The collision between MSC Chitra and MV Khailijia 3 near Mumbai on August 7 could not have happened at a more difficult time. The monsoon is in full force and the rough sea has pushed the oil, which leaked from MSC Chitra, towards the Mumbai, Raigad and Thane shoreline. This is also the fish-breeding season and the spill could impact the breeding cycle, the seabed and the mangroves also affect the livelihood of the fishermen. Last week, Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh expressed his concern over the damage to the environment.
A number of important issues have once again surfaced after the accident. First, shipping companies are continuing with the trend of putting up ‘flags of convenience’. The problem is somewhat like this: owners register their ships in countries that have flexible labour laws or taxation policies while they themselves stay somewhere else. So when an accident happens, it is often difficult to trace them. In many cases, they refuse to compensate or even tow away the stranded ships. The favourite places of registration are Panama, St Kitts and Singapore. This ‘corporate veil’ should go if India wants to safeguard its territorial waters. From a security scenario also, such veils can prove to be disastrous. The second issue is about how prepared we are to tackle these mishaps considering that many carry hazardous materials. We are not anywhere near adequately equipped to deal with such an occurrence. In 1996, a National Oil Spill Disaster Contingency Plan was drawn up and, according to this, all ports should by now have got functional spill response systems. But this has not happened. In fact, we don’t even have radioactive scanners at ports. Third, the port authorities are supposed to periodically dispose off all the hazardous/inflammable cargo lying in their area. But as of August 9, many major ports have hazardous substances, even war materials like empty shells cartridges, on their premises. And as the July 14 liquid chlorine gas leak at Haji Bunder area, Mumbai, showed, there’s always a possibility of a disaster in which event the lack of expertise in handling it could prove catastrophic.
Despite large-scale protests, port-building activity in India has gathered pace. At present, India has 199 notified ports. However, the 11th Five Year Plan had identified 331 ports for development on the mainland (roughly one port every 25 km). With every port, the challenges will only increase and it is imperative that we equip ourselves for the worst-case scenarios. Otherwise, we will always find ourselves at sea whenever an untoward incident takes place.