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The princess and the sea

india Updated: Mar 28, 2010 07:48 IST
Shalini Singh

Since the last decade, this ‘princess’ has ‘ruled’ one of the most popular beach stretches in the world. Steadily stripped of her finery over the years, she stands as a stubborn eyesore on Goa’s richest tourist hub today.

Urban legends have ranged from her being a possible drugs transit to a mini tsunami in the making. She has changed the face of the environment around her and even been a muse to many a poet.

This is the River Princess (RP), Goa’s state disaster, who has caused grave ecological, economic and human damage to the landscape that she has over the years become a part of. Anyone who visits the state invariably learns of this orphaned ship.

The one who has watched many a government in the state come and go, and while they all attempted to steer her fate, none curiously succeeded.

It’s a strange predicament that how an entire state machinery has not been able to get rid of this environmental threat from its biggest revenue earning beach in the last decade.

It started when this 240-meter long ore carrier abandoned by the Salgaonkar Mining Industries got washed up in a storm in June 2000 on the prime property of Candolim-Sinquerim beach. Then the owner washed his hands off after the government disallowed it from being towed away.

Subsequently, ownership issues came up in court and nearly two years went by in confusion and legal hassles. The same handful of shipping companies that bid for removing it each year then on, gave up because they couldn’t succeed.

And despite a Mumbai High Court case and a special law being passed to remove it earlier, the RP stands today as having caused grave damage to the area’s sensitive coastal zone.

Nearly 1.1 km of the surrounding beach has been destroyed, there is literally no beach left at the famous Taj property in Sinquerim. Every year, ten metres of the beach is lost, by way of siltation, forced water channels and currents.

An oil leak had even ruined the beach for a whole season. Besides being a threat to underwater fauna as it sinks deeper into the seabed, it has even led to 4-5 human deaths in the last four years.

According to the Calangute MLA, Agnelo Fernandes, there’s a threat that soon the sea may ingress into the sand and flood the area. "It’s like a tiny tsunami waiting to happen," he says.

Hotels and shacks around the area have lost considerable business where revenue to the tune of nearly Rs 80-100 lakh is being lost every year.

According to the tourism department, only five shacks could be put up in 2009-2010 in that area as compared to 13-15 in the preceding years.

A shack-owner, Eknath, says tourists avoid coming to the area because of the RP."We lose business but nothing has been done about it for so long. It’ll probably stay this way forever," he adds cynically.

In 2008, nearly 2500 villagers of Candolim came together to form a River Princess Hatao Manch and wrote to various officials, including the CM, threatening to hold a rasta roko if measures weren’t taken.

In a press release issued last year, they said, "...some of the departments have been found writing letters to each other to take action, which is very ridiculous and only goes to prove apathy on their part to remove the vessel."

Reports from National Institute of Oceanography and water resources department have admitted that the damage to the shoreline was because of RP and if not removed, would continue to damage life and property.

It’s believed that the government has already spent over a crore and a half on tenders and legal suits in its attempt to salvage the RP.

Early last year the RP was forced to be declared as Goa’s state disaster. The chief minister, Digambar Kamat, admits that "the response to this has been poor," adding that had it been removed in its initial days, it would have been better because with time it has become impossible to float it away.

"The only way out now is to cut it up, but that’ll also come with its own share of problems."

Agrees ship salvager, Anand Madgavkar, "The ship should have been rescued when it first came, now it’s necessary to cut it up and also see that the beach is able to recover."

Ex-tourism minister Mathany Saldanha who during his tenure in 2005 tried to have the RP removed feels that the ship is "one big fraud".

"How did the ship come to be here? It’s not an Indian vessel. The machines and fans have already been removed and sold as scrap. These fresh bids are just delaying tactics."

Fernandes feels this is due to the economics involved. "The scrap value would be around Rs 50 crore as opposed to spending Rs 3-4 crores to tow it away."

Tourism director Swapnil Naik says the ship is in a bad shape and people have resigned to it. "It’s back to square one."

Even Goa’s ports department has tried to wash its hands off. Captain of ports, Capt AP Mascarenhas, says, "The port functions differently. Initially, the collector would be the receiver of the wreck. The RP is now with the tourism department."

There have even been allegations from the leader of opposition party in Goa last year who said that the RP was being used as a transit point for drugs.

Despite the fact that the government has finally decided in February this year to have RP cut up and taken away, residents have resigned to the idea that it may never go.

Tony Fernandes, who shuttles between Goa and Canada, muses about the RP in his Diary Of A Dying Princess, "My heart goes out to the folks that dwell just beyond the white sands and the swaying coconut trees one nautical mile away. I pray everyday that some day soon I will be saved from the perils of destruction that my aging and corroding body will cause to the environment and to the livelihoods of the people ashore. What shall I say? The people in power simply don’t seem to get it, do they?"

And now, come March 29 2010, that fate may finally be sealed when the state government announces the winning tender to cut up the RP and tow her away. So will Goa finally say RIP to the RP this year? Don’t bet on it.