On June 5, 2000, the night was windy and the lonely River Princess, off the coast of Candolim, jostled and bustled braving the cyclonic storm that entire evening. Unable to control the quivers and shivers, and seeing the anchor broken loose, the men on board abandoned the ship allowing it to drift and get grounded, not far form the Taj Group of Hotels in Sinquerim.
Tourists and locals alike, were witness to the uninvited guest on the early morning of June 6. The sequence of events which followed thereafter in the removal of the River Princess were a disaster in the making. The then Francisco Sardinha government was replaced by the Manohar Parrikar regime late October 2000. The problems began with the River Princess belching thick slicks of oil on that year's Diwali night. Fishermen cried foul and dead fish lay all along the Candolim coast. Days later, I rushed to the chief minister with photographs of the damage done to our premier beach and a hurried meeting was called, which resulted in the then collector being directed to take necessary steps to ease the menace.
Incidentally, instead of finding a prince charming, the River Princess was bequeathed to a baron, who instead of allowing the damsel to dance freely into the oceanic waters out and away from Goa, punched, pinched and punctured the Princess every night, whilst Goans were fast asleep.
The Princess absorbed and accumulated thousands of tonnes of sand in its belly. In the mean time and over a decade, the princess became weak and feeble and what was worse, several governments in Goa came and went, but the misery of the ship continued, and gradually the Princess received recognition and a domicile certificate from the citizenry of Goa.
Over the years, the careless Goan people and the lackadaisical administration of the state failed to draw up the inventory on board, which was in fact, dowry meant for the Goan people by the rich Princess. However, the baron who was responsible for luring, enticing and eloping with the Princess and later ditching her, allowing her to remain stranded, knew the true worth of this damsel in distress.
While the Goa government administration took a decade to take charge of the Princess's security, the baron, along with his accomplices in the business of salvaging ships in distress, stripped the damsel of all its valuables, ornaments, furnishings worth more in value than gold. Costly equipment, rare metal wirings and ornamentation worth over 30 crore were stolen and the pretty damsel soon started ageing fast with her skin starting to peel off, threatening the environment of Goa with her rusty presence.
Strangely, even the late Matanhy Saldanha sometime in 2004, proclaimed with hope that either he would have to go, or the Princess would. He initiated the tender process and approved the services of Jaisu Shipping, Gujarat, to salvage what remained of the Princess, but this cunning suitor instead of gladly towing away the damsel, stripped her further of her organs, be it in the form of engines or the costly metal frames, and quit. Paradoxically, Saldanha was illegally forced out of office by the speaker of the Goa assembly and has now, sadly, gone forever.
Fortunately, in 2011, the last attempt was made, when Digamber Kamat appointed Arihant Ship Breakers to gracefully get the River Princess off in bits and pieces and dispose of her body parts to metallurgical units for her reincarnation in other forms. In this process, over 1,15,000 tonnes of metal was disposed of. The 56 crore-worth River Princess was now worth less than 20 crore.
Unfortunately, the engineers of Arihant Ship Breakers could not foresee the next 12 years, that in challenging saline Goan waters it was absolutely difficult for the damsel to fight the forces of disintegration, fouling and corrosion, especially around the double bottom hull region.
Being knowledgeable about marine degradation and deterioration processes involving microbial corrosion, I had at the presentation made by Arihant Ship Breakers to the Goa State Pollution Control Board, indicated that the removal of the sub-bottom portion of the ship would be a difficult task.
However, without heeding to my advice, an agreement was signed in which Arihant undertook to remove the ship in its entirety with the Goa tourism department. Again, whilst New Horizon Pvt Ltd, Navi Mumbai, claimed that the ship was removed and Arihant later claimed the entire payment of 99 crore minus the value of scrap, plus taxes, I alerted the people of Goa that the River Princess was given a Goan RIP-Rust in Pieces–burial. Several articles to this effect were published in Goan dailies from June to October 2012. It was my efforts and association with NIO scientists and retired NIO officials that finally helped nail down the site where the Princess remains still lie.
Today, many Goan fishermen use the River Princess remains as a reef to harvest marine fauna and are unaware that the River Princess has evolved a new eco-system rich in unique biodiversity. There are barnacles, oysters, mussels, clams, snappers, reef cod and the site is also a nursery for marine life. A new eco-system has now developed around the Princess remains. Paradoxically, whilst it is prudent to remove metal sharps of Princess remains; whether the venture of the removal of this Princess in its entirety would be helpful or not to fisheries in general and ecology in particularly, seems to be a debatable, confusing and scary preposition.
What remains of the River Princess today is extremely brittle. It has "infection-pox" of iron-oxidizing and iron-reducing bacteria and a diversity of fouling microbes, sedentary fauna and marine life. Can Arihant Ship Breakers ever be able to remove these brittle, corroded metal pieces or would it be a cure far worse than the disease itself?
It would be prudent to inform Goans that those who visited the River Princess have informed us that a mere touch of the plates allows clouds of colloidal dust to greet divers, photographers and fishermen who venture near the ship's remains.
Arihant Ship Breakers, who abandoned their task ought to come out clear and clean and inform Goans if they can in reality remove all the bits and pieces (which actually is not entirely of their own making, but due to the delay caused over the years). Actually, microbial films and corrosion were visible in the first year itself of its grounding.
Chief minister Manohar Parrikar should undertake a study of the site and only then instruct the ship breakers to execute the job. The present monitoring committee constituted by the Congress government has to be reconstituted with Naqvi of the NIO as well as a scientist knowledgeable in the field of corrosion included in the monitoring and evaluating team which would help the removal of the River Princess in a scientific manner without further damaging our coast and biodiversity.
How long will the saga of the River Princess, off the coast of Candolim, continue, only time will answer. [TOI]