The Sethusamudram Project – Trampling on the Gujral Doctrine

August 31, 2007


By Malith Mendis 


The “Gujral Doctrine” as pronounced by former Indian Prime Minister I K Gujral in a speech made at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies on January 20 th 1997 consisted of  five points on which the Foreign policy of India was proposed to be based. The points were that first,  with  neighbours like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka, India would not ask for reciprocity, but would give and accommodate what it could in good faith and trust. Second, that no South Asian country should allow its territory to be used against the interests of another country of the region. Third, that no one should interfere in the internal affairs of another. Fourth, that all South Asian countries should respect each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. And finally, that they should settle all their disputes through peaceful bilateral negotiations.   


The Sethusamudram Sea Canal project (SSCP) is a kick in the face of the Gujral Doctrine. Sri Lanka was kept in the dark until construction was about to begin. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study did not consult a main stakeholder, Sri Lanka. Hence, the EIA is fundamentally flawed. Several bilateral meetings have not yielded meaningful results. Meanwhile, India goes ahead with the project stubbornly…..

The Palk Strait area is “quiet,” maritime transport speaking. Its shallowness prohibits large vessels entering the area. The Sethusamudram canal will dredge the sea bottom along the India – Sri Lanka maritime boundary to a depth of 12m to enable larger ships to go through the Palk Strait. After the initial capital dredging, maintenance dredging will have to be done almost continuously to maintain the depth of the canal.


The studies carried out for a project of such magnitude is minimal. The EIA is a rapid assessment. Any oceanographic modeling carried out has been after the EIA was completed. The studies are incomplete and inadequate.  

The Palk Strait region is shallow, not more than 10 metres deep. It is like a sea water lake, bound by India and Sri Lanka, the two ridges of Adams Bridge and a shallow region towards the bay of Bengal. At these two ridges, water depth is generally around 3 metres. The Palk Strait’s water temperature is higher and its salinity is generally lower than the rest of the Indian Ocean region. Therefore it has a unique ecology compared to the rest of the region. It has marine mammals like Dugong which are not found anywhere else in the region. Dugong is again found only in the Middle Eastern waters of the gulf which has a similar temperature and ecology. The area has some 3600 species of plants and animals and so the Palk Strait area is unique in the region in many ways.  This unique ecology, together with the shallow sea, gives the area great tourism potential. This area could well become the Carribean of the East.


The Sethusamudram canal, once built, will increase near two fold the water flow into the region from outside, especially at the Adams Bridge end during the monsoons. This is sure to alter the temperature and salinity balance in the area, and thereby the unique ecology.   The continuous maintenance dredging and increased shipping activity will disturb the tranquil environment of the region. The continous dredging can increase the turbidity of the waters, harming the marine biology in the area. This area is, after all, rich fishing grounds for both India and Sri Lanka, and the seas north of Mannar are the richest fishing grounds for Sri Lanka.  The effects of pollution in this region will be unimaginable. Any oil slick will disperse towards Sri Lanka during the prevalent South West Monsoon.

The blow to Indian trans-shipment traffic through Colombo is unclear. Currently, 70% of cargo handled through Colombo port is trans-shipment cargo to and from India. Colombo dreams of becoming the hub of the region. But India has other plans. Its Sagaramala project for developing ports and attracting the larger shipping lines through Indian ports and the development of the Sethusamudram canal are significant pointers to their intensions. The feeder vessels from India can avoid coming into Colombo and dock at an Indian mega port after traveling via the Sethusamudram canal. But then calculations show that with the current volume of feeder vessel traffic, only about six ships a day will use the Sethusamudram canal. Is that enough volume to make it financially viable? Or are there other reasons for the SSCP? Are they military reasons?

India sees a large part of the Indian Ocean as their security envelope. This is said to range from Socatra Island in Yemen in the West to the Andaman Islands in the East, from the Himalayas in the North, to Diego Garcia in the South. It sees the Palk Strait region as an area where its writ does not run as much as it would like, an area high in risk. They see the Canal as a way of getting control of the region and putting LTTE activity under pressure. India is also developing Nuclear reactors and Power plants in South India and it wants to enhance its Navy’s mobility in this area to protect those interests. 


There have been many protests in India against the project. The Vishava Hindu Parisad (VHP) and the Barathiya Janatha Party (BJP) have protested against the project in the Lok Sabha. However, several cases filed in Supreme Court against the project have been thrown out on the basis that the petitioners have not brought their opposition to the project to the notice of the relevant authorities first!


Meanwhile, the project continues unabated with the recent announcement by India that four more dredgers will be deployed on the project. It is estimated that …….% of the capital dredging has already been done.


This is a time when countries the world over increase links with their neighbours. Links are being strengthened through economic cooperation, artistic exchanges and tourism. Many countries   have built or are building fixed links with their neighbours. The Channel Tunnel, the Oresund link, the Bahrain – Saudi Causeway are such examples. Sri Lanka has many times proposed a bridge between India and Sri Lanka, linking  Danushkodi and Tallaimannar. Such a link is proposed in the Asian Highway network study. If a bridge is to be built in 15 years time the studies have to start now. Instead, the SSCP will create a chasm between the nations, further alienating the two countries.


Sri Lanka has had several high level discussions on the subject and several expert group bilateral meetings. There have been several calls for a joint EIA and a joint Environmental Management Plan (EMP) to which India has shown disregard or opposition. This is definitely a kick in the face to the Gujral Doctrine. Sri Lanka can resort to provisions of the Convention on the Law of the Sea to institute international legal action to safeguard its rights and interests.  Sri Lanka should also propose a joint India – Sri Lanka Palk Strait Transnational Authority to handle affairs in the region. That is the way mature countries work.  

Malith Mendis is a Civil Engineer by profession and is the head of a consultancy in Coastal Engineering, Water Resources and Urban Water


One Response to “The Sethusamudram Project – Trampling on the Gujral Doctrine”

  1. retro said

    It’s a shame what happened to Bangladesh. I hope the world steps up and helps them.

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