Floating danger

Published : Sep 09, 2011 00:00 IST

After the collision of mv MSC Chitra with mv Khalijia-3 on August 7, 2010, in Mumbai harbour, a thick oil slick spread for seven nautical miles around the ships. Here, oil that washed ashore at the Elephanta caves. - PAUL NORONHA

After the collision of mv MSC Chitra with mv Khalijia-3 on August 7, 2010, in Mumbai harbour, a thick oil slick spread for seven nautical miles around the ships. Here, oil that washed ashore at the Elephanta caves. - PAUL NORONHA

Maritime disasters and abandoned vessels pose a serious threat to the Mumbai coast.

IT is not unusual for those familiar with Mumbai harbour to talk of the wrecks that have from time to time littered the 11-metre-deep main navigation channel. In fact, local yachting clubs used them as markers for their weekly yacht races. For instance, one of the safety buoys marked a wreck that lay in the main channel for years, its masts clearly visible at ebb tide, until it was finally hauled away.

Since the mid-1990s, the harbour and the coast have seen an increasing number of maritime disasters, which have thrown a shadow over Mumbai Port's well-established reputation for being safe even in extreme weather. At one time it was even known as the best port this side of the Suez.

Accidents, wrecks and abandoned and run-aground vessels have become hazards that cause the destruction of the coastal flora and fauna and fishing as a livelihood, marine pollution and, more recently, threats to national security. This year there have been eight minor and major marine accidents. Last year there were seven, and in 2009 there were six.

On March 23 last year, an Indian Coast Guard ship (ICGS) sank in the harbour. The ship, ICGS Vivek, was rammed thrice by the merchant vessel mv Global Purity. The ICGS was docked for repairs and the merchant vessel was being guided in for docking.

Five months later, on August 7, the infamous collision of mv MSC Chitra and mv Khalijia-3 took place in the main navigation channel of the port near Prongs Reef Lighthouse. Apart from disruption of ship traffic and loss of cargo, 400 tonnes of oil was spilt. With a thick oil slick that spread for about seven nautical miles around the ships, the damage could have been devastating. but the monsoon current and the stormy waters broke up and dispersed the slick.

On August 31 last year, tragedy was averted when a coastal tramp called mv Nand Hajara, which was unloading a consignment, swung against mv Beas Dolphin. Water rushed into Nand Hajara, but since it was at the dock, help was on hand and it was prevented from sinking. Five months later, on January 31, 2011, a Nilgiri class frigate of the Indian Navy was not so lucky. INS Vindhyagiri collided with the Cyprus-registered container cargo ship mv Nordlake and sank. Then, on June 11, the 9,300-tonne Singapore-flagged ship mv Wisdom broke its towing cable in heavy seas and ran aground on Juhu Beach.

Following in almost breathless progression, on July 31, another ship, mv Pavit, also ran aground, this time at Versova Beach. The 1,000-tonne Pavit had lost engine power near Oman and drifted all the way to the Mumbai coast. The manner in which the Pavit so easily drifted on to the shore raised the bogey of 26/11 and questions about the safety of the coast.

The latest incident was the sinking of the Panama-flagged mv Rak Carrier on August 4 about 20 nautical miles west off Mumbai. Fears of an ecological disaster loomed large when it was learnt that Rak Carrier had sunk with 60,000 tonnes of coal and 340 tonnes of fuel. Although the Coast Guard swung into action, the ship leaked 35 to 40 tonnes of fuel for the first two days; this dropped to about 10 tonnes before the leak stopped altogether after five days or so. Oil patches were sighted as far as 12 nautical miles from the sunken vessel.

Once again, the choppy monsoon waters dispersed the slick and prevented large-scale ecological destruction. Coast Guard ships sprayed oil spill dispersants in the heavily affected areas to neutralise the oil patches and bring the situation under control.

Apart from the obvious concerns over the loss of life and the loss of the cargo and the vessels themselves, there is the persistent fear of pollution from oil and other hazardous substances. While fortunately there has been no Exxon Valdez-like spill in Mumbai, the probability of such an occurrence cannot be denied, especially considering the increasing number of accidents taking place, the crowding of Mumbai Port and the additional traffic from the Jawaharlal Nehru Port in Navi Mumbai. While the spills from Chitra and Rak Carrier were controlled by the Coast Guard (helped in no mean way by the monsoon), the non-governmental organisation (NGO) ToxicsWatch Alliance (TWA) criticised the Coast Guard, saying it lacked the capacity to detect, monitor and neutralise marine pollution of the hazardous and noxious substances (HNS) type.

Oil spills are covered under the HNS Protocol of 2010 to the International Convention on Liability and Compensation for Damage in Connection with the Carriage of Hazardous and Noxious Substances by Sea, 1996. This was adopted on April 30, 2010, but India has not ratified it.

The TWA explains: Under the 2010 Protocol, if damage is caused by bulk HNS, compensation will first be sought from the shipowner, up to a maximum limit of 100 million Special Drawing Rights (SDR); 1 SDR is an equivalent of Rs.71.42 as of August 5, 2011. Where damage is caused by packaged HNS, or by both bulk HNS and packaged HNS, the maximum liability for the ship owner is 115 million SDR. Once this limit is reached, compensation will be paid from a second tier, the HNS Fund, up to a maximum limit of 250 million SDR (including compensation paid under the first tier). According to IMO [International Maritime Organisation] norms, marine pollution due to oil spills is categorised as follows: Tier 1: Below 700 tonnes of oil; Tier 2: Between 700 and 10,000 tonnes; and Tier 3: 10,000 to 100,000 tonnes. India does not have the capacity to counter spills over 100,000 tonnes. Once the extent of the oil spill due to mv Rak is determined, it will be clear what tier it belongs to. The NOS-DCP [National Oil Spill Disaster Contingency Plan] requires amendment to include the HNS protocol of the IMO.

The TWA says that there is compelling logic for the Ministry of Shipping to legislate that all ships visiting Indian ports have comprehensive oil-cum-HNS pollution insurance with a reputed company so that clean-up operations are not paid for by the Indian taxpayer and [that] shipowners who commit environmental crimes are made liable. The NGO cites the difference between the responses of India and the United States to oil spills.

The Coast Guard, responsible for controlling and containing oil spills within the harbour, has found itself caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to pinning the responsibility for spills. While there are legal provisions to issue notices to the masters and owners of polluting ships, the Coast Guard has been demanding legislation that regulates the transboundary movements of ships in Indian waters. The Coast Guard essentially wants a ship to provide the following details before entering the Indian maritime zone: its port of registry, the name and address of the owner, the IMO-registered owner identification number, and IMO company identification number. These details will help it trace the current and past owners of the vessel. Thus, the need to sign the international protocol and the need to regulate transboundary movements go hand in hand.

After the sinking of the 27-year-old Rak Carrier, the Gujarat Maritime Board banned the entry of ships that were over 25 years old into oil, container and dry ports in the State.

The TWA has also demanded that ships under tow be forbidden from entering Indian waters between May 15 and August 15. The fear is that the stormy weather of these months could be used as an excuse by shipowners to dump condemned ships. A recent example cited is of mv Wisdom. The ship was being towed by a tugboat to the ship-breaking yard in Alang when it allegedly broke its tow line on June 11 and drifted dangerously close to the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, a vital part of Mumbai's road infrastructure, before running aground on Juhu Beach.

After the attackers of 26/11 entered the city via the sea, all attention has been on the coasts. Recent scares include Pavit, Wisdom, a barge named Mogri that excited the suspicion of fishermen because of its slow speed and nearness to the coast, and mv Nafis-1. The last turned out to be a hijacked vessel, which was allegedly running contraband. Engine failure caused it to drift for 20 days on the high seas until Marine commandos boarded it 170 nautical miles off Mumbai. Automatic weapons were found on board.

Incidents such as these make a strong case for ship-related accidents to be handled by the Ministry of Defence. The TWA says that earlier the Ministry of Defence was the nodal agency for coordination in the matter of oil spills. This responsibility has since shifted to the Ministry of Home Affairs, but perhaps the NGO is right when to say that its failure to avert ship-related accidents and to prevent the entry into Indian waters of condemned ships with fake documents are a good rationale for the Ministry of Defence to be reassigned the responsibility.

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