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Last hope for Vikrant

By Adm [retd] J G Nadkarni
June 06, 2003 12:41 IST
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The old lady is in the news again. Just when all hope had been given up regarding the future of the Vikrant, the central government has released Rs 5 crore to refit the carrier.

This is, of course, not salvation. It is only temporary blood transfusion to keep the ship alive for a further six months or a year. The main question of saving the ship on a permanent basis has yet to be resolved.

The question of saving the Vikrant has now been going on for over six years. The whole issue has had so many twists and turns that people have more or less forgotten what the original proposal was all about. Let us recap a bit.

By now it has become a well worn cliché to say that India was once a great maritime nation. More than 4,000 years ago Indian sailors had perfected the art of ocean navigation. They traversed the Arabian Sea in the west and carried out trade with people as far away as the Romans.

In the east during the Kalinga period they were the carriers of Indian culture to Cambodia and Indonesia. Later India produced such valiant and intrepid sailors as the Kunjalis and Kanhoji Angre. Yet this premier maritime country does not have one place, one building or one museum where Indian citizens, young and old, can immerse themselves in Indian maritime history.

About 25 years ago some well intentioned naval officers in Mumbai founded the Maritime History Society under the Western Naval Command. This Society has done commendable work in propagating maritime culture and making people aware of our maritime traditions and history.

In a small way the Society had started a maritime museum. For want of a suitable place to house the artefacts, they are at present stored on the naval middle ground in the centre of Mumbai harbour.

For the past 25 years these well meaning people have been pressing for a maritime museum in the country. But for obvious reasons they have failed. Indians being landlubbers are not interested in such a project.

Secondly, land is extremely precious in Mumbai and whatever little that is available has been used up by the politician-builder nexus.

It is for this reason that saving a naval ship for conversion into a naval museum was first mooted in the late 1970s when INS Delhi was being decommissioned. Delhi would have been an ideal ship to preserve. She had a glorious history, had seen 40 years service in the Indian Navy and had trained practically every officer of the navy. But there were no takers and the ship took her pride and traditions with her to the scrap yard.

INS Mysore became available a few years later but she too could not be saved and was sold to be turned into razor blades. Now it is the turn of the Vikrant.

The case for saving the Vikrant has been so obfuscated by side issues that the original idea has been lost in confusion. Ther Vikrant no doubt also served the navy with distinction. But the idea is not to save the ship because she is Vikrant. Being a carrier Vikrant offers many advantages. She is so huge that she cannot only be turned into a naval museum but many other things. She can house a maritime library and can be used as a maritime university. She can also be hired out as convention
centre, her flight deck used as a helicopter platform. In fact, she can provide valuable space for educational and commercial activities in the heart of Mumbai.

Museums are not cheap commodities. Preserving Vikrant is an expensive proposition. To ensure the ship does not require recurring maintenance it will have to be grouted in cement. Maintaining such a huge ship also will not be easy. The whole thing may cost upward of Rs 100 crore. But the amount is not high for a national maritime museum. The Vikrant is a national monument and it was expected the central government would foot the bill. It would not have been very difficult to include Rs 100 crore in a defence budget of nearly Rs 70,000 crore!

In steps the Maharashtra government hijacked the project. Unfortunately, after agreeing to foot the bill to create a naval museum, the Maharashtra government finds itself hard of cash. It is difficult to see a government in such economic difficulty forking out Rs 100 crore to save the Vikrant.

Even if they were able to come up with the money can the ship be saved? Not likely. The old carrier is today in the position of parents whose sons have migrated to America. The boys, prodded by their wives, don't want the parents anywhere near them. The navy is keen to get rid of the ship as she occupies valuable berthing space in the naval dockyard. In any case, the navy has been generous in berthing the ship so far, six years after decommissioning. The fishermen, who have arrogated to themselves not only Mumbai harbour but the whole of the west coast, talk about their livelihood being endangered when the talk of Vikrant's berthing in harbour crops up.

Mumbai's fashionable environmentalists, who are all for saving our heritage, don't want the ship to be berthed anywhere near south Mumbai, lest it spoil the harbour view from their privileged apartments along the sea face. In fact the only people in Mumbai who will welcome the ship with open arms are the ship breakers at Darukhana.

So can the ship be saved? Frankly, not in Mumbai. The Maharashtra government is broke and will only be glad to get out of its earlier commitment. The next logical place for the ship is Goa. It can be moored off Marmagao harbour and thus can be a major tourist attraction. The progressive government of the state should seriously consider taking over the ship and making it into a maritime museum. The project can be jointly executed with the Centre and the navy. Moreover, Goa has also been the base for the Indian Navy's fleet air arm and the naval base can give a helping hand in looking after the ship.

Another place worth investigating is Karwar. A major naval base is being built at the port. Can the Vikrant be used as part of the breakwaters which are being erected? The idea is worth investigating.

The Indian Navy and Vikrant's well wishers are making a last ditch effort to save the ship. Things do not look bright at present unless a white knight comes to their aid in the form of a major grant.

The Indian Navy, which has tried its best to save the ship so far, should wait until the end of the year to see if the worthy project makes headway. After that, it would be best to pull out the life support systems and put the gallant carrier out of her misery.

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Adm [retd] J G Nadkarni