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'The Sethu Samudram does not make nautical sense'

October 01, 2007 18:24 IST
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Continuing our series on the Sethu Samudram Shipping Canal Project, Shobha Warrier speaks to Captain (retired) H Balakrishnan of the Indian Navy to know a mariner's view of the project. Captain Balakrishnan has been associated with the navy for 32 years.

He was one of the first batch of three Indian naval officers to do specialisation in anti-submarine warfare in the erstwhile USSR Naval War College.

Out of interest, he did a study on the Sethu Samudram Shipping Canal Project from a mariner's point of view. Ever since the series appeared in the Indian Express, the captain has been much sought after for his interesting calculations.

Why did you get interested in the Sethu Samudram Shipping Canal Project?

I don't belong to any political party. It was purely a mariner's interest that made me research the project. There were many reports and statements in the media but I found that the mariner's point of view was not talked about at all. It is sad that even today the entire discourse on the project has got completely side tracked from the main issue; that is, the project is for ships and the shipping industry.

As a mariner, how do you describe the Sethu Samudram project?

The Sethu Samudram project, if I can put it simply from a mariner's stand point, does not make any nautical sense.

Why do you say so?

I have worked on the project from three different perspectives, all concerning the nautical world. I analysed the project in the backdrop of the environmental factors that would impinge the safety of the ship and also the safety of lives at sea. Number two was the security aspects which is maritime terrorism as it stands today. And the third was certain aspects of general navigation.

What does your research on the environmental factors say?

We mariners call the coast between Rameswaram and Cuddalore the cyclone coast. The India Meteorological Department has assigned this coastline as a high risk probability. To site one example, in 1964, the Pamban Bridge was washed away by a severe cyclonic storm.

A ship is safe when she is moving at the onset of a cyclone. Imagine a ship waiting to pick up its pilot as it approaches the Palk Straits to enter Sethu Samudram. No captain will wait for the pilot; his safety lies in heading south, towards Sri Lanka. 

The wind and waves bring in a large amount of silt and wash it ashore. The same thing is going to happen to the Sethu Samudram Canal. This brings me to another point. Marine scientists have identified five areas on the Indian coastline they call high-sinkage pits, and one of them happens to be the Palk Straits.

What is left unsaid by the Sethu Samudram authorities is that maintaining the 12 metre depth (of the channel) will entail round the year dredging. Once you establish the channel, you have to maintain it.

You mean other than the capital expenditure, there will be maintenance expenditure too. Will that be expensive?

Naturally. But this cost is not mentioned anywhere. This is the hidden cost which the authorities will have to pay to the dredging company. It is a high siltation and sedimentation area. So, what you pick up today is going to get filled up the next day.

What is the security threat you spoke about?

The Sea Tigers of the LTTE have control of that area off the Jaffna coast. What the Sea Tigers may do is difficult to say. Piracy exists even today.

Those who are against the project say the 12 metre depth of the Canal is not enough for big ships to pass through the canal. As a mariner, what is your opinion on this?

It is quite true. If you take global shipping trends today, to reduce operating cost, they go in for larger ships of the order of 60,000 deadweight tonnes and above. A 60,000 deadweight tonne carrier will need anything in excess of 17 metres of draft.

And as far as tankers go, the days of the super tanker are gone and you see only very large crude carriers of the type of 150,000 and 185,000 tonnes. It makes more sense to have such big tankers as in one voyage, you are bringing in more cargo and reduce your operating cost.

None of these big ships will ever be able to use the Sethu Samudram. So, the question is, for whom are you building the canal? 30,000 tonnes was alright when Sethu Samudram was conceived in the early fifties and the sixties.

That leaves you with only the coastal bulk carriers that carry coal from Kolkata, Paradeep and Visakhapatanam to Chennai or Tuticorin.

How much time and money are saved if the ships go through the Sethu Samudram Canal instead of going round Sri Lanka?

I plotted physically on a chart what we call 'passage planning' for a bulk carrier on passage as it happens today from Kolkata to Tuticorin; one of them circumnavigating Sri Lanka as is happening today and the other one going through the canal.

The voyage distance from Kolkata to Tuticorin around Sri Lanka works out to 1227 nautical miles. If you went through the canal, it is 1098 nm. So, you are saving just 120 odd nm.

The story doesn't end there. The majority of our bulk carriers go at a speed between 12 and 13 knots. That is the average speed at sea. I have checked with my friends who currently sail. They all said they do 12 knots. However, I worked in a bracket of 12-15 knots. So, if you are going around Sri Lanka at 12 knots at constant speed at sea, the time taken to reach outer anchorage at Tuticorin is 102 hours and 15 minutes.

When you go through Sethu Samudram, the point to be remembered is, you cannot proceed at the speed at which you are sailing at sea. The reason is the shallow water effect or what we call the 'Squat Effect'. So, the moment you enter Sethu Samudram, you have to reduce the sped by 50 per cent or more depending on the conditions prevailing at that particular time. So, I worked on a speed bracket of 6-8 knots. But many of my friends tell me 8 knots is too high for a 30,000 tonne bulk carrier. In all my calculations, I gave the benefit of doubt to the Sethu Samudram project.

The second aspect is, it is not an open seaway; it is like entering a port. A pilot boards the ship, who is a local mariner with greater knowledge of the marine environment. The same thing has to be done at Sethu Samudram also. I have given one hour delay for the ship to reduce speed for the pilot to climb aboard. You repeat the process at the other end too for him to disembark.

With this 6 knots speed and 2 hours pilotage delay, my time to Tuticorin via Sethu Samudram works out to 100 hours 30 minutes. If you went around Sri Lanka, it is 102 hours 15 minutes! So, your net savings in time by going through Sethu Samudram is 1 hour 45 minutes! Is it worth spending Rs 2,400 crore to save 1 hour 45 minutes?

You spoke of travel time. What about the cost?

The Sethu Samudram project from the media reports and the statement given by the finance minister will cost at Rs 2,400 crore, of which Rs 971 crore is through a special purpose vehicle. The debt portion has been pegged at Rs 1,465 crore. Assuming an interest burden of 10 per cent, the interest payment on Rs 1,465 crore is Rs 146 crore per annum. Twenty to 25 years is the time given for repayment.

Assuming 25 years for Rs 1,465 crore, capital repayment works out about 56 crore per annum. So, Rs 146 crore for interest burden and Rs 56 crore as repayment works out to roughly Rs 204 crore per annum which is what the authorities will have to repay to any financial institution. This is only to break-even. But the web site says it is a profitable industry and it is going to make 'mammoth profit'.

As the earning is going to come only from ships, I asked, how many ships are going to transit in a year through the canal? Ships that can use the canal will be coal carrying bulk carriers as long as the Tuticorin thermal power plant exists.

Having made the calculation, I feel they are rather optimistic in their figures. They have given a mean value of about 3,055 ships meant to use the canal in the year 2008 and by the year 2025, they expect it to go to in excess of 7,000 ships. Mind you, for 12 metres of depth! But I can't see more than 1,000 ships using the Sethu Samudram canal in a year.

If you take Rs 204 crore as annual repayment, and 1,000 ships use it, your per ship cost works out to Rs 22 lakhs pilotage charge to break even. There is an interesting comparison done by K S Ramakrishnan, former deputy chairman, Chennai Port Trust. He pegs around Rs 50 lakh as pilotage rate per ship if you have to make a  profit.

Then I calculated the fuel consumed. These ships consume 1 metric tonne of fuel per hour, which costs Rs 24,000. For the Sethu Samudram canal, you have to add the pilotage cost too. In effect, if a ship goes through the canal, a shipping company loses Rs 19 lakh per voyage. It is more cost effective to circumnavigate Sri Lanka from the point of view of the shipping industry.

Therefore, neither are you saving time nor is it viable economically. These are the two aspects that need to be highlighted. So, there is absolutely no advantage to the ships and the shipping industry. So, what are we gaining by spending Rs 2,400 crore of tax payers' money? It is a white elephant in the making.

So, you must be against realignment which some political parties are talking about…

Any course, any realignment, is going to prove uneconomical to the shipping industry. If it is of no use to the shipping industry, why build it? You can bring about better economic progress to the southern districts of Tamil Nadu by building expressways. That is why I say the Sethu Samudram shipping canal project makes no nautical sense. That is the tragedy of the project.

Those who support the Sethu Samudram Canal compare it to the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal and say the Sethu Samudram is the Suez of the East.

In the case of the Suez and the Panama canals, ships save thousands of nautical miles in sailing distance and hundreds of hours in sailing time vis-à-vis the Sethu Samudram where a ship will probably save a few hundred miles and at the most twohours in sailing time. This is the difference.

Photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj

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