Of late, there have been writings in the social media expressing dismay and anguish over the decision to scrap INS Viraat, the aircraft carrier that was decommissioned in 2016 after 29 years in service in the Indian Navy. Prior to her flying the Indian Naval Ensign, she had served the Royal Navy for 25 years, her last operational mission as the Royal Navy’s Flagship during the historic 1982 Falklands War. At the time of her decommissioning, she was the oldest operational aircraft carrier in the world, having been commissioned into the Royal Navy in 1959. She was rested at the ripe old age of 57, well beyond average mortality of any grey hull around the world. The life of any warship is typically 25 to 30 years, aircraft carriers a little more – but 57 is long by any standard.
The intention of recounting this brief history of Viraat is anything but historical. The older a warship gets, the resources spent on its maintenance increase exponentially. The chances of failure including breaches in hull integrity become more frequent and unpredictable. There comes a time when it is no longer prudent to keep her going and she is then paid off with all ceremony. It is therefore no surprise that most ships are scrapped as they ought to be. Some warships are retained as targets and eventually sunk far out at sea as a result of practice weapon firings. Worldwide, only four aircraft carriers have become museums. Three of these are in the United States. They are the USS Intrepid in New York City, the USS Yorktown in Mount Pleasant and the USS Midway in San Diego. One former Soviet (later Russian) carrier, Minsk, was redesigned by China as a tourist attraction. There are several warship museums around the world but almost all of them are in the USA, UK, Canada, Europe, Japan and South Korea. Any guesses why? You got it – money!!!
While it is perfectly okay to get emotional, decry our supposedly appalling sense of heritage and bash governments and officials for allowing a piece of glorious history to be consigned to ship-breakers at Alang, the basic question is ‘where is the money?’ A project to convert Viraat into a museum would, according to conservative estimates, cost in excess of Rs 1000 crores. Besides, its running costs would be exorbitantly high depending on the scale and scope of the project. Recovery of such costs through revenue generation, if at all feasible, could take decades. Not surprisingly, there are no takers despite the decommissioned ship being offered to prospective state governments free of cost. Our national priorities could well be different – we need to choose between directing resources towards other important socio-economic imperatives and creating an aircraft carrier museum at an astronomical cost.
Sharing of expenditure between the Centre and the State that bids to take on the project is another vexed issue. Each wants the other to provide maximum financial assistance as nobody wishes to commit substantial resources due to competing demands. Private entities do not see business sense in such a large investment where the returns could be low and slow. There was also a suggestion of sinking the carrier in relatively shallow waters, perhaps in the Andamans, to create a tourism-oriented dive site. However, no further details are available in the open domain in pursuance of such a proposal. This, however, runs the risk of running into a wall with regard to environmental clearances. The amount of toxic material within an aircraft carrier hull is considerable and getting that removed for her to be fit for use as an underwater diving habitat would be a challenge – but perhaps doable.
Whether we do have a sense of history or not, we certainly don’t seem to learn from history. INS Vikrant held up premium berthing space at Naval Dockyard, Mumbai, depriving other front line warships of berths and at much cost to the exchequer just to keep her afloat, while museum deliberations continued without any finality. The ship was eventually scrapped in 2014 with the intervention of the Supreme Court, seventeen long years after her decommissioning in 1997 amid cries of ‘Vikrant Bachao’ from an impassioned veteran naval community. A small portion of the ship was converted into artwork and now stands ‘in memoriam’ outside the Lion Gate at Colaba in Mumbai. Part of the steel was nominally used to produce a limited edition of a Bajaj motorcycle. This is a fairly good solution. Preserve a manageable small portion of the ship at a suitable location as a token of remembrance. This would assuage emotions while accepting economic realities of the day.
And for those of us who wish to see warships transformed into museums, shouting from rooftops will not help. Let us find a way to realise this through dialogue with interested parties, influence groups and governments. Otherwise, let us respect informed decision-making and bid the old ladies a fond adieu.