The world’s oldest serving warship INS Viraat is moving towards the same fate as its predecessor Vikrant, with its dismantling now in progress even as a private firm is making a last-ditch attempt to instead convert it into a museum.
INS Viraat was decommissioned in 2017. Earlier, INS Vikrant, India’s first aircraft carrier, was decommissioned in 1997 and scrapped in 2014 after it was sold to a shipbreaker for Rs 63.2 crore.
Now, fresh images of Viraat have revealed that dismantling of the decommissioned warship has already begun in Gujarat with the breaking of the ski jump, according to an NDTV report.
Envitech Marine Consultants Pvt. Ltd, the firm trying to convert Viraat into a museum, has so far not been able to procure a no-objection certificate (NOC) from the Ministry of Defence or even reach a formal consensus with shipbreaker Shree Ram Group, which bought Viraat as scrap for Rs 35.8 crore.
However, it is still hopeful of saving the warship.
Envitech managing director Rupali Sharma told ThePrint that the firm is trying to move the Supreme Court to get the NOC from the government.
“We are trying to get the case filed in the Supreme Court so as to secure the NOC that is pending from the defence ministry. We have spoken to the shipbreaker and he has agreed to hold the cutting process for 48 hours.”
Sharma said the bit of dismantling that has taken place will not really hamper the efforts to convert the ship into a museum. “The lower part of the ship is intact.”
The cost of constructing the museum should be around Rs 500 crore and it will be the first-of-its-kind in Asia, whether it comes up in Maharashtra or Goa, she said, adding, “Both the states are keen”.
Envitech, which was registered in India in 2019, is an offshoot of Envitech Middle East. The company offers integrated services to support operations for land-based and offshore industries. It has also carried out several marine search operations with Indian investigative agencies.
Sources in the government told ThePrint that the defence ministry and the Navy had for over two years examined various proposals to preserve the ship, but none were found good enough. The Navy is no more a stakeholder in the case.
“A variety of factors had been considered… whether the hull was worthy of being in water for the next few years… how the maintenance would take place, whether it would be sustainable and other such factors,” a senior government official said on condition of anonymity.
As far as the NOC is concerned, the government official said the buyer (Shree Ram Group) should have sought it, not the entity that is buying it from them.
“It is the buyer who should seek the NOC from the government to sell it to a third firm, not the other way around,” the official added.
Senior Navy officers told ThePrint that there were no separate funds given to the force for sustained maintenance of the ship.
“It was not hard for us, but unsustainable,” a senior Navy officer said. “We were spending a few crores per day from our funds (for maintenance of Viraat) which are already strained.”
Former Navy spokesperson Captain D.K. Sharma (retd) said naval personnel could not have been diverted for maintaining Viraat. “It would have affected other work. Also, while it is difficult to say the exact amount of what the Navy was spending to maintain Viraat, it was easily a few crores per day,” he said.
‘Have started the breaking process’
Meanwhile, the Shree Ram Group said the process of breaking down Viraat has begun and it has not applied for an NOC from the government. Group chairman Mukesh Patel said Envitech has applied for the NOC.
“An NOC is required because we had bought the ship in the auction as auction scrap. If it is being changed for some other use, the NOC is mandatory. We have asked Envitech to get us the NOC from the government and they are the ones seeking it from the government,” he told ThePrint.
Patel said he had asked Envitech to visit and see if the ship can be converted into a museum.
“Naval architects and others first need to visit the yard and see if the ship can go ahead. If yes, and the NOC is in place, they can take the ship. However, we have begun the work of breaking the ship as the interest burden is going up,” he said.
The scrap value, he said, would be determined by the ongoing scrap rates when it is sold. A conservative estimate according to current rates puts it anywhere around Rs 75 crore.
The company has demanded Rs 100 crore from Envitech to sell the warship.
Proposals received to save Viraat
Minister of State for Defence Shripad Naik had told the Rajya Sabha in a written reply earlier this year that while the government received many proposals for the ‘Grand Old Lady’ of the Indian Navy, none was considered good enough.
“INS Viraat could not be handed over to any state government because of non-receipt of a self-sustaining financially complete proposal. Thus, in view of considerations of safety, security etc, a decision to scrap INS Viraat has been taken in due consultation with Indian Navy,” Naik had said.
Earlier, Shiv Sena MP Priyanka Chaturvedi wrote to the ministry stating that the Maharashtra government is happy to cooperate in restoring and preserving the “historical ship”. The letter also asked the government to provide a NOC so the ship can be preserved.
“Maharashtra has been very keen earlier too, but the earlier proposal did not work out as the government was with a BJP alliance which was not in favour of the move,” she told ThePrint.
In 2018, the Maharashtra cabinet approved a proposal to convert the carrier into a museum and hospitality centre on a public private partnership (PPP) basis.
“We are keen on preserving the ship as most countries which love their armed forces would do. It could be a museum in any of the coastal cities. Whether it fetches money or not, the idea is to preserve it for posterity,” she said.
Chaturvedi added that she is yet to hear from the defence minister’s office and has sought a meeting with him on the issue.
Hermes Viraat Heritage Trust, a British trust, had also written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United Kingdom PM Boris Johnson suggesting that India can allow the warship to be towed back to the UK where a maritime museum can be set up, said an NDTV report.
Earlier, former Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu had also submitted a proposal to convert INS Viraat into an aircraft museum, with tourist and hospitality components. It proposed a joint venture with the Centre, but the defence ministry rejected it in 2016.
Why the ship’s loss is ‘colossal’
Naval veterans, many of whom have voiced their opinion strongly against the breaking of the ship, call the loss of the ship “colossal”.
Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan (retd), a former commanding officer of Viraat, told ThePrint that he has little hope of saving the ship and the efforts being taken now are “too little too late”, akin to a posturing of sorts.
“The torches are already cutting through the hull and the damage is much more in the high tides. The government and the bureaucracy are known for many good things but speed is not one of them,” he said.
“I do not hold much hope. Quite a lot of it is posturing. This could have been done more sensibly. The government could have chosen not to earn that money in the auction but spend it on creating a maritime museum,” he said.
Talking about the government rejecting all earlier proposals, he said there was a lack of interest. “It shows a lack of commitment to maritime issues. I’m saddened. The loss is colossal. It shows that you have the pockets, but not the heart and soul.”
Former Navy chief Admiral Sunil Lanba had said in 2017 that he had proposed to the government that INS Viraat be converted into a marine museum by taking her to one of the country’s major tourist harbours.
Originally commissioned as HMS Hermes of the UK’s Royal Navy in November 1959, INS Viraat holds the Guinness record for being the oldest serving warship in the world.
The 27,800-tonne ship played a critical role for the Royal Navy in the Falklands War in 1982, before being decommissioned in April 1984. India purchased her after refurbishment, and commissioned her as INS Viraat on 12 May 1987. She was eventually decommissioned in 2017.
Viraat operated Sea Harriers (White Tigers — fighter aircraft), Seaking 42B (Harpoons — anti-submarine helicopters), Seaking 42C (commando carrier helicopters) and Chetak (search-and-rescue helicopters).
It also participated in Operation Jupiter in 1989 (the Indian peace-keeping operations in Sri Lanka) and Operation Vijay in 1999 (Kargil War), and took part in important international joint naval exercises — the Malabar exercise with the US Navy, Varuna with the French Navy, and Naseem-Al-Bahr with the Oman Navy.
Viraat’s last major appearance was at the International Fleet Review at Visakhapatnam in 2016. She was finally succeeded by INS Vikramaditya, which was commissioned in 2013.