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Did the container ship being towed to the Alang junk yard have permission to sail so close to the coast and sensitive Bombay High oil installation? Who plotted her course? And how come nobody interrupted her voyage
There is now a new landmark off the coast in Bandra, in suburban Mumbai, that joins another outside the Otters Club there, and the city should consider itself lucky that it did not float onto the signature Bandra-Worli Sea Link. It is the MV Wisdom, a 26-year-old container ship, which in the course of its lifecycle has been blessed with 14 name changes, and nobody knows how many owners.
As a matter of fact, the real beneficiary owner of the ship is still not known, at least not officially. Who the real owners and financiers of this ship are will, ofcourse, be known to all and sundry in the by-lanes and backstreets of Mumbai's Ballard Estate. This is the kind of published information, incidentally, which can cause the untimely demise of journalists; or others too, as we have seen recently again. So we stay out of that aspect, though it is certainly important, especially in this day and age of scams linked to stolen assets, hidden in tax havens, appearing in other industries like international sports events, offshore oil exploration, and telecom. This article tries to answer some of the simpler questions.
The first simple question that arises is, what was this rust-bucket, junk, unseaworthy vessel doing so close to Mumbai in the first place. The next question is, who plotted courses so far inland from what the actual course on a voyage from Colombo to Alang should have been. And, certainly, why was she inland of the oil rigs and security establishments in and around Bombay High? Mariners cannot even begin to think of the damage she would have caused if she had gone adrift near Bombay High.
MV Wisdom started life in faraway Hamburg, back in 1984-85, as the container ship Olandia. She bounced around the world with a variety of names, flags and despondent owners as well as charterers. These names often saw a repeat of the name Olandia, but also included Ocean Spirit, Contship Canada, City of Leeds, Oocl Pudong, Vietnam Star, Moringia, India Star, QC Wisdom and finally, Wisdom. Through all this, she bore a constant IMO (International Maritime Organisation) number - 8417558. As a small container ship, logging around 700 TEU, she would eventually see service as a feeder and an uneconomical one at that. Scrapping, therefore, would be a natural outcome.
Rule paramount which is drilled into our heads right in the beginning of our training is: All seaworthy merchant ships have a right of innocent passage through non-inland waters worldwide. However, a ship headed for scrapping, either under her own power or tow, does not come close to land or coast, as far as possible, for multiple reasons. If she does, then she needs to inform the authorities, who will then decide if she is to be provided with what is known as "the right to innocent passage" guaranteed to all seaworthy ships of all nations. Because a ship headed for scrapping is not seaworthy. And if a national authority wishes to, it can certainly deny her the right of innocent passage through her territorial waters, till a point where she has to enter the territorial waters for scrapping, or with precautions to prevent exactly what happened with the Wisdom.
In other words, the Wisdom should simply have stayed far away from India's territorial waters, until she was right off Alang, where she was reportedly destined for, and then made an entry in as direct and straight a course as possible. That is what her entry permissions into India should have stated in the first case.
The first convention that the MV Wisdom broke is that her tug and she entered India's territorial waters knowingly, and consciously, despite being very unseaworthy. We need to know and find out if she sought the required permissions to do so, or just barged right in, and then meandered close to Bandra, subsequently. A tug tow breaking in the monsoons, especially when towing an empty unmanned dead ship with high windage, is not something the authorities should have permitted right off Mumbai. One can, therefore, only presume that she was right off our coast, by some reports just four miles off, without any permissions or clearances. It would have to be total deliberate criminal negligence if permissions were given to this movement, in the way described, with just one tug that seemingly gave up after the towing arrangement snapped.
If she was in any other country, the authorities would have insisted that she had backup arrangements, at least two tugs for the tow and a third one on standby, and very regular monitoring of the situation.
Now, a dead ship under tow is not some sort of high-speed boat, it is more like a very slow combo chugging and struggling along at a speed not exceeding 3-4 knots (about 6-8 kmph), at best, if not even slower. In this sort of weather it would have taken more than a few days just to cross Mumbai harbour, assuming she came close to the coast past Goa, and then along the Raigad/Kolaba coast. She would have been picked up on every small and large shore radar screen, every naval and coast-guard ship, every offshore supply vessel on duty in and around the Bombay High platforms, and even the radars on the platforms and rigs. Most of all, despite the heavy seas and monsoons, she would have been visible to the naked eye from more than a dozen light-houses along the coast, including assorted naval batteries.
In addition, every other ship underway in and around the area would have picked her up on their radar screens, and stayed miles away. Any ship at anchor that this combo came within miles of would either raise anchor and flee, or raise a strong protest on the radio to the tug as well as the port authorities. As seafarers, we know how unpredictable and dangerous such derelicts under tow can be, and it is just not worth it being anywhere near them. Anywhere would mean that if I was on another ship, I would keep a very safe distance, which means steer at least five miles clear distance away, regardless, even more if I was a tanker or other kind of big ship.
Every one of them would have seen a double-blip on their screens. Any one of them could have challenged the tug-ship tow on simple VHF radio, and asked them to move further from shore, as well as establish identity. Every one of them could have filed a report with the many radio and marine stations all along the coast, of a tug and tow operating too close to the coast and representing a possible hazard. It is likely that some did, but whether they did or not is unknown; and even if they did, what happened next would be unknown. Something similar happens when un-roadworthy trucks are winked past on our roads, to give you an idea of what really may have happened, since there is no other logical reason why nobody seems to be aware of what was happening till this 13,000 tonner landed up aiming for the Bandra-Worli Sea Link.
The grapevine is, with hindsight, that this was a deliberate attempt to push a ship on to the Sea Link. Grapevine is seldom reliable and it does seem far-fetched, but it is an angle that will need to be investigated. If those who are investigating can find the real owners, that is.
The bigger issue, however, is that the Indian coast is rapidly becoming a dump yard for the junks and overage ships. And the Wisdom is just another example of this malaise; the solution to which has been debated and written about repeatedly, but never implemented, for a variety of reasons.
For all the coastline we have, our authorities have simply been unable to put up a simple Vessel Tracking System (VTS) along the coast, and appear to be nowhere near to doing so either. The bigger issue that the Wisdom brings out with shocking precision is simply that despite all the fuss after the 26/11 attacks by boat from Karachi, our coastline is as open as it was. Never mind small fishing boats, huge ships like the Wisdom can sail through, without being stopped or challenged. Think about it.
And if you challenge this too much, then you are in danger of meeting the same fate as other journalists who dig too deep, into matters pertaining to anything which might upset the status quo, of what really happens in offshore India. Or, being called "anti-national", as this writer has been, lately.
(Veeresh Malik is a qualified mariner and writer. He is also consulting editor with "Sailor Today".)
Survey by the WHO and the World Bank points out that India has miles to go to ensure a life of dignity for the disabled
The World Report on Disability, compiled by the WHO (World Health Organization) and the World Bank, released on 10th June, shows that India has a long way to go to ensure welfare for citizens with disabilities. Despite being the home to a large number of people with disabilities, India has fared poorly in terms of rehabilitation of the disabled or for their education, healthcare and employment.
"In India, children with disabilities in special schools fall under the responsibility of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, while children in mainstream schools come under the Department of Education in the Ministry of Human Resource Development. This division reflects the cultural perception that children with disabilities are in need of welfare rather than equality of opportunity. This particular model tends to further segregate children with disabilities, and shifts the focus from education and achieving social and economic inclusion to treatment and social isolation," the report says.
The report defines 'disability' in a very wide sense, which also includes people who suffer from chronic health conditions, or undergone physical or mental trauma in an accident. "More than one billion people in the world live with some form of disability, of whom nearly 200 million experience considerable difficulties in functioning. Disability will be an even greater concern due to ageing populations and the higher risk of disability in older people as well as the global increase in chronic health conditions," says Dr Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO and Robert B Zoellick, president of the World Bank Group in the preface to the report.
The apathy can be noticed in a variety of other ways too. In India, 42% of public buildings do not follow the compliance norms necessary to make public structures accessible to the disabled. With a high disability prevalence rate of 24.9%, India loses some10.5 years of health due to disability. During 2004-2005, only 0.05% of the budget allocated to the ministry concerned was reserved for welfare of people with disabilities. Access to healthcare is severely limited to many, due to high cost, lack of convenient transport and lack of services.
In matters of access to primary education, the share of disabled children not enrolled in school is more than five times the national rate. Even Karnataka, which has fared the best among Indian states, almost one-quarter of children with disabilities were out of school, and in states like Madhya Pradesh and Assam, the number increases to more than half.
Moreover, though as high as 60% of disabled children between 6-11 years attend school, the number drops to 30% for those between 12-17 years. Only 37.6% of the people with disabilities are employed—and 87% of them are in informal sectors.
According the 2001 Census, there are 21.90 million people with disabilities in India. However, a 2007 World Bank Report on disabled persons in India observed that there is growing evidence that people with disabilities comprise between 5%-8% of the Indian population (around 55- 90 million individuals).
However, India has shown significant improvement over the years, and the country has seen the movement for the support of the disabled gain significant ground. Many schemes have been implemented, and in many parts of India, the education and healthcare situation has improved. The Leprosy Mission's training centres have a job placement rate of more than 95%. The 2011 Census is supposed to be more 'disability-sensitive' and accurate, and the much awaited Persons with Disabilities Act, 2011 is to be implemented this year.
Mumbai's BEST and Bengaluru's BMTC are both innovating to cope up with growing populations. But while BMTC has been growing fast, BEST seems to be losing commuters mainly to the railway system. BMTC can be proud of its progress if it is also able to become financially profitable
BEST (or Bombay Electric Supply and Transport undertaking) in Mumbai has a bus fleet of 4,700, of which 288 are air-conditioned. These buses not only cover the 437 sq km area managed by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) but also provide services to Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) areas, albeit to a limited extent. The bus routes have been planned on the staged service system, with point-to-point travel, allowing commuters to choose a route best suited to the individual concerned. Navi Mumbai Municipal Transport, with its fleet of 226 buses, provides reciprocal services to MCGM areas, in addition to service within NMMC areas. BEST also plies buses to other adjacent municipalities of Mira-Bhayandar and Thane. Thane too has a service to CST, Mumbai, as well as Mira-Bhayandar. In fact, there is one more agency that provides public transport in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) and that is the Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC). While MSRTC does ply stage service on its inter-city routes like the Eastern and Western Express Highways and the Sion-Panvel Highway, its major service is from state transport (ST) bus stands to ST bus stands within the MMR.
However, to sum-up, it is BEST that commands the public transportation scenario in the Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, Thane and Mira-Bhayandar urban agglomerate. It carries out a stupendous task, facilitating mobility for about 43 lakh commuters daily, which latest reports suggest has dropped to about 38 lakh.
Innovations are a must if one has to improve efficiency of service, and thereby overall profitability. BEST has the day ticket scheme of Rs25 that enables a commuter to travel by a BEST bus anywhere on its non-AC, non-corridor services. If corridor buses are to be used, one buys a day ticket of Rs40. The equivalent monthly pass amounts are Rs555 and Rs805 respectively. Very recently, BEST has allowed Rs555 monthly pass-holders to travel for the day on corridor buses for a ticket charge of Rs15 and not Rs40. That's innovative pricing.
BEST provides four kinds of services. The ordinary and express routes clubbed as non-AC and non-corridor; the corridor routes which have very limited stops and traverse over flyovers and the Sea-link; the AC routes, which also have limited stops but do not go over flyovers; and AC express routes, which is AC buses run like the corridor routes.
The fact that buses plying on the highways are packed during peak hours, means there is room for improvement through further innovative schemes, like introducing articulated and bi-articulated buses and the Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS). Introduction of BRTS will enable the bus fare structure to be reformed and made affordable to a larger number of commuters, who otherwise opt for the sub-urban railway system.
Let us shift our attention to Bengaluru. BEST in Bengaluru? The reality is that it is not BEST in Bengaluru but best in Bengaluru. Why do I say that the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) is better than BEST! The figures speak for themselves. Since 2006, the number of bus depots have increased from 25 to 35. The fleet size has increased from 4,106 to 6,111. Effective kilometres traversed per day has increased from 8.67 lakh km to 12.55 lakh km and staff strength has increased from about 19,000 to 33,000. In 2001, BMTC employed about 13,000 people, it had a fleet size of 2,264 and carried 26 lakh commuters. Today, it carries 43 lakh passengers every day. How has that come about?
Bengaluru has grown not only vertically, but the urban sprawl is also considerable. People from rural Bengaluru who at one time cycled to the city, now perforce use the public transport as the roads and traffic have become hostile. Changing work culture demands that they put in eight to ten hours on the job. The number of professionals has also increased and many have taken to travelling by their personal vehicles, two- as well as four-wheelers. With the growing population and growing vehicular traffic, road and public transport carrying capacity needed to be augmented.
The JNNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission) funding has come in handy to augment the bus fleet and associated infrastructure. Unlike in Mumbai or for that matter in Hyderabad, Bengaluru has had no rail-based transportation infrastructure. Metro Rail has been conceived and is being projected as an answer to the city's traffic woes. A twin route, one north-south and the other east-west has been planned and is under execution, albeit at an unenviable pace. Meanwhile, the BMTC has been innovative in its services for commuters.
As Bengaluru has grown, its road infrastructure projects in the form of ring roads (outer and inner), flyovers and underpasses, are being implemented vigorously. And BMTC is providing bus services effectively, on these as well as the other roads across the city. In a hierarchical manner, let us see what the bus system is like.
One can put the Vayu Vajra service at the top of the list. It operates Volvo air-conditioned buses to different parts of Bengaluru and far-flung suburbs. These are the ultra-low floor buses that halt at bus stands at the airport in such a way that the floor at the front door is actually just above the pavement at the bus stop, leaving just a 75 mm climb. This facilitates loading luggage easily too, for which adequate luggage racks has also been provided. The buses also have provision for a wheel-chair bound person to board the bus with reasonable ease and clamp-up on board. The same space is dually used for bicycles, which facilitates ride-carry-ride. These buses cover distances in reasonable time, but the traffic congestion affects its functioning too.
These buses adhere to scheduled timing and have some vacant seats to pick up passengers along the route.
Next is the air-conditioned Volvo Vajra service. The buses are similar to the Vayu Vajra service, but they do not have space for a luggage rack, although they can accommodate wheelchairs and cycles. These buses ply on ring roads and some inside roads too. They also cover far-out places. They have the same bus number as ordinary route buses and traverse the same routes, but they are air-conditioned and have limited stops.
Then there are the BIG10, which ply in the far suburbs to the outer core of the city to facilitate a changeover to buses taking you to your destination. This helps avert city congestion delays for commuters from far-out places, enabling them to cover long distances in quick time. The Suvarna and Pushpak are non-AC bus services with better bus suspensions and seating arrangements plying on some of the routes of the ordinary bus routes.
If the bus destination boards are less cluttered, i.e. only in one language like in Mumbai - say Kannada board in the front and English or Devnagari in the rear or side, it would facilitate the growing non-Kannadiga population to quickly gathering the route number and destination information.
BMTC also has the day ticket and monthly pass facility like BEST has. What is lacking in both is the Bus Rapid Transit System. But them the BRTS needs to be planned for a city by its transportation group such as MMRDA for Mumbai and the Urban Land Transport of the Urban Development Department of Karnataka Government. While I do see that ULT/UDD of GoK is seriously considering this facility, MMRDA seems to have gone past that level of seriousness. It is too engrossed with Metro and Monorail. Given the scenario, it is for you to judge which of the two is better or whether they can both learn from each other.
[Sudhir Badami is a civil engineer and transportation analyst. He is on the Government of Maharashtra's Steering Committee on Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) for Mumbai and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority's (MMRDA) technical advisory committee on BRTS for Mumbai. He is also member of the Research & MIS Committee of Unified Mumbai Metropolitan Transport Authority (UMMTA). He was a member of the Bombay High Court-appointed erstwhile Road Monitoring Committee (2006-07). He has been an active campaigner against noise pollution for over a decade and he is a strong believer in a functioning democracy. He can be contacted on email at [email protected].]