For someone who has lived for more than a quarter of a century in Mumbai, I have had very little to do with boats and ships, and a lot to do with water. A childhood in the plains of the Deccan plateau meant lots of surface transport, and by the time one got done with academics , travel was all about flying.
My earliest memories of ships, must be from almost 53 years ago. There are vignettes of crowded ship decks as night set in, and sitting with one's luggage amidst the crowds, hearing older people talk about how the ship rolled, and how so and so spent the entire time throwing up, wailing kids, and so on. Sunrise saw us anchoring out at sea, and disembarking on to some kind of rowing boats which had a raft-like look, and these boats took us inward to some jetty, from where we took a bullock cart to our ancestral place in the Kokan coastal region.
By and by , in college, one got to hear about ships sailing from Mumbai to Goa, and one actually saw these shipped berthed at the quay in Panjim. For some reason, ship transport on the west coast appeared to fizzle out, and from then on ships were all about admiring them at a distance from the Gateway of India, wondering about their origin, as we took a launch to the Elephanta Island on a day trip, and so on.
India has had a great Naval history, right from the time of Shivaji. The Navy has played a stellar role in the various wars fought by India in my lifetime. And even in the preindependence times, when the East India Company ships ruled the seas off and on the Indian coast. Mumbai has an excellent harbor , and a long history of maritime transport .
So one is baffled by the sudden episodes of assorted foreign ships, malfunctioning in Indian waters, drifting all over the seas, managing to bypass all ports on the eastern seaboard , rounding the southern tip, and managing to wash ashore, specifically in Mumbai, that too on one of the most crowded beaches. Juhu.
These are not Indian ships by registration. Owners could be anybody. But what is clear is that these are commercial tankers and ships transporting goods and not passengers.
According to Coast Guard statistics, more than 60,000 tonnes of crude oil has been spilt into the Arabian Sea in the last 29 years. There have been 23 ship accidents in the Arabian Sea since 1982, contributing majorly to the total spills along the entire West coast. In the same period, almost 1,13,000 tonnes of oil has been spilled along India's entire coastline due to 74 ship accidents.
Since January 2011, 4 ships have managed to malfunction,collide ,stray,sink,or leak oil off the Mumbai coast.
On Januray 30, 2011, a Cyprus merchant ship, MV Nordlake, collided with a Navy ship INS Vindhagiri at the entrance to Mumbai Harbor.
On June 11, 2011, Singapore ship MV Wisdom, lost her tow, and suddenly managed to drift aimlessly and landed up at Juhu Beach, close enough for people to wade in and touch.
Then MV Pavit, a ship abandoned off the Oman Coast on June 29, 2011, managed to float here and there, and surprise, surprise, managed to land up, yes, again at Juhu Beach on July 31, 2011.
As if this was not enough , on August 4, 2011, MV Rak, carrying 60,000 tonnes of coal and at least 300 tonnes of fuel oil, sank in the Arabian Sea off Mumbai, and 2 tonnes of oil is supposed to be leaking every hour into the sea since August 6, 2011. There are oil slicks across the beaches in Mumbai, and the leakage has adversely affected the marine life, the monsoon being the spawning and breeding season. Sea food consumers now prefer to buy stuff sourced from places , way up north of Mumbai.
As if this was not bad enough, on August 18, 2011, panic set in as the authorities detected a stray unmanned boat drifting off the Bhabha Atomic Reserach Centre, on the city's eastern seaboard. The Security forces and police took immediate action, investigated, and found it belonged to a fisherman who had anchored it at a jetty , and somehow it got de-anchored and floated by.
This bothers me. And I have some questions.
How come, ships are automatically floating on to Juhu Beach, one of the most crowded beaches in Mumbai. Close to all the highly successful commercial, and tourist areas ? How come one never hears, of ships drifting away, say to the harbor in Goa, some distance south of Mumbai ? Or one of the several jetties and older historical harbors and ports on the Kokan Coastline ?
How come one isn't hearing about ships getting grounded ashore on India's eastern coast, say at Vishakhapatnam, Chennai, or even around Cochin, and Mangalore, southwards on the Western coast ?
Is it significant, that ships drifting ashore right at the beach, might make it easy for someone , who resembles an Indian , to quietly be a part of the excited inquisitive masses, and step ashore, to a preferred destination like Mumbai ? No one really knows what is being carried on these ships, and in the brouhaha over the sinking, and folks getting away in small boats, is it possible that some things find an easy entry along with stuff into Mumbai ? In all these years of oil tankers sailing all across the Arabian Sea off Mumbai, how many oil spills have you seen ? Very few. Is this something to divert the attention and change the priorities of the authorities ? How old is Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, and how is it that unmanned boats can suddenly drift in very close to it, although anchored earlier at well used jetties further away ?
Is there something like Naval Radar ? Where suspicious boats and ships can be detected, and the Navy forces and Coast Guard can rush in, similar to jet fighters mobilizing to ward of intruders in our airspace ? If it exists, why isn't it working ? If it doesn't, what stops the authorities from installing something that does ? Do we have sufficient resources ? What do other countries do ?
There are some explanations being put forth about non availability of trained seafarer types, as the rise to the level of Captain of a ship is over a period of time that does not allow sufficient experience. Human error of those commanding the ships , is being blamed.
Why does this (perceived lack of security resources ) remind me of the once proud and acclaimed Mumbai Police, reduced to a force that doesn't even have decent bullet proof jackets , simply because every purchase is looked at by someone unscrupulous , as a profitable opportunity ?
Is it significant that countries who have earlier initiated terror attacks on us, via the sea off Mumbai , are situated with coastal cities on the Arabian sea ? Is this approach via the sea the preferred method now ?
And just when I thought I was being unduly imaginative about coastal and maritime things, comes the news of this years biggest infiltration bid in North Kashmir by the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the same fellows responsible for 26/11.
On August 20, 2011, yesterday , militants tried to infiltrate across the line of control (between India and Pakistan) that is formed by the KishenGanga river in North Kashmir, by sailing in , and were engaged in combat by the Indian army. Several militants were killed, and a hunt is on for the others.
In the meanwhile, our Ministers continue to hobnob at talks with ministers from Pakistan, and the press goes ballistic over the glamour aspect of the new external affairs minister from Pakistan. Terrorist Ajmal Kasab remains in jail, at a huge cost to our government , despite being filmed killing people on 26/11. Pakistan refuses to move ahead on "prosecuting" what it calls non-state actors who participated in 26/11, despite proofs.
And we recently had one more terror attack in Mumbai. About which there seems to be no news , about those responsible, arrests, for that , anything .
Mid-day reports that there is another vessel reported to be drifting towards Mumbai .
Is someone doing something ? Can we hear about it ?