On Wednesday, road and rail traffic in various parts of the country came to a halt on account of a bridge. The bridge is Adam’s Bridge, an underwater coral formation that links India to Sri Lanka. The Sethusamudram project is seeking to make passage of ships around India faster by dredging a way through this bridge and linking the Bay of Bengal to the Gulf of Mannar. Many Hindus believe this bridge was built by Ram to link India and Sri Lanka and consider it a holy relic. On Wednesday, matters came to a head with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindu organization, orchestrating protests against the project.

Traffic came to a standstill in New Delhi. Similar disruptions were seen across the country following VHP’s protests against the project

The VHP’s protests, planned ahead of the affidavit, will likely intensify after the government’s court filing. It isn’t just political and religious opposition that is ranged against the project, which could shave a day off the passage of ships circumnavigating India. Environmentalists and scientists are opposed to it, too. According to Tad Satya Murty, the chain of coral islands (Adam’s Bridge) “saved coastal Kerala" from the wrath of the December 2004 tsunami by deflecting the tidal wave back into the open sea. Coincidentally, on Wednesday, an earthquake of 7.9 magnitude that struck southern Indonesia triggered tsunami warnings in Singapore and the entire Indian Ocean region.

In a four-part series, Mint has been examining the real issues related to the project. Part 1 that appeared on Tuesday looked at the status of the project as well as the lack of information on all aspects of it, including costs. Part 2, on Wednesday, looked at the scientific opposition ranged against the project.

Mumbai: “Look at the poverty we live in," says V. Vinod, the fisherman, waving at the broken thatch-leaf homes and colourful wooden boats anchored in shallow water that mark this desolate, barren stretch of beach near Rameshwaram. Entangled in the bramble, multi-coloured plastic bags flutter in the breeze. Two women are digging in the sand, hunting for fresh water below. Some others are performing morning ablutions near the shore.

Fisherman V. Vinod says he can’t understand how the mega project will help alleviate his community’s poverty

The project’s website makes a sales pitch about the economic growth of the region: “Substantial benefits will accrue to the national and regional economy. Actual payback period accumlated earnings due to implementation of the fishermen in the coastal districts."

Mint could not get anyone to explain what that meant or if there was a number assigned to this. The website does not explain how this plan for economic progress will work. The project is supposed to cost Rs2,600 crore.

Vinod says that project authorities had told the fishermen it would help them earn a better living. “But how can it help us? How can ships passing by help us? Now these big, big ships will pass by us. How will we get fish?"

When asked about how this project was supposed to improve economic prosperity in the region, N.K. Raghupathy, former chairman of SCL and its most vocal champion, says: “Take a trip down the south coast and see the backwardness of the region. We have a plan for coming up with fishing harbours along the coast."

Actually, the plan to come up with fishing harbours along the east coast of India is supposed to be an Oil and Natural Gas Corp. (ONGC) project.

Raghupathy corrects himself when this is pointed out: “Yes, that’s true. It’s not us actually, but ONGC does plan to have fishing harbours which will transform the fishing industry here." He does not explain how this ONGC project is related to the Sethusamudram project.

L. Amalraj, vicar of the Sivaganga district, says he has been working with the local fishermen for the last four years. “Only a fisherman can understand what this project will do to them. The sea is their whole world. It is all they know. This project will benefit only the shipping companies. No one else," he says.

Benefits for none?

It is unlikely that even shipping companies will benefit, says Capt. H. Balakrishnan, who left the Indian Navy in 1990 to join the merchant navy. He has put together a mariner’s report on the project. “I have been a mariner all my life. I have studied this project like a mariner and found that the project helps no one. To begin with, no ship of more than 30,000 tonnage will be able to use this channel because of its depth.

“Since this channel is just 12m deep, and you have to leave at least 2m space between the bottom of the ship and the seabed, only ships that sink 10m below the water can use it. Which means, the maximum weight these ships can carry is 30,000 tonnes," Balakrishnan explains.

Until about 10 years ago, 30,000 tonnes would have been a good-sized ship, says Brian Alexander, an agent for foreign cargo ships, who has worked at various ports across the country for the past 25 years. “Now, I don’t know of any foreign ship that tiny. Even coal ships that come from Indonesia and Africa weigh at least 45,000 tonnes. In international shipping, the bigger the ship, the lower the freight. So you see, there is no incentive for small-sized cargo ships. I don’t think I know of any one who would even consider using that channel."

It seems unlikely that Indian shippers will benefit either, says Anjani Sinha of the Multi Commodities Exchange, because negligible domestic trade is carried out on ships from coast to coast. Pressed for a ballpark estimate on the commodity trade that does happen by sea, he says, “Really, it is practically nothing."

Indian shipping companies are equally sceptical. the country’s shipping firms have 725 ships that are small enough to be able to use this channel, but ship owners say they will not use it. “The whole thing is a waste of money, I think," says Arun Sharma, president of the Kolkata-based India Steamship Co and member of the Indian National Shipowners Association. “Firstly, little domestic trade happens on the sea. Second, I don’t have ships that small. Third, even if I did, I would not use the channel. It is a security risk."

The security issue comes from the proximity of the channel to Sri Lanka’s Jaffna coast where the insurgent group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), has been fighting for an autonomous Tamil state. LTTE members are reportedly active in the southern part of India as well, especially Rameshwaram. The government has issued a warning to all ships to steer at least 50 nautical miles clear of Sri Lanka’s Jaffna coast.

“Now they want us to go within a 15-mile distance, turn our propellers off and become sitting ducks for the LTTE? I don’t think so," says Sharma.

Who’s the channel for?

“If international ships cannot use it (because they are too big) and domestic ships don’t need it, who exactly is going to use this channel?" asks Jacob John, an economist at Just Change India, who has compiled an economic viability report on the project. The SCL website says about 3,500 ships are expected to use this channel in the first year.

Some people at the Indian National Shipowners Association, who do not wish to be identified, disagree. “Who is going to use this channel?," says one person.

“We are not sure how many shipowners will use it. We are not sure it makes economic sense for the ministry to go ahead with this channel. But it is our minister, and when he is facing so much criticism, we have to stand with him."

He admits, however, that the channel will save time.

Some experts are not even sure about that. While the SCL website claims ships will save 24 hours of shipping time, Balakrishnan says this is not true: “If you could travel through the channel at the same speed as on the high seas, maybe you save that much.

“But the truth is that when ships have just 2m of water beneath them, they will be forced to turn off their propellers. If they try to use propellers in that channel, they will run aground. In fact, they will need piloting."

“Getting a pilot for a ship is not easy. It takes a couple of hours to get a pilot on board. Then another few hours to slowly navigate the hulking ship through the 300m-wide channel.

“Add another couple of hours to off-board the pilot. After all this, they would be lucky if they saved a couple of hours," says Balakrishnan.

Shipping minister T.R. Baalu and shipping secretary A.K. Mahapatra continue to maintain their silence on the project.

PTI contributed to this story.