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Spills & other shipping mishaps

The collision of two large ships off the Mumbai coast and the resulting oil spill has come as a test of India's preparedness to handle shipping disasters. Any significant shipping accident has a serious environmental fallout, because oil or other hazardous cargo is discharged into the sea. As trade and demand for petroleum rise steadily, tanker and general ship movement to India, particularly along the western coast, is increasing. Against this backdrop, a strong oil spill response system is of paramount importance. Yet capacity-building efforts in major ports have not kept pace with the need. It is legitimate to ask, for instance, whether the spread of oil discharged by the container ship MSC Chitra off Mumbai could have been better contained had sufficient booms been deployed. Also, could the containers loaded with pesticides that slipped into the sea have been recovered quickly? It is precisely to meet such challenges that a National Oil Spill Disaster Contingency Plan (NOS-DCP) was drawn up in 1996. Based on this, all ports should by now possess functional spill response systems but they clearly do not. The proceedings of the 14th NOS-DCP and Preparedness Meeting held in 2009 highlighted the slow progress in achieving full response capacity even at the basic level at Mumbai and JNPT ports. At the very least, it must be ensured that these and other big ports and oil handling facilities have the primary Tier I capability, which by definition can combat oil spills up to 700 tonnes.

India has ratified key environmental and shipping conventions, including the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Cooperation. The national coastline is about 7,500 km long and has, in the assessment of the Coast Guard (CG), 11 major and 20 minor ports that must be equipped to combat oil pollution. A few ships sink in Indian coastal waters every year; in 2007, as many as five vessels with a total of 658 tonnes of oil went down. The importance of capacity building and infrastructure in the ports and coastal administrations to fight oil spills and manage hazardous and noxious cargo cannot be over-emphasised. Although the CG is the central coordinating agency, it is incumbent on the States to modernise their pollution control apparatus, which is responsible for coastal protection. Interestingly, in Maharashtra, the Pollution Control Board recently wanted the State Environment Department to take the lead in preparing local contingency plans. Without such plans, a district-level protocol is not available to prevent environmental damage. Finally, the CG suggestion to identify and list professional Oil Spill Response Organisations to serve as a national resource base must be accepted and acted upon.

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