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Goa: Grounded River Princess raises ecological concerns
A grounded ship, the River Princess is playing havoc with the Candolim-Sinquerim coast of North Goa with parts of the rusted ship being washed ashore periodically, posing a danger to swimmers apart from polluting the coastline.
IF AT the start of the New Year, Goans were ecstatic in hearing the news of the government scrapping the controversial Special Economic Zones, they have not been so lucky on another front – a grounded ship that has been giving them headaches for the last eight years.

Tourism is one of the lifelines of the economy of the Indian state of Goa. This made the accident, in which a ship, the Merchant Vessel (MV) River Princess, a 240-meter (787 foot)-long ore carrier belonging to M/s Salgaocar Mining Industries Ltd, went aground off the Candolim-Sinquerim coast of North Goa in June, 2000, especially unfortunate.

This coastal strip is one of the most frequented beaches in Goa.

This has also proved an environmental disaster, affecting the seabed, with shards of corroded steel being washed ashore, threatening bathers. The damage continues. Every passing day changes the topography of the beach. For the last seven years the hulk has been corroding, leaving rusted fragments, like shrapnel, on the shore. The amount of damage the abandoned River Princess has wreaked on the Candolim beach has long been apparent to
the naked eye.

Goa-based salvage expert Anil Madgavkar, partner of Madgavkar Salvage, says the task of removing the ship is “like uprooting a sunken four-storeyed building.” Over the years the ship has settled nearly 8 to 10 meters (26.2 - 32.8 feet) into the seabed, taking in between 30,000 and 40,000 metric tons (33,069 - 44,092 tons-US) of sand.

Tidal flow beneath and around the hulk has altered not only the seabed but also the sea current itself. The artificial sand bank around the hulk has interfered with the natural scavenging mechanism of the tides. Environmental activists have lamented the steady degradation of the Sinquerim-Candolim beach, but they’ve found their hands tied in the face of the short-term interests of the tourism industry and inexplicable court decisions.

An earlier effort to break up the wreck failed after a political upheaval. Now, another effort is to be made to do enough repairs that will allow the hulk to be towed away in one piece, which may mark the end of the threat to the coast.

Regarding the damage to the shoreline and seabed, some locals feel removal of the ship could leave a depression in the seabed that would be dangerous for swimmers and wonder how many more years it would take to restore the original coastline.

The salvaging of the wreck has taken a toll on different local politicians who have made empty promises that it will be towed away. Citizens, who were fed up with these unfulfilled promises, are hoping that this time these would be honored.

The case of the River Princess went up the legal system all the way to the Goa bench of the Mumbai High Court. The Goa State Pollution Control Board presented their report to the Court on the environmental implications of the River Princess for the coastline. Further, a special law Goa Tourist Places (protection and maintenance) Act 2001 was passed in the state assembly for removal of the Princess. Yet, all was in vain, doomed in a system, which hadn’t the political will.

Many deadlines had been set for its removal from the coast ever since it went aground in June, 2000, and every time the ministers and the bureaucrats in the tourism department have been caught off guard.

The most recent attempt to tow it away was set for May 15, 2007 and we are in the midst of another extended time, which started in October last year. Towing away the vessel has only been made more difficult, what with the damage that’s accumulated over the years.

The government has agreed to pay a sum of INR 5.5 crores (US$1,348,000) to M/s Jaisu Shipping Co Pvt Ltd to refloat the wreck and tow it 12 nautical miles from the coastline. The ship ran aground on one stormy night on the Goan shore during the rainy season, some 500 metres (1,640 feet) away from the Candolim beach in 2000.

The Princess, which had ruled the seas, had no answer as she got entangled in the sandbar, and no amount of maneuvering could wrest her off the bank. The Princess, now turned pauper, was hoping for a Prince to rescue her and free her from her entanglement. Some tried to but failed. One of them was tourism director Elvis Gomes, who found himself suspended and is now back in the same post. Indeed, he was a pawn in the political infighting between the ruling and opposition groups.

The contract for removal had earlier been given to the UK-based M/s Crosschem International but was terminated when Crosschem decided it would be unable to refloat the vessel within the stipulated period of 110 days.

Tourism minister Francisco (Micky) Pacheco and later, Mathany Saldhana, both failed during their tenure to get the hulk moved, although Saldhana, in a bold effort, awarded a towing contract. Unfortunately for him the state government was voted out.

Despite the considerable damage that has been done, removing the wreck will hopefully eliminate a potentially greater environmental disaster the ship would have posed had it completely broken up.

The inability to remove the grounded vessel has also exposed the fragility of Indian maritime laws.

If the state administration has been breaking their heads to clear off the shipwreck, lacunae existing in Indian maritime law may have been an impediment. Owners of shipwrecks can suspend salvage operation and abandon the vessel without invoking any penal actions.

Indian Maritime law only has provisions to remove only those shipwrecks blocking navigation channels. Goa Tourist Places (protection and maintenance) Act 2001 was specifically passed by the Goa Legislative Assembly to take care of the removal and issues arising of the grounded vessel.

But there is an urgent need to bring a an all India legislation to deal with grounded ships as yet another coastal region Mangalore is bogged down over the issue of two grounded ships - Eritrian freighter MV Den and Chinese freighter MV Chang Le Man.
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