Another Bhopal Tragedy – Oil spill off the Bombay coast

August 7 morning saw the biggest ever oil spill in India as MCS Chitra collided with MV Khalijia 10 km off the Mumbai coast with the former tilting precariously and leaking oil into the sea. An estimated 500 tonnes of oil spilled into the sea and about 250 containers, some carrying hazardous chemicals and pesticides got hurled overboard. This accident is having a ripple effect; not only affecting the flora and fauna in and around the coast but also causing losses to local fisherman with a ban being imposed on fishes. Even the export market is taking a toll as an estimated 24,000 ships are stranded due to the oil spill.
Several aquatic species and sea birds have been found dead along the Mumbai coast, as a result of the oil spill off Mumbai. The formation of thick layer of poisonous oil in the seawaters has inflicted a distressing blow to the biological equilibrium by rendering fishes, turtles and other species immobile due to the caused high viscosity. Many sea birds whose diet comprises aquatic species have consumed oil which has adversely affected their digestive tracts. Mangroves along the coast have also been damaged and it is asserted that only few of them will be able to regenerate. “Cleaning up process in on but it would take around 45 days”, said the Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh.

The bigger picture raised here is that the safety issue is being taken too lightly by the authorities. Even routine matters of logistics, warehousing in all major ports are referred to Shipping Ministry in Delhi hampering quick decision making ability. Pilots escorting the ships are taken too lightly and in this particular incident none of the two ships had pilots/escort on board. The incoming ship MV Khalijia failed to submit a Pre Arrival Notification in this particular case. Many foreign ports do not allow ships more than 20 years old to operate and in this case Chitra is 31 years old and Khalija about 26 years. Experts feel that faulty electronic steering system of Khalija led to the collision. Taking leaf from the US which made British Petroleum pay up $20 billion for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico whereas the insurance was for only $460 million the Union Minister for Environment and Forest is pressing for compensation.
A joint notice has been issued in this regard by the Maharashtra government, Mumbai Port Trust and Jawaharlal Nehru port trust to the Mediterranean Shipping Company, owners of Chitra. But the reality that stands into our face is that this case is also likely to turn out as another Bhopal tragedy. India not being a signatory of the Bunker Convention of the International Maritime Organization won’t be getting a hefty compensation. In fact it is due to this very reason that old and sometimes unworthy ships prefer to sail to India. This is another Bhopal tragedy, albeit this one has occurred not on land but on sea: this one mercifully has not taken lives but has rather caused havoc on marine environment on a large scale. And one does not know when this will actually come to an end, as well as whether there will ever be adequate compensation for this damage.

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