had reportedly informed some of her cabinet colleagues that she will not file any affidavits that will facilitate the beginning of work on the project. It was further reported that the said Minister had told her colleagues, "that as long as she was the Culture Minister this project will not be allowed to go ahead".

It has now been reported that on 26 February 2008, India’s Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs (CCPA) had met under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and agreed upon the draft of the revised Affidavit which the Government will submit to the Supreme Court before 5 March 2008. The report claimed that the Culture Ministry’s objections at the said meeting had been overruled. Consequently, the agreed draft Affidavit has been quoted as saying, "the project to dredge a shipping canal between India and Sri Lanka should go ahead without any change in alignment." It has also been reported that the CCPA had again met for the second time to take into account the views of the constituent parties in the ruling coalition. At same, it had been agreed to submit the said draft Affidavit with no change. However, the Culture Minister had written a two – page note raising certain objections and had wanted same incorporated in the draft Affidavit.

The opponents to the project have, meanwhile, declared that, "stalling the project is not enough. We will not stop fighting this project until it is officially called off and the Government declares Rama Sethu a national heritage."

The Court’s due process will now follow after the Government’s revised Affidavit is filed.

It is apparent that the Sethu Gridlock remains unchanged, at least for now. Its plight should be a wake-up call for Sri Lanka. The country’s long term vision in an expected post-conflict era is to develop its north east. The latter is also the frontal portion of India’s backyard. The Palk Strait in – between will therefore be critically strategic to both countries. For India it could be reasonably assumed that it’s greater importance will be that of security, especially of its highly sensitive east coast. For Sri Lanka, it will be a combination of a security – safety net as well as an economic gateway. Consequently, the focused attention on same must necessarily be key in strategic planning by Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry. Its multi – disciplinary nature will cut across several sectors of the economy, requiring a framework plan to steer rational judgments that will accrue benefits to both countries. The fundamentals of same are entwined with Transnational Spatial Planning which is a process that assists the transfer of policy into ground reality. It’s key is therefore to determine the geographical bounds of the theatre for use in planning. A likely scenario could comprise the spatial area encompassing the four Southern States of India, the Palk Strait / Palk Bay area, and the entirety of Sri Lanka.

The beginnings of the planning process can have two fronts. One will be the diplomatic front which will pursue the continuum of decisions taken regarding the Palk Strait at joint meetings of the President of Sri Lanka and the Prime Minister of India. The other will be the convergence of all international protocols involving the waterway which have been ratified by the governments of both countries.

In the context of the aforesaid, the planning process will also take account of the overarching international covenants dealing with such matters as trade, environment, transborder investment flows, and maritime laws. Furthermore, the institutional and legal systems of India and Sri Lanka, will also encompass the planning process and its outcomes within each of its territories.

Accordingly, the priority focus on the "diplomatic front" will need to be the compliance with the offer made by the President of Sri Lanka to submit a proposal to India on "economic co-operation within the Palk Bay area." It should however dovetail with the macro fundamentals of the overall the Transnational Spatial Plan.

Meanwhile, the focus on the "ratified protocols front" will be to physically position the Trans Asian Railway and the Asian Highway across the Palk Strait. The latter must be complemented by the delineation of the Environmental Protection Zones such as the Mannar Biosphere. The latter should also include designated national and world heritage sites within the footprint of the spatial bounds of the plan which may comprise the Rama Sethu, if and when it is declared to be a national heritage by India.

The analytical process of planning, should also source the strategic inland locations of nodal developments in the spatial footprint within both countries. These could be networked to show the corresponding infrastructures of road, rail, power and telecommunications. The supplementing of same with the Ports and Airports could also be integrated in the plan.

It is therefore of huge importance that the crisis in the waterway should catalyse Sri Lanka to put its own house in order across same. The Palk Strait has come of age and it deserves to be accordingly regarded as that which could truly bond India and Sri Lanka in its pathway to a sustainable future.

Professor Willie Mendis
Emeritus Professor of Town and Country Planning,
University of Moratuwa