Mumbai must feel a sense of deja vu as the tar balls hit its beaches again. A year ago in August, the coastline and its fragile mangrove-rich ecology were affected by an oil spill resulting from a ship collision. Not much seems to have changed, as the city weakly tackles a fresh pollution crisis created by oil that is apparently leaking from the sunken ship m.v. Rak. What emerges from the handling of the incident is the lack of progress in providing an emergency response. Union Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan has prioritised containment of the spill, which is the logical thing to do — but what is as important is to follow this up with the Ministry of Defence and State governments and frame a more effective protocol to handle such events. The designated agency under the National Oil Spill Disaster Contingency Plan (NOS-DCP) is the Coast Guard. The CG has been incrementally augmenting its capacity and hardware to handle marine spill contingencies. Unfortunately, this approach is not up to the challenge at a time when regional shipping, including oil tanker traffic, is rising sharply. Moreover, there is the problem of asymmetrical capacities of the Coast Guard and the ports, State Pollution Control Boards and oil industries. In a spill, each of these agencies has distinct responsibilities and a defined area of operation, but not all possess the infrastructure or training to respond.

Under the international contingency planning system, the response to spills is tiered and requires a minimum capability to handle an incident involving less than 700 tonnes of oil. Higher tier standards prescribe capabilities for 10,000 tonnes and more. This is the metric India's ports need to meet quickly. Given the long coastline to be covered, the central government has its task cut out. The priority should be to ensure that all national ports are capable of responding to a crisis with the necessary infrastructure and manpower. State Pollution Boards, which remain poorly staffed and under-funded, must be strengthened and made accountable for their most important function during an oil spill — minimising the impact in inter-tidal zones, beaches, and up to a depth that the CG cannot enter. There is also the question of realising the cost of a clean-up, and the losses suffered. The central government needs to sign up to sound protocols on compensation and civil liability. The Convention on Hazardous and Noxious Substances drafted one last year; when this enters into force, it will enable the payment of major compensation based on the gross tonnage of the ship. India needs to do much better in protecting itself from environmental and economic losses arising from oil spills.

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