INS Vikrant, veteran of 1971 war, awaits final orders

Satyanarayan Iyer Mumbai | Updated on March 12, 2018

Supreme Court ruling awaited on dismantling of the aircraft carrier

In December 1971, Sea Hawk planes took off from its deck on multiple sorties, bombing East Pakistan’s Chittagong and Cox’s Bazaar harbours, enforcing a naval blockade, and playing a big role in India’s victory and the creation of Bangladesh.

Today, one has to navigate a dusty kutcha road and an uneven patch of land around Mumbai’s Darukhana Ship Breaking Yard to view this hero of the 1971 war. Looming over a group of youngsters playing cricket, INS Vikrant, India’s first aircraft-carrier, still makes for a majestic sight.

The ship has been tethered by two massive chains. Three machines that were used to tow her lie idle, waiting for the next high tide to hit the Western shore to tow it further inland.

The wait is also for a Supreme Court verdict on whether the warship can be torn down and sold as scrap. Mumbai-based activist Kiran Paigankar had approached the Court to stop the warship from being scrapped. His solution: convert the old warhorse into a museum. The case comes up for hearing next month.

Huge maintenance cost

“The hull has become really weak and is corroded in places. Preserving the vessel will involve a huge maintenance cost. Who will bear it?” asks a senior Naval officer.

Originally named HMS Hercules, India had bought the aircraft-carrier from Britain in 1957 and renamed it INS Vikrant. It was de-commissioned in 1997.

Late last year, the Navy declared the ship a scrap and decided to auction it. But Paigankar filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Bombay High Court to save the aircraft-carrier, and the Navy postponed the auction.

After hearing both sides, and finding no-takers to maintain the vessel, the High Court dismissed the PIL and gave the Navy the go-ahead for the auction.

An e-auction was conducted by mini-ratna MSTC on behalf of the Navy. In January, a ship-breaker from Alang (Gujarat), Abdul Karim Jaka, won the rights to break down the ship by paying ₹63.02 crore to the Navy.

Still exploring options to save the ship, Paigankar filed a review petition in the Supreme Court in April and the court ruled that status quo should be maintained until further orders.

All paid for

Between January and April, Jaka’s company, IB Commercial Pvt Ltd, paid the entire amount to the Navy. The Navy and Jaka approached the apex court’s Vacation Bench in May for relief.

The court allowed Jaka to tow the ship but restrained him from unleashing the wrecking ball before a final judgment is delivered.

“We had to tow the ship before the onset of monsoon because the rules do not allow towing during rains,” says Jaka, also known as Munna Bhai.

On May 28, the vessel was towed from the Naval Dockyard in Mumbai to Darukhana Ship Breaking Yard, a few miles away, at a cost of over ₹1 crore.

Borrowing costs

Jaka has borrowed close to ₹60 crore from a state-run bank for this project, at 14 per cent interest. On successfully breaking down the ship and selling the iron and other scrap, he hopes to earn about 6-12 per cent net profit on a total “project cost of ₹85 crore”.

“Because of this litigation, I am the most affected and under a lot of pressure. I want the Supreme Court to decide fast,” he says even as he calculates the daily interest he has to pay the bank.

If the court decides against breaking the ship, all the ship-breaker wants is to recover his expenses. Jaka says he will forget the whole thing as “a commercial decision gone wrong”.

Museum piece

Last December, another veteran of the 1971 war, the MiG-21, flew into the sunset.

Paigankar wants the warship converted into a “museum where the history of the Army, Navy and Air Force can be showcased.” Incidentally, INS Vikrant was a maritime museum between 1997 and 2012, before the Navy decided to scrap it.

No State Government has come forward to bear the expenses to maintain INS Vikrant. Everything hinges on the apex court’s decision. Until then, the Man-of-War will stand on the edge of the Arabian Sea.

Published on June 20, 2014

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