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    South Asia
     Aug 16, 2011

Mumbai does a 'Bermuda Triangle'
By Raja Murphy

MUMBAI - No vanishing aircraft or flying saucers yet, but 42 ships have sunk or run aground off the Mumbai coast in the past six monsoon seasons. Washed ashore with the dead ships have been oil spills, conspiracy theories and security fears.

The shipwrecks have spilt hundreds of tonnes of oil, coal, dangerously floating cargo containers, toxic metals and created logistic dilemmas.

Experts attribute Mumbai's growing reputation as graveyard for ships to raging sea currents and tides during the southwest monsoon months of June to September. The currents and fierce winds can drag a ship with technical snags onto the rocky coast.

But that's not all. Ships collide off Mumbai, or are mysteriously

abandoned, and merchant vessels that were reportedly sunk or abandoned in distant waters resurface like ghost ships on Mumbai shores.

One such curious case is the 1,000-tonne MV Pavit, a merchant vessel carrying a Panama flag. It was abandoned near Oman on June 29 by its Indian crew after engine failure and sea-water flooding the engine room. A British navy communique said the Royal Navy frigate HMS St Albans had rescued the 13 Indian sailors in a "desperate situation", after the 20-year-old ship drifted without engines for three days in the high seas. The Dubai-based owner Pavit Shipping Lines declared the ship to have sunk around June 30.

Yet the MV Pavit ran aground nearly a month later in Mumbai's suburban Juhu-Versova beach, duly rendering residents the shock of their lives early on Sunday morning.

Juhu resident Ashto Fernandez couldn't believe his eyes when he saw this huge, black ship on the beach sands during his morning stroll. Fernandez, in the city of high drama Bollywood movies, is not ready to take at face value this phenomenon of ships bobbing up ashore like bottles. "Could be an insurance racket," he says darkly. "Maybe ship owners are abandoning their unwanted ships here off the Mumbai coast."

Perhaps Fernandez may be onto something. Some of these sunk or grounded ships like MV Rak and MV Pavit are sailing under the Panama flag, a flag of convenience. With Panama's tax breaks for shipping companies, and weaker ship safety and labor laws, ship owners from any country can operate with lower expenditure.

Central American Panama, with the world's busiest shipping registry, allows anonymous ownership. That enabled the likes of the now destroyed terrorist outfit Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka to operate arms-smuggling vessels like the MV Princess Chrisanta under Panama colors.

Under grey skies on a hazy Saturday noon, the 20-year old Panama-flag carrier MV Pavit was tilting to portside in the beach almost fully swallowed under high tide. Waves were furiously lashing the still ship, throwing up towers of white surf against the backdrop of nearby apartment buildings a few meters away.

"This happens every year," smiles Juhu beach cleaner Rajendran with a steel broom in hand, "this" being abandoned ships running aground on the Mumbai coast every monsoon.

Anand Datar, who had probably digested too many of the James Bond movies running recently on Rupert Murdoch's Star Movies channel, issued dire warnings to the Indian government. "Foreign intelligence agencies are using these abandoned ships to spy on India," he declared in the Mumbai-based portal Rediff.com. In the 1974 Bond film Man with the Golden Gun a half-sunken ship off Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor operated as a top secret British Intelligence MI6 office.

Though New Delhi may not be seeing spooks and conspiracies, the huge ships leaking through coastal security are a source of great embarrassment for central government. A three-ringed naval security perimeter is supposed to be in place off the Mumbai coast after the terrorist attacks in November 2008, when mercenary gunmen from Pakistan landed undetected ashore in a hijacked fishing trawler.

On August 10, Defense Minister Kurien Anthony had a meeting with navy and coast guard officials, to have them kindly explain how entire ships are parking themselves on the sands of Mumbai beaches.

The Coast Guard authorities were defensive at all the bad press when Asia Times Online contacted them. "The media is just focusing on the negative points, rather than on facts like us rescuing 30 sailors in one hour off the MV Rak," complained Commandant Ram Vinod Prasad, the chief public relations officer of the Indian Coast Guard, Western Region. The Panama-flagged oil tanker MV Rak had sunk off the Mumbai coast on August 4, leaving threats of an environmental disaster.

Prasad said that the Coast Guard is operating three ships patrolling 24 hours, and running a Dornier aircraft in risky low-flying sorties to spray chemicals on the oil spill from MV Rak.

The shipwreck toll off Mumbai's coast mounts during the monsoon season. On June 11, the Singapore-registered MV Wisdom sailing from Colombo, Sri Lanka, broke off from its tugboat MV Seabulk Polver off the Mumbai coast. MV Wisdom then drifted towards the new Bandra-Worli Sea Link bridge, Mumbai's version of San Francisco's Golden Gate, and threatened to crash into it, before being safely towed away.

Less fortunately, another Panama-flag flying merchant vessel MV MSC Chitra crashed into the Kuwait-owned MV Khalijia on August 7 last year. The ensuing 800 tonnes oil spill shut down Mumbai's port, the country's busiest, for over a week.

Besides oil, the MSC Chitra leaked 250 of its 1,219 cargo containers, 31 of which were said to contain hazardous chemicals. The Indian navy called a salvage team from Singapore to grab the containers.

All manner of human drama can emerge from these stranded ships. The multinational crew of the MV Khalijia marooned themselves in the dead ship off the Mumbai coast since August 2010, vowing to stay on until their owners paid their salaries.

They survive in "inhuman conditions", according to the remaining 11 of the original 23-man crew that includes Ukrainians. Groceries are ferried to them once a month. Gulf Rocks, the Kuwait-based owners of the ship, has declared they will be able to pay the crew only after the rotting ship is auctioned. The crew has hired a local lawyer in their ongoing battle in the Mumbai High Court.

The Indian navy and the government should have already been investigating, if not addressing, various sea traffic problems on the Mumbai coast. On January 30, the 3,000-tonne Indian navy frigate INS Vindhyagiri collided head-on with the Cyprus-registered MV Nordlake near the Sunk Rock Lighthouse, one of the three lighthouses off Mumbai harbor.

A fire broke out in the INS Vindhyagiri after the collision, and the frontline Indian warship sunk within a day on January 31. It was the worst ever peacetime loss for the Indian navy. The worst in wartime was the INS Khukri, a Type 14 anti-submarine warfare frigate sunk by the Pakistan Navy Daphne class submarine Hangor in December 1971 during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, with 194 killed.

Yet six months after the INS Vindhyagiri, a 1,000-tonne ship stands in one of Mumbai's most famous beaches, with the navy and coast guard, apparently, yet to learn why so many ships are choosing the Mumbai coast to end their sailing days.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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