Channel opens partially after five days; one month for probe and three for impact assessment

Movement of goods began along the navigational channel in the Mumbai harbour, which opened partially on Thursday after a five-day shutdown, Union Minister for Shipping G. K. Vasan told a press conference here.

“We were able to resume partial movement of traffic in the Mumbai port. The survey done by the Navy on Wednesday revealed the feasibility of convoy-based navigation,” he said.

Two Panamanian cargo ships - MSC Chitra and the mv Khalijia-III collided off the Mumbai coast, triggering an oil spill, on August 7.

On Thursday, seven vessels — five from the Mumbai Port Trust (MbPT) and two from the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) — were escorted out of the harbour and six — three to JNPT and three to MbPT — were escorted in, the Ministry of Defence said.

Operation Pathfinder

Termed “Operation Pathfinder,” the naval escort effort “saw the participation of four ships of the Indian Navy, two Chetak helicopters and three specialised survey boats. The channel, which was rendered dangerous for navigation by the presence of numerous floating and sunken containers, was surveyed continuously for three days prior to undertaking the operation. The escort was successfully completed at 3 p.m. on [Thursday],” a Defence note stated.

With the opening of the channel, fears of an impending fuel crisis dwindled. “We want to assure the government of Maharashtra that there would be no shortage of petroleum products. Sufficient crude is being pumped in from Bombay High,” Petroleum Secretary S. Sundareshan said.

On Thursday, Mr. Vasan reviewed the salvage operations and met Chief Minister Ashok Chavan, Union Petroleum Minister Murli Deora, State officials and heads of various agencies.

“The falling of containers has been reduced, only one container fell today [on Thursday]. Twenty-six of them were retrieved and secured. The listing of the ship [MSC Chitra] has also been reduced to 50 to 60 degrees. Normality would be restored in the next two days. [The priority is to see] how early we can start the trade,” Mr. Vasan said.

Asked about the letter the State Ports minister had sent to the Shipping ministry about shifting MbPT outside Mumbai, Mr. Vasan said there was no communication gap between the ministries. Rahul Asthana, Chairman, MbPT, said it was agreed that that port would not handle hazardous cargo.

To questions about the reason for the accident and status of the investigation, Satish Agnihotri, Director-General of Shipping, said that prima facie, “communication and navigational problems” led to the disaster. He said the inquiry would be completed in a month.

“The inquiry officers have to take depositions, estimate losses, look at data recorder and look at logs on ships,” he said.

A preliminary inquiry revealed that both ports were following adequate safety measures.

Mr. Asthana said the salvors of the ships used in salvage operations were “the best in the world.” He said the port had a disaster management plan in place which was put into effect.

As for compensation for environmental damage and claims, State Environment Minister Suresh Shetty said the government would place its claim before Director-General, Shipping. Insurance officials are slated to meet in Mumbai on Friday. “We will recover the expenses incurred in the cleaning operations,” Mr. Shetty said. The estimate of liability for environmental damage would be drawn after the impact assessment by the National Institute of Oceanography.

Loss of livelihood

With regard to the loss of livelihoods of the fishing community, it is learnt that the State Fisheries Secretary has written to the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, the nodal agency for such an assessment.

The MbPT would also be filing an independent claim; however, there was no estimate as yet, Mr. Asthana said. So is the case with JNPT.

“We will be filing our claims with MSC Chitra for loss of revenue, expenses incurred to restore normality and for asset loss. We are meeting with the insurers [on Friday]. If at a later stage, mv Khalijia-III is found to be responsible for the accident then Chitra may file a suit against Khalijia, but as of now the claims go to Chitra,” N.N. Kumar, Chairman, JNPT, told The Hindu over telephone.