August 27, 2010

Vulture culture

Although this piece is predicated on the Chitra collision in Mumbai, it is not my intention to judge events there; that would be presumptuous and premature. Before we jump in to condemn, as some seem to be doing already, it is worth remembering that any Master worth his salt has had his fair share of near catastrophic incidents- I certainly have had mine- and know that sometimes the difference between a near miss and a sensational casualty is plain dumb luck.

That said, there are some attributes that are common to most marine accidents, big or small, though the manifestations of what I see as typical behaviour are undoubtedly exaggerated in the case of a major disaster. Then, the Master and crew are trying to protect themselves, the managers and owners are trying to blame the Master (error of servant, My Lord!) or count beans or prevent clients walking away, the media is trying to grow its TRP ratings and most everybody is trying to blame the ship. A Master is lucky if he escapes a career without being at the receiving end of this barrage of conflicting interests that crawl out of the woodwork after any accident. Many of these- managers and owners are often at the forefront here, sadly- descend like vultures on a ship after an accident. Their primary imperative: cover management and owner’s backsides asap. Blame the ship, which usually means the Master or Chief Engineer.

I can tell you from experience that the resultant disgusting behaviour displayed by many is usually devoid of any basic human decency; the crew may have come through a life-threatening incident or other catastrophe, stressed after struggling for days without sleep, sometimes, to bring the ship safely to port. It does not matter; they are still run ragged working with no additional support- and work obviously increases after an accident, always. The crew may be suffering from extreme stress; that does not matter either. The vultures will chew their bones dry and spit them out anyway. Probably not their fault; it is the nature of the beast they have chosen to become. Something needs to be done about this behaviour, much of which is displayed by ex-seafarers now ashore, after a marine accident. Ship’s crew is not carrion to be fed upon.

I hope the Masters and crews of the two ships involved are being treated humanely by all concerned in Mumbai, but somehow I doubt it. Old habits and other diseases of the soul die hard.

The Chitra oil spill, and the potential for greater environmental disaster, will no doubt consume the Indian electronic media for a couple of weeks- bad news sells. It is easy when the pollutant is black, like oil, and can be seen easily. It is also easy when the scene is that close to Mumbai, never mind that one fisherman died when he drowned in the process of ferrying some eager beaver crew from a TV news channel to the crash site. In another incident, a constable died when he fell overboard off a speedboat on patrol in the vicinity. There were reportedly three police personnel in the boat on patrol, none of whom could swim (and, I am sure none were wearing lifejackets in the monsoons, even if these were available)

Amazing. Only in Incredible India. At the risk of political incorrectness, I think we continue to display the mentality of a Third World country when it comes to basic safety. A developing country must develop some common safety sense as well, surely? And while we are at it, what about developing some decent salvage capability of our own, or must we suffer the ignominy- not to speak of criminal delay- in negotiating with companies in Singapore or Dubai each time there is an incident and wait for their men and equipment to reach us?

The Chitra oil spill is generating hype because it is in Mumbai. I know many spills have gone unnoticed or unreported on our coastline in the last year or two. Near disasters on both our coasts, as when the Asian Forest and Black Rose capsized last year, did not create any hysteria at all, even though Greenpeace said at the time that the Black Rose incident could devastate Orissa’s coastline- and the Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary. The spill did do a lot of damage anyway- it threw up thousands of dead fish and crabs off Paradip, judging from fishermen’s and villager’s reports, and dead dolphins at the Jatadhari river mouth were attributed to the oil leaking from the ship.

Rural Orissa, as the tribals will undoubtedly tell you, is not Mumbai. It is not even urban. It does not contribute to media TRP ratings, so it can be ignored. Nobody saw the tree falling in the forest and nobody reported it. Therefore, it didn’t happen.

If we must talk about Mumbai, let us talk, instead of the Chitra oil spill that was an accident, of the deliberate environmental decimation of a city and its surroundings that has gone on for decades. The sea has been encroached upon; worse, sewage from millions of residents is dumped untreated into the sea. Massive industrial waste is leached into the earth or creeks or the 18 km stretch of the Mithi River from where it finds its way to the Arabian Sea: this includes waste from chemical manufacturing units, besides oil slicks and garbage. The 2005 submersion of Mumbai in the rains has made no difference to anything. The continuous disposal of sewage and garbage into rivers has led to reports of dangerous levels of faecal matter concentrations in almost all water bodies of Mumbai. Even forgetting the millions that live in slums without sewage facilities, the BMC collects 2600 million litres of sewage every day of every year. Two thirds goes untreated directly into the sea; the treatment of some of the remainder is, additionally, substandard. Do the math on annual numbers for some staggering figures.

The pollution after the Chitra collision is another drop in the ocean, but this drop took over our television screens. Who can blame those earnest faced and self-righteous TV anchors for treating us to those pictures and videos of the beached ship and the glistening, sexy oil slick? With all her curves showing, the ship is certainly more photogenic than all those pipelines we see around the coast of Mumbai, spewing filth into the sea round the clock. Who can blame them, then, for the screaming ‘environmental catastrophe’ headlines?

All that said, the Chitra oil spill is a disaster- no mincing words there. It has sullied our coastlines and the reputation of our ports and industry; it has thrown up, once again, major weaknesses in our response actions and in our preparedness. A lot needs to be fixed, and fast.

However, the city of Mumbai, in its present form, may be a bigger threat to itself than the oil from that beached ship.


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