Sethusamudram project and the China factor

TE Raja Simhan Chennai | Updated on June 18, 2021

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with TN Chief Minister MK Stalin in New Delhi on Thursday   -  PTI

Project started during the UPA govt is pending before the Supreme Court

The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin urging the Prime Minister Narendra Modi to revive the stalled Sethusamudram Project could put the Centre in a tight spot.

This was one of the demands made by Stalin when he met Modi on Thursday.

The project has been controversial right from the start on the issue of non-viability and also due to religious sentiments attached to the Ram Sethu bridge believed to have been built during the Ramayana days. However, the Left and the Dravidian parties are pressing for the project citing economic benefits. The project initiated by the UPA government was stalled in 2007, and the matter is pending before the Supreme Court.

The project was conceived to provide a maritime link between the East and West coasts of India. However, it became a ‘white elephant’ as the project did not take off despite nearly ₹900 crore having been spent on the project through a Special Purpose Vehicle.

Now, strategic and security concerns are driving the demand for the revival of the project now that Sri Lanka has moved closer to China, which has invested large sums of money to develop the island’s infrastructure. In fact, the DMK Parliamentary Committee Leader TR Baalu last year wrote to the Prime Minister urging him to pursue the project citing security as the main reason.

Emerging factor

Sri Lanka could probably turn into another Nepal based given its ‘bonding’ with China. This could be dangerous to India firom a security and diplomatic perspective, Baalu had said urging Modi to consider initiating the project for which the feasibility report was approved by the NDA government when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister.

“They may choose to revive it only if they feel it could have strategic benefits for India from a defence perspective because of China’s presence in the area. Otherwise, no chance of reviving it,” said Sumanth Raman, a political analyst, when asked if DMK’s demand would put the Centre in a tight spot.

“Sethusamudram project is in the Supreme Court, so Prime Minister Modi would not have to worry about it too much just now. Also, because of increasing Chinese presence in Sri Lanka, the Centre may (have to) take a favourable relook at the project, in strategic, political and diplomatic terms,” said N Sathia Moorthy, a Distinguished Fellow and Head of ORF’s Chennai Initiative. The project envisages creation of a shipping lane connecting the Gulf of Mannar and Bay of Bengal through the Palk Strait and Palk Bay to shorten ship journeys between India’s coasts and avoid circumventing Sri Lanka.

The ₹2,427-crore project will reduce the voyage time between India’s western and eastern coasts by nearly 36 hours.

However, dredging in the Adam’s Bridge region — Rama Setu — was stopped by the Supreme Court following a petition filed by BJP MP Subramanian Swamy.

Vishwa Hindu Parishad-led groups also opposed the project on the grounds that it would destroy a rock and sand ridge created by the “divine hand” as recounted in the Ramayana.

Published on June 18, 2021

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