INS Viraat

Supreme Court refuses to stay the dismantling of INS Viraat, India’s longest-serving warship

Published : April 14, 2021 12:56 IST

INS Viraat approaching the Alang ship breaking yard in Gujarat, on September 28, 2020. Photo: SHEKHAR THAKKAR/AP

The Supreme Court on April 12 refused to intervene on behalf of a private firm which was looking to restore the vessel and turn the Centaur-class behemoth that sailed with the Indian Navy for 29 long years into a national maritime museum and adventure centre.

 

It could arguably sound the death knell for the efforts to save India’s longest-serving warship, the iconic but decommissioned aircraft carrier INS Viraat. The Supreme Court on April 12 refused to intervene on behalf of a private firm which was looking to restore the vessel and turn the Centaur-class behemoth that sailed with the Indian Navy for 29 long years into a national maritime museum and adventure centre. The project was to be undertaken in collaboration with the government of Goa.

Dismissing the petition from Envitech Marine Consultants Private Limited seeking a stay on the dismantling of INS Viraat, a bench comprising Chief Justice S.A. Bobde, Justice A.S. Bopanna and Justice V. Ramasubramanian observed that the petitioner had come too late as 40 per cent of the warship had already been dismantled. The bench told Envitech’s Vishnukant Sharma and Rupali Vishnukant Sharma: “We are with you as far as the spirit of nationalism is concerned, but you are already too late in this case. Forty per cent of the ship has been dismantled. We cannot interfere now. [The] Government has already taken a decision.”

On April 5, the apex court had ruled that the aircraft carrier “has become a private property and has been bought by Shree Ram Group”. Shree Ram Green Ship Recycling Industries Ltd, Gujarat, bought the ship in an auction last year. The Supreme Court was not prepared to accept the argument put forth by the petitioner that even though 40 per cent of the ship had been dismantled, it could still be repaired and used as a museum. Rupali Sharma told the court: “If the aircraft carrier is dismantled it would be a national loss.”

In the year 2020, Shree Ram Ship Breakers had stated that they were ready to release the ship, but demanded Rs.100 crore as compensation and sought a no-objection certificate (NOC) from the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Envitech was ready to go along, but the MoD refused to provide an NOC. Following this, Envitech moved the Bombay High Court in a bid to acquire the vessel.

Last November, even as the warship was towed and permanently beached during high tide awaiting the hammer at the Alang port in Gujarat, India’s biggest “graveyard” for decommissioned ships, the High Court of Bombay directed the MoD to take a decision on Envitech’s representation for a NOC so as to enable them to acquire the carrier. The request for an NOC was, however, rejected by the MoD. The Ministry wrote a three-page letter dated November 27: “Taking factual as well as policy aspects inter alia related to safety and material state of the vessel (whose keel was laid in pre-Independence era) into consideration, the request of the petitioner for grant of NOC (no objection certificate) to convert the status of ex-Viraat cannot be acceded to”. Following the MoD’s rejection, dismantling operations were commenced at Alang and Envitech Marine Consultants approached the Supreme Court.

On February 10, the Supreme Court ordered a status quo on the dismantling of the decommissioned aircraft carrier.

The government’s stand was spelt out by Mansukh Mandaviya, Minister for Shipping, when he stated that efforts were made to convert the aircraft carrier into a museum and several consultations had been undertaken. However, the plan could not be undertaken as an expert committee reported that the vessel would not last for more than a decade. Said the Minister: “The government was ready to spend Rs.400-500 crore to convert it into a museum, but an expert committee said its ferrous and won’t last.”

Over the past few years, there have been several proposals to preserve the legacy carrier, but none had materialised. The Government of India wrote to all the State governments calling for proposals, with three states, Maharashtra, Goa and Andhra Pradesh, evincing interest in converting the aircraft carrier into a floating museum. Maharashtra even announced that it was setting aside Rs.852 crore for docking the vessel in Sindhudurg district. But nothing fructified. A May 2019 proposal by the Maharashtra Maritime Board to convert the ship into an integrated tourism facility on a public-private partnership model found no takers.

Citing space constraints among other issues, the government decided to sell the 27,800 tonnes carrier as scrap in 2019. The process was completed last September, with the vessel being bought by Shree Ram Green Ship Recycling Industries Ltd for Rs.38.50 crore in an auction conducted by the Metal Scrap Trade Corporation Limited. The dismantling of INS Viraat commenced from December 1 and in month’s time a substantial portion of the carrier, including the flight deck, ski jump and sailor accommodations, totalling around 40 per cent of the vessel, was taken apart.

INS Viraat was decommissioned by the Indian Navy in March 2017. The British-built carrier, which, after extensive refurbishment, was commissioned into the Indian Navy in 1987, remained at sea for 2,258 days and covered 10,95,000 km (590,000 nautical miles) before it was decommissioned in March 2017. Prior to sailing with the Indian Navy, the carrier had sailed under the British flag for 27 years as HMS Hermes, performing admirably in the Falklands War against Argentina in 1982.

INS Viraat is the second aircraft carrier to be dismantled in India. In 2014, the 70-year-old INS Vikrant was dismantled in Mumbai.

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