OPINION

Turning ships into museums

Decommissioned naval vessels can be given a makeover

In the Union Budget, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a set of initiatives to enhance India’s potential as a tourism and cultural destination. Among the proposals, the decision to set up a maritime museum at Lothal in Gujarat was especially noteworthy. However, when it comes to augmenting the country’s maritime tourism potential by preserving retired naval vessels as museums, India’s record has been weak.

Here, two decisions taken last year have implications for the idea of a maritime museum. First, the Tamil Nadu government in July decided to drop the project to preserve the decommissioned submarine INS Vagli as a museum. Second, it was decided that the INS Viraat would be scrapped. Not long ago, in 2014, India’s first aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant , had met with a similar fate.

Creating employment

It makes tremendous economic sense to preserve decommissioned naval vessels, rather than scrapping them. In general, museums make an important contribution to the economy in many ways, for instance, by promoting tourism, creating jobs, contributing to government revenues and aiding the development of local communities. A 2018 study titled ‘Museums as Economic Engines’ revealed that in the U.S., museums contribute $50 billion every year to the Gross Domestic Product, provide jobs to 7,26,200 people and generate $12 billion per year in tax revenue. Every $100 of output generated in the museum sector generates an additional $220 of output in other areas of the U.S. economy. Another study titled ‘The Economic Impact of Museums in England’ estimated that the direct economic impact of the museum sector in England was £2.64 billion in income, £1.45 billion in output and 38,165 in jobs.

A major challenge facing India is the need to generate adequate employment opportunities for the abundant youth population. Estimates show that in terms of employment elasticity, defined as the percentage change in employment for a one percentage point change in economic growth, services is an employment-intensive sector. Therefore, the focus should be on promoting services industries where employment potential is high. Tourism and allied industries fit into this requirement as they have proved to be top job-generating sectors across the world.

Excellent museums often turn out to be a fine tourist attraction that draws in visitors, both local and overseas. They also act as places of historical value, preserving a country’s heritage for future generations and offering knowledge to the public about the nation’s history and culture. Military and maritime museums bring some added benefits — they can be used to honour military heroes, make the general public aware of the hardships faced by defence personnel and, also, inspire the younger generation to join the armed forces.

Partnering with private sector

When viewed from these angles, repurposing decommissioned submarines and aircraft carriers into museums makes economic and social sense. There are 60 such submarine-turned-museums in the U.S.; 11 in the U.K.; 10 in Russia and Germany and five in France. Similarly, many countries have preserved their retired naval warships as museums, with the U.S. again topping the list. India has been preserving only one naval vessel, the INS Kursura , as a submarine museum in Visakhapatnam.

A significant, and genuine, concern about naval vessel museums is the cost involved in their maintenance. They require both public and private funding and need to generate sufficient revenue. Private sector involvement in building cultural institutions has worked very well in advanced nations. There is no reason why, in today’s India, this should not be possible.

Either through a nudge or a directive, the government can ensure that corporates allot a portion of their Corporate Social Responsibility spending towards conservation of heritage and culture.

That said, a mere display of retired naval vessels will not attract the desired number of visitors. For this, warship museums need to offer a range of services and entertainment options. They need to include virtual flight zones with simulators; and allow events and shows to be hosted on them. Many Indian cities have limited entertainment options. Naval-vessel museums would provide an alternative mode of entertainment.

Support from the private sector is necessary to realise the business potential of such museums and impart professionalism in their management. In this context, it is important to recall how the active participation of the private sector revolutionised football and kabaddi. It is high time we made proper use of the private sector to preserve our retired naval vessels.

Sthanu R. Nair is an Associate Professor of Economics, Indian Institute of Management-Kozhikode. Views are personal. Email: srn@iimk.ac.in

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