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Geography in the News: A New International Canal?

Guest Authors: Malavika Nidhi and Rahul Nagvekar, students of Mrs. Rita McMahon, Dulles High School, Sugar Land, Texas.* This invited Geography in the News article initially was posted on’s website and was made part of its 900-article GITN archive. Permission to post here is granted by and Neal G. Lineback and Mandy Lineback...

Guest Authors: Malavika Nidhi and Rahul Nagvekar, students of Mrs. Rita McMahon, Dulles High School, Sugar Land, Texas.* This invited Geography in the News article initially was posted on’s website and was made part of its 900-article GITN archive. Permission to post here is granted by and Neal G. Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Editors.


            Indian officials once again are discussing a new canal. The proposed canal would shorten the distance and travel time for ocean-going ships along India’s eastern shore. But this proposal has a contentious history of religious, cultural, economic and environmental concerns involving local, regional and international issues.

            The main purpose of most canals is to provide a shorter, more economical route for water traffic. Classic examples are the Panama and Suez canals, both of which provide enormous economic advantages to ocean going ship traffic.

When the Indian government recently announced plans to build a shipping channel called the Sethusamudram (cet-HOOS-a-MOO-drum) Canal through the Palk Strait, considerable controversy erupted. The Palk Strait, a narrow and shallow body of water, separates India’s southernmost state of Tamil Nadu from the island country of Sri Lanka. A deep-water canal would provide a shortcut to ocean traffic that must now travel around the island of Ceylon. The canal would save approximately 350 miles (563 km.) of travel.



Even though the idea of building a canal through the strait was first proposed in the 18th century, the project remains a topic of heavy debate due to the Palk Strait’s religious, environmental and economic significance.

Hindus, who form a large majority of India’s population, believe that the monkey god Hanuman, along with his army of monkeys, built a bridge through the Palk Strait in order to save Lord Ram’s wife, who had been imprisoned on Sri Lanka by a demon. Even though the bridge, known as the Ram Setu, was supposed to have been destroyed by Lord Ram, a Hindu god, many Hindus believe that a chain of limestone shoals in the Palk Strait connecting India and Sri Lanka are remains of Hanuman’s construction. Any new canal would have to go through the shoals, destroying a key article of the Hindu faith. Some politicians and engineers, while arguing for the canal, have insulted some Hindus by suggesting that their beliefs about the Ram Setu might be fictional.

Sri Lankan Buddhists also believe that the island of Nagadeepa, one of the shoals in the Palk Strait that might be affected by the proposed canal, was the first place the Buddha visited when he landed in Sri Lanka. Thus the island has religious significance for Buddhists.

The shallow waters of the Palk Strait support a great diversity of marine life, including sea turtles, sharks, dugongs and dolphins. This has given environmentalists many reasons to be concerned about the Sethusamudram Canal Project, as the construction and increased ship traffic would disrupt some of the natural ecosystem. Many people living around the strait make a living by fishing, oystering or pearling.  It is yet unknown how these industries would be affected by the canal’s construction or its traffic.

Before the Sethusamudram Canal is built, several issues must be solved. Since the canal would be constructed solely by the Indian government it would be necessary to make sure it does not enter Sri Lankan territorial waters. India and Sri Lanka already disagree over fishing rights in the Palk Strait, most recently illustrated by a conflict in which the Sri Lankan Navy attacked Indian fishermen accused of illegal fishing in Sri Lankan waters.

In addition, even if the Palk Strait’s limestone shoals are disturbed during construction of the shipping channel, constant dredging in order to maintain the canal apparently would be necessary. The shoals constantly shift in the shallowest parts of the Palk Strait, which are less than 30 feet (10 m) deep.

Despite all of these challenges, governments and companies have, for more than 200 years, been interested in cutting travel time between India’s east and west coasts by making it possible for ships to pass through the Palk Strait. As India grows its economy and attempts to improve its infrastructure, examples like the Sethusamudram Project illustrate how difficult it is to please everyone. India must be sensitive to balancing the religious, social and environmental interests of both Indians and Sri Lankans in its economic development plans.

            And that is Geography in the NewsTM.

Sources: GITN #1205 Planned Canal Through the Palk Strait,, July 5, 2013;;;

*This article was researched and co-written by Malavika Nidhi and Rahul Nagvekar, students in Mrs. Rita McMahon’s social studies class in Sugar Land, Texas, and edited by co-editors Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson served as technical editor.




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Meet the Author

Neal Lineback
Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..