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Explained: What Supreme Court order on INS Viraat means to Alang shipbreaker

After the Supreme Court ordered a “status quo” with regard to the dismantling of India’s decommissioned aircraft carrier, INS Viraat, the shipbreaker has halted all breaking activities at the Alang shipbreaking yard in Gujarat.

Written by Avinash Nair | Ahmedabad |
Updated: February 12, 2021 8:49:52 am
ins viraat dismantling, alang shipbreaker, Alang shipyard, dismantling of ins virat, indian expressPartially broken flight deck of INS Viraat, decommissioned in March 2017. (Photo: Nirmal Harindran)

After the Supreme Court ordered a “status quo” with regard to the dismantling of India’s decommissioned aircraft carrier, INS Viraat, the shipbreaker has halted all breaking activities at the Alang shipbreaking yard in Gujarat.

What was the Supreme Court order?

Issuing notice on a petition filed by M/s Envitech Marine Consultants Pvt Ltd, which wants to buy INS Viraat and convert it into a museum, a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde said, “In the meantime, parties are directed to maintain status quo with regard to dismantling/breaking of the subject ship, known as INS Viraat, as on date.”

The Thane-based firm had approached the SC after the Ministry of Defence declined to provide a No-Objection Certificate, needed to repurchase the vessel.

What does the SC decision mean for Alang shipbreaker?

Mukesh Patel, chairman of Shree Ram Group — the shipbreaker at Alang who purchased INS Viraat as scrap from an auction conducted by Metal Scrap Corporation Limited for Rs 38.54 crore — on Thursday said, “Though we are yet to get a formal order from the Supreme Court, we have stopped all dismantling work on INS Viraat.”

The shipbreaker had employed around 150 workers for dismantling the aircraft carrier. “No one boarded the vessel today,” Patel added.

The shipbreaker said the decision to stall the breaking of INS Viraat was taken by the SC without hearing their side. “We had taken about Rs 60 crore loan to purchase the vessel and to tug it to Alang. The 12 percent interest will hurt us financially if the dismantling gets delayed. Such a step can make us go bankrupt,” Patel said.

According to experts, any profit for the shipbreaker at Alang depends on the “turnaround time” which is the period within which the shipbreaker can dismantle the ship and sell it as scrap. The faster a ship is broken, the more the profit.

“Secondly, once we will make a bill of entry with the customs department, the ship no more remains a ship. It becomes goods on which an import duty is levied,” Patel said. The Bill of Entry is filed by the shipbreaker before a vessel is beached at Alang.

How much of the aircraft carrier has been dismantled so far?

According to Shree Ram Group, 40 percent of the aircraft carrier had already been dismantled. INS Viraat arrived at Alang on September 28, 2020 from Mumbai. At a formal ceremony organised on the same plot (Number 9) where the aircraft carrier would be broken, Union minister for shipping Mansukh Mandaviya and Rear Admiral Puruvir Das, Flag Officer Commanding, Gujarat Naval Area had bid adieu to the vessel.

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Speaking at the ceremony, Mandaviya had for the first time revealed that the Modi government was prepared to spend Rs 500 crore to preserve the aircraft carrier but a team of experts set up by the government expressed concerns regarding the fast deteriorating hull of the battleship which would make it prone to accidents in future.

The Gujarat Maritime Board had given the “breaking permission” for the vessel in October last year. However, the dismantling began on December 1, 2020. Till date, a large portion of the flight deck, the ski jump, and the accommodations meant for the sailors have all been dismantled, leaving a large gaping hole in the front side of the vessel.

What happened to earlier negotiations between the shipbreaker and Envitech Marine Consultants Pvt Ltd?

“If Envitech was really serious about preserving the aircraft carrier, they should have ideally participated in the auction conducted by the government body,” says Mukesh Patel.

Patel said Shree Ram Group gave the private firm enough time to produce an NOC from the government for repurchasing INS Viraat. The aircraft carrier had arrived at Alang with the help of a tug and had run aground 3000 feet away from the shore in September 2020.

Envitech went public with its attempt to save the aircraft carrier on September 30. In subsequent months, the shipbreaker told The Indian Express the aircraft carrier could be refloated and taken away from Alang. However, after the dismantling began in December 2020, all hopes of salvaging the decommissioned aircraft carrier — that originally entered service with the Royal British Navy as HMS Hermes in 1959 and was later sold to India in the 1980s — was lost.

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