The destruction caused to a significant part of the Chennai coastline from the oil spill that followed a collision between two ships is both tragic and ironic. A large quantity of oil was released into the sea, affecting marine life and livelihoods of coastal communities. What makes the collision ironic is that it comes at a time when there is steadily declining pollution due to such incidents. Ship collisions are less common today because GPS-based navigation systems have made their operation much safer. It is apparent that the first response to the Chennai collision involving an LPG tanker and the fuel carrier off the Kamarajar Port was seriously deficient.
The port initially denied any significant environmental damage from oil, but as the scale of the disaster began to unfold, and a large number of dead turtles and fish were washed ashore, it became obvious that the spill had not been quickly contained. Such failure calls into question the efficacy of the National Oil Spill Disaster Contingency Plan that is updated periodically for all stakeholders, notably ports, under the leadership of the Coast Guard. That the removal of the coastal sludge depended in large part on volunteers wielding buckets does not inspire much confidence in the protocol for mitigation.
An independent inquiry is vital to determine whether the training and acquisition of equipment to handle such accidents for all agencies passed muster. Moreover, pollution response equipment for all major ports and 26 non-major ports is funded to the extent of 50% by the Centre, casting a responsibility on ports to contribute the other half and build the capabilities to handle disasters.
Obfuscation of facts after an oil spill is counterproductive, since the impact is prolonged; moreover, it could erode the confidence of the international community in the country’s ability to fulfil its commitments within the UN system to protect marine life and biodiversity.
Failure to safeguard marine turtle and bird habitats, for example, is a clear violation of the provisions of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, and its specific memorandum on the Indian Ocean-Southeast Asian region to which India is a signatory.
Considerable oil pollution is caused not just by catastrophes but through the discharge of ballast, sludge and water used for the cleaning of tanks. On the other hand, the efficacy of chemical dispersants to degrade oil at sea remains controversial. All this underscores the importance of timely advice from agencies such as the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services, which is mandated to forecast the course of an oil spill.