The collision of two ships MT BW Maple and MT Kancheepuram on 28 January near the Kamarajar Port in Ennore, Chennai has rightly raised environmental concerns about a massive oil spill, the quantum of which is yet to be assessed.
But apart from the adverse impact that the oil spill will have on the marine ecology and on the livelihood of fishermen, there is an equally pressing issue which needs to be addressed as well: how exactly will the Ministry of Shipping proceed with the removal of these vessels and who will foot the massive clean-up bill for these operations?
If past precedents are anything to go by, this is an extremely complicated and difficult task. This is because the shipping industry operates largely in an ad hoc manner where there is little clarity about the "genuine" ownership of vessels.
Praveen Nagar Sheth, president of the Indian Shipbreakers Association points out that already 50 large vessels are dotting the Indian sea coast. "Their owners are not traceable and to remove them from their present positions and take them to the shipbreaking yards at Alang in Gujarat is a very expensive proposition," he said.
Sheth says that the entire shipping industry operates in an extremely mischievous manner. "The ownership of a ship changes hands repeatedly and more often than not, one company owns only one ship. So, if something happens to a ship, it often becomes difficult to trace the owner of that particular company," he informs.
Inspector General Rajan Bargotra heading the Indian Coastal Guard in Chennai agrees with Sheth's assessment. Bargotra said, "If two ships are involved in a collision, the onus will be on the owners and it is they who will be impressed upon to bear the cleanup liability. After all, these ships are all covered by insurance and it is the Ministry of Shipping that oversees these salvage operations."
Bargotra, however, admits that extracting money from the owners is an uphill task. "It is very difficult because the ship is registered in one country, the crew of the ship comes from another country and the accident, more often than not, occurs in yet another country," he said.
As per the latest reports, the captains of both the ships involved in the collision have been arrested, and FIRs have been lodged against them. "The two ships involved in the collision have been impounded," MA Bhaskarachar, chairman and managing director of Chennai Port Trust said adding that a probe into the collision has been taken up by multiple agencies, including the director-general of shipping.
However, Sheth believes that keeping these vessels near the Ennore Port will prove to be a very cumbersome and expensive business.
"The owners, more likely than not, will abandon the ships and keeping the crew in jail for an indefinite period of time makes no economic sense either," he says.
Ultimately, the route open to the marine admiralty will be to auction these ships and sold them as scrap. But this whole process can take several years and for the present, there is no clarity as to how the accident occurred in the first place.
"Generally, an average vessel fetches between Rs three to five crore in scrap given that the present rate of Light Displacement Tonnage is 280 dollars," added Sheth.
At present, around 350 ships are being brought annually to Alang for scrapping purposes. A small number of ships are scrapped at the dockyard in Mumbai.
For both MT BW Maple and MT Kancheepuram to reach the dockyard of Alang will be an uphill task for both the coastal guards and also the Ministry of Shipping officials.
Deepak Shetty, who till a few weeks ago was the director general of shipping admits that there are no ball mark procedures to access and investigate collision damage. "It varies from case to case. The endeavour is to proceed with the investigation at the earliest in order to minimise damage," said Shetty.
And while the problem in containing the oil spill is far from over, what is also worrying is the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) expressing its helplessness at the containment measures that were taken to try and reduce the environment damage. The TNPCB board admitted its failure before the southern branch of the National Green Tribunal on 3 February.
Debi Goenka, who heads the NGO Conservation Trust is surprised at how the TNPCB has washed its hands off the cleaning operation. "The collision occurred over a long weekend. As a result, for two days the oil was allowed to spread. For the first five days, no machinery was deployed to clean up the oil spill," he said, adding, "I was horrified to find volunteers being mobilised to clean the oil spill without masks or gloves. Even on the seventh and eighth day after the oil spill, this bucket brigade was being made to clean up manually and in the process were being exposed to carcinogenic chemicals."
Some television channels have cited how over five collisions have taken place along the Chennai coast in the last 10 years yet MA Waris, deputy director general of the Indian Coast Guard said, "The eastern coast has been largely a quiet coast."
Gopal Krishna of ToxicsWatch Alliance says that by now, a plan of action should have been put in place to minimise the damage from the oil spill.
"The Ennore port is an extremely busy port. We demand to know how the spill is being monitored,” he said, adding, "Are the port authorities planning to disperse it, break it up or mop it up? Does the Ennore port (now known as Kamarajar Port Limited) have a mechanism in place to deal with disasters such as this? The public needs to be told which way is the oil flowing but so far nothing has been forthcoming.”
“The International Maritime Organisation has laid down a clear protocol on how to handle oil spills," said Dr Sarang Kulkarni, a marine biologist. “An oil spill of over 1,000 litres is bound to adversely impact marine life.’