Supreme Court stays the dismantling of INS Viraat, India’s longest-serving warship, in response to a plea by a company that wants to convert the ship into a maritime museum

Published : February 11, 2021 11:16 IST

An undated photo of INS Viraat at the Alang ship breaking yard in Gujarat. Photo: PTI

Hearing a plea from a Navi Mumbai-based shipping company, the Supreme Court on February 10 stayed the dismantling of the decommissioned aircraft carrier INS Viraat, a Centaur-class behemoth and India’s longest-serving warship. A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde ordered a status quo on a vessel that is undoubtedly a symbol of India’s rich maritime heritage after issuing notices to the Government of India and others seeking their responses on the plea. The Mumbai firm informed the Supreme Court that they were ready to buy the decommissioned vessel for Rs.100 crore and convert it into a maritime museum and multi-functional adventure centre.

Over the past few years, there have been several proposals to preserve the legacy of the carrier, but none of them materialised. The Government of India had written 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 INS Viraat into an integrated tourism facility on a public-private partnership model found no takers.

Citing space constraints among other issues, the Union 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, Gujarat, for Rs.38.50 crore in an auction conducted by the Metal Scrap Trade Corporation Limited.

Reliable sources told Frontline that the dismantling of INS Viraat had already commenced from December 1 and that a substantial portion of the aircraft carrier, including the flight deck, ski jump and sailor accommodations, totalling around 40 per cent of the vessel, has been taken apart. Naval veterans are, however, hopeful that the Supreme Court’s February 10 order might resuscitate the aircraft carrier. INS Viraat is the second aircraft carrier to be broken down in India—in 2014, INS Vikrant was dismantled in Mumbai.

Issuing notices on the petition filed by Envitech Marine Consultants Private Limited (EMCPL) through its directors Vishnukant Sharma and Rupali Vishnukant Sharma, the Supreme Court directed the parties “to maintain status quo with regard to dismantling/breaking of the subject-ship known as INS Viraat, as on date”. Envitech Marine Consultants, who had made public their intention of trying to save the iconic carrier from the scrapyard last September, had approached the High Court of Bombay. Shree Ram Green Ship Recycling Industries Ltd had even declared that they were ready to release the ship, demanding Rs.100 crore as compensation and sought a no objection certificate (NOC) from the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

In 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 Marine Consultants’ representation for an NOC from the government to enable them to acquire the carrier. The request for an NOC was, however, rejected by the MoD. In a three-page letter dated November 27, the Ministry said: “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, Envitech Marine Consultants approached the Supreme Court.

Envitech Marine Consultants, who were hired by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in 2019 to recover weapons from the Thane creek as part of the Narendra Dabholkar murder investigation monitored by the High Court of Bombay, have in the past said that it was only a sense of patriotism and love for the country and certainly not money that was driving them to buy the ship and convert it into a museum. The company had even commenced talks with the government of Goa to berth the ship-museum in the Zuari river and operate her under a Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) model.

Reacting to the Supreme Court’s February 10 order, Mukesh Balabhai Patel, chairman of the Shree Ram Group, whose company has begun the dismantling of INS Viraat, said: “We are yet to get a formal notice or message from the court seeking stoppage of dismantling activity. In the absence of any formal order, we continue to break the vessel.”

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.

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