Mysterious Dockings At Juhu Beach
Mumbai shoreline is dotted with the shipwrecks at the coast over past few years, with fears that the wreckage from the ships can cause further shipwrecks.
When the unmanned and drifting 1000 tonne ship MV Pavit washed up onto Mumbai’s famous Juhu-Versova beach on July 31, it had all the drama of a ghost ship. There was no crew on board, and no one knew how it reached the shores. The various organisations responsible for maritime security along the Mumbai (rather Maharashtra coast) had no clue about the docking. While some fishermen do say that they had informed the Mumbai police on July 30, no one took any action. Even as this exposed the sheer inadequacies of the security agencies, it was a still a softer docking.
And this is the second such docking since June. On June 12, morning visitors at the beach were greeted with the sight of a 145-metre long, 9000 tonne cargo vessel MV Wisdom. It was subsequently towed away.
And even as the authorities scrambled to remove MV Pavit from the beach, on Thursday, August 4, the cargo vessel MV Rak, owned and managed by M/s. Delta Shipping Marine Services, Qatar, showed up 20 nautical miles off the shores, all of a sudden, sending SOSs saying that the ship was sinking.
According to the Coast Guard, on early Thursday morning they received a call that the ship was sinking. They then diverted the Coast Guard Ship (CGS) Samudra Prahari, which was patrolling in the area, and Emergency Towing Vessel (ETV) Smit Lumba to attend to the vessel. A merchant ship, MV Stella, which was sailing close-by was also diverted to assist MV Rak carrier. According to a press release by the Defence Ministry, a joint operation was carried out by the Navy and Coast guard, two helicopters were pressed into service and they air-lifted the 30 members of the crew and landed them on board a container ship, before returning to rescue the others.
Subsequently on August 4, MV Rak sank off the shores. Leaving behind on its trail, a major oil spill spreading across 12 nautical miles and wreckage of a 225 metre-long ship on the floor off the coast. The ship, carrying a cargo of 60,000 tonnes of coal and 340 tonnes of fuel for use caused a severe oil spill on the coast. And the mangroves, the flora and fauna (including aquatic), which form the first line of defence of the ecology of Mumbai coast, came under a severe battering yet again. But then, this was not the first time such a shipwreck occurred at the Mumbai coast.
In August 2010, two ships MSC Chitra and MV Khalijia-III collided off the Mumbai coast, causing MSC Chitra to get severely damaged. Subsequently, in April this year, the Panama-flagged Chitra which was anchored 30 nautical miles North West off Mumbai, was allowed to sink, taking along with it over 500 cargo containers carrying tonnes of hazardous chemicals, diesel, lubricating oil and other fuel.
Soon after the collision, all shipping activity at the Mumbai port had to be suspended.
According to Valsa Nair Singh, Maharashtra Environment Secretary, around 10-12 km coastline between Revas and Mandwa and five-six km coastline at Elephanta and Vashi had been damaged.
At the time, the Akhil Maharashtra Macchhimar Kriti Samiti alleged that the ship collision wasn’t a mere accident but a conspiracy. The samiti says that the water was barely 12 metres deep where the ships collided. These depths were used primarily by shipping trawlers and not open for big ships.
But beyond the oil spills which are a cause for concern due to the harm caused to the eco-systems at the coast, the wreckage of the ships are a growing worry.
According to records, seven ships have sunk off the Mumbai Coast in the last six years, and the wreckage below is posing a threat to the channel used by ships coming to the Mumbai ports. And there is concern that this wreckage could cause more shipwrecks.
With India being the country with the longest coastline and having a strategic location, and the potential to become a major maritime power, this does not augur well. India, has a 7,517 km long coastline studded with 13 major ports. With one of the largest merchant shipping fleets, it is ranked 16 among the maritime countries. If the wreckage continues to lie on the floor of the sea, as it is sure to do, it would act as a reef. And any ship willing to dock at the two Mumbai ports will have to navigate these hazards. Over a period, if more such shipwrecks occur, the sea bed will not be viable for more than a couple of ships at a time. The channel used by non-Naval shipping fleet will get congested and the traffic will slow down. Thus, causing delay in docking at the harbour. This in turn could push up costs for the shipping companies who would now have to spend on waiting costs. So, not just safety, the economic viability of Mumbai ports could also get affected.
But for now, the jury is out on whether all these shipwrecks and collisions are mere co-incidences or there is more to it.
“At this stage, to attribute a motive to these accidents would be a speculation,” says Abdul Ghani Sarang, General secretary-cum-treasurer of National Union of Seafarers of India. A view supported by others in the industry. “It is true that several ships have sunk at the coast and the debris is a hazard for other ships, but one cannot say that the ships have been ‘sunk’,” says an official.
Nevertheless, for the common shipping trawlers, this is becoming a major danger. “Our trawlers are small, and may not be affected by the debris below, but these accidents are definitely harmful to the environment and may have a long term effect on the eco-system at the coast,” says Rambhau Patil, President of the Maharashtra Macchimar Kruti Samiti and the Asian representative at the World Forum of Fisher People, a body of 32 member countries.
According to Patil, these shipwrecks at the coast and the oil spills occurring due to the accidents will harm the ecology of the coast. “The mangroves form the first line of defence from the salt water. The various forms of sea life found in these sites go a long way towards purifying the sea water. Clams, oysters, crabs and other life forms are essential forms to preserve the ecological balance at the coast. There are certain species of clams that purify almost 18-30 litres of water. And there are millions of these in these waters. So if there are oil spills everywhere, over a period of time, these life forms will disappear,” says Patil.
“Most of these ships are sunk here during the monsoon,” says Patil. A fact supported if one takes a look at the history of these shipwrecks. According to statistics, seven ships have sunk or refloated during the four monsoon months in 2010. According to experts, the owners prefer not to getting into the process of salvaging ships as the salvaging costs are higher than the scrap value. “They wriggle out of their duty of salvaging ships by taking the matter to court,” says Patil. “The owners say that they are taking the ship for ship breaking to Gujarat, but conveniently crash here. Often it is easy to get the claims done in Maharashtra,” he says.
“In 1997, the M V Arcadia Pride, carrying nearly 12000 tonnes of Sulphur sank off South Mumbai’s Colaba coast. In 2003, Umin Al Quwain Petroleum Co Ltd, carrying about 700 tonnes of naptha dumped it into the sea, he says. These lead to the sea getting polluted and harming marine life. We have petitioned the state several times to take precautionary steps against these accidents, as they affect the fishing community majorly, but there has not been drastic action,” says Patil. The samiti now plans to file for information on these accidents, under the Right to Information Act.
Mangroves are plants with a height of about two to five meters generally found near coastal areas where there is brackish water. These act as a buffer zone between the land and sea, and protect the coastline from erosion due to the waves and water currents and are the natural defense against hurricane and tsunami damage in particular. And are also known to absorb pollutants. Mangroves host a number of threatened or endangered species, different animal species- mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds, and provide feeding grounds too the marine food cycles. They provide spawning grounds to several forms of marine life including clams, oysters, and prawns. With each oil spill, the eco-systems at the mangroves get affected by the oil and other pollutants and a chunk of the marine life is killed. As Rambhau Patil put it, “Eventually these frequent disturbances in the eco-system can have a larger effect on the environment,” Patil.
Meanwhile, following the oil spill due to the collision between MSC Chitra and MV Khalija III last year, the National Institute of Oceanography conducted a marine impact assessment spill on Mumbai harbour .They have submitted the Interim report to the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, Mumbai and the final report is under preparation. But according to Dr SN Gajbhiye, Scientist-In-Charge, National Institute of Oceanography, Regional Centre, the prevailing oil spill is scattered and minor in nature. So a large scale impact is ruled out. He says that the impact depends on the quantity and quality of the oil. But if the spill period is prolonged then it may have some impact. Temporary enhancement of PHc value in water is possible. And some impact on neustonic flora and fauna is expected because of various reasons. But long term impact is not expected.
But for now, Sarang refused to attribute any motive behind these shipwrecks. “But the administration should be more pro-active. The administration should verify if the ships are sea worthy. If not they should not be allowed on Indian waters,” says Sarang. The authorities should keep a close check on the movements of all ships (which is their job in the first place.) The manner, in which the two ships in the recent cases came so close to the shores, without the agencies having any information, can be detrimental to Indian maritime interest as well as the security of the country. (In these cases, how does the Coast Guard claim that they had no idea about the arrival of the ships?) “But ignoring their own blunders, the first thing they do is arrest the crew. Many times the crew has hardly any role or information, yet the police arrest them. This is leading to criminalisation of the sea-farer,” says Sarang.
The Indian shipping industry provides for approximately, 90 per cent of the country’s trade by volume and 70 per cent in terms of value, these accidents do little to further the trade prospects. The Maharashtra government is also building five new ports at Rewas, Dighi, Jaigarh and Vijaydurg, and Ratnagiri.
A view reciprocated across the industry is that the agencies’ monitoring the coast needs to become pro-active. “In the case of Pavit, or say MV Rak, one really cannot say for sure who was on board when these ships came to the shores. For official purposes, one claims that the former had no crew and the crew of the later was airlifted. But there is no saying if some people have already infiltrated into the coast. This can hardly be a happy situation for the security of the country,” says an official. So, while there is still no conclusive proof of any ulterior motives to these dockings, (industry men dismiss these theories as media hype), the industry does concede that these shipwrecks need to be looked into. “Any more of these wrecks and maritime movement is going to get a tad slower, which is not good for maritime economy,” say industry watchers.
At the time of going to press, Pavit was finally being towed away from Juhu. At least for now, the beach is free of all ships. With still another month to go for the monsoon in Mumbai, Mumbaikars are hoping that it does not wash up any more ship at its shores.
By Ujjayini Das from Mumbai