One of the most historic warships of the Indian Navy, INS Viraat, is set to be decommissioned by next year. But will any of the nine coastal states of India seize the opportunity to own the glorious piece of history and convert it into a tourist destination? The 27,000-tonne aircraft carrier has already proven her prowess for more than five decades now, by dominating the seas under the ensign of the Royal British Navy first and that of the Indian Navy later. The British-built ship is the world’s oldest aircraft-carrier in service at present.
Now, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has showed willingness to transfer the ownership of the warship for Re 1 only. “But we will hand over the vessel to a state government only, not to any private players,” he told The Sunday Guardian. But senior officials in the Indian Navy pointed out that the state governments will be free to seek participation of the private sector in the project.
Being originally commissioned in the British Royal Navy in the year 1959 as HMS Hermes, INS Viraat was their flagship vessel during the 1982 Falklands war. The Centaur-class aircraft carrier was inducted into the Indian Navy in the year 1987 after a massive refit. She was then re-named INS Viraat. The huge 226-meter long warship is a symbol of the legacy of the British Royal Navy and the Indian Navy.
But the Navy is wary of the future of INS Viraat, after it burnt its fingers with the experience of the country’s first aircraft carrier INS Vikrant. INS Vikrant, the 1971 war hero, was decommissioned in the year 1997. The Maharashtra government had earlier shown interest in maintaining the vessel and converting it into a museum ship. But later, when it realised the high investment, it expressed its inability to maintain it. Finally, after a round of litigation, the ship was sold to a scrap dealer in the year 2014 for Rs 60 crore amid uproar by former naval officers, social activists and political leaders. They called for preserving the glorious history of the country.
“If no steps are taken right now, INS Viraat decommissioning might prove controversial too. We don’t want that. We have loved our warships and have preserved them with great care. And we hope that some state government comes ahead and takes charge of her,” a senior Naval officer at the Western Naval Command said.
So far, the Ministry of Defence has written letters to all the nine coastal state governments, informing them about the decommissioning of INS Viraat. “We will write another round of letters soon,” Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said recently. Highly placed sources within the Indian Navy told The Sunday Guardian that two state governments had expressed interest in acquiring the warship. Maharashtra government is not one of them.
“But that has been done only orally. We have not yet received anything in writing from any of the state governments,” a MoD official said.
“To a willing government and an ideating mind, the ship will prove to be a mine of opportunities,” a senior Naval officer at the Western Naval Command told this paper. The investment cost is slated to be very high in the beginning. The gestation period will be around four years, officers said. But once the project is set rolling, it can turn into a cash-cow which will attract tourists from not just India but also the world.
“The hangar of the ship itself is the size of an auditorium,” said a Naval officer who once served on-board INS Viraat. The warship has over 1,000 compartments which can be converted into rooms. “If someone wants to explore the historical value of the ship, there are many ideas which can be used,” an officer serving on-board the warship said.
The ideas are many — from a sound-and-light show on the lines of the one shown in Andaman prison to a floating casino. The ship can also be converted into a heritage walk, along with a museum, with souvenir corners at important locations.
The ship can host various events including historic ones. A mid-sea restaurant too can be started with ferry service or air service connecting it to the mainland. A heritage hotel with a great view can be another alternative. The ship can also be put on shore, in case the cost of keeping it afloat runs very high. That way, the accessibility to the vessel is facilitated to a great extent.
“Political will along with huge money will do wonders to this warship,” a senior Naval officer said. “Converting this warship into any other kind of venture will be a technically complex job. The high level of complexity will mean that experts may have to be called in from other countries. All this will need money running into crores of rupees,” an officer of the Western Naval Command said.
The ship will also need a set of captive persons to take care of it for 24 hours for all seven days of the week. “Around 200 to 250 technically knowledgeable staff members will be required to man the vessel on shift basis. They will have to have a naval background. They may either be ex-Indian Navy officials or Merchant Navy officials. But civilians will not be able to take care of the core functioning of the vessel,” said a naval officer.
Apart from the core functioning team, the ship will also have members of the hospitality team which will run the revenue-generating venture.
“The problem is that the states do not have an idea about the financial implications of this. We are willing to hand over the ship in Re 1. But the initial investment in the vessel will have to be around Rs 300 to Rs 400 crore,” Parrikar had said recently.
“Yes, the maintenance cost will be huge. But it can be recovered after a gestation period of around four to five years. The interested government will obviously look at it as a long-term project,” said a naval official.
Moreover, an interested state government may not necessarily have to invest in it at all. It can acquire the ship for the cost of Re One, and then involve a private player to invest in it.
So far, the country has woefully lacked any mechanism to understand the cost of running any decommissioned vessel. The Central and the state government, in partnership with the private sector, might have to undertake a comprehensive study to understand the cost of keeping INS Viraat afloat after it is decommissioned. After the decommissioning, all the operational parts and radar currently fitted on-board the ship will be removed.
“The marine environment is extraordinarily corrosive. There is a hazard of flooding. The core maintenance of the ship by a well equipped staff is a mandatory requirement. Some detailed study will have to be done to understand the cost involved in this,” an officer said. The ship will also need captive power to run its functions. Processes like power generation, air-conditioning will also have to supervised by experts.
“There will be environmental concerns about the waste and sewage the ship will generate. A mechanism will have to be put in place for that, unless the ship is brought on shore,” said a Naval officer.
All these things are complex, but very doable, a senior Naval officer commented. “We are a maritime country, but our thinking is not maritime. Countries with maritime traditions have found ways and have beautifully maintained their maritime relics,” he said. Countries like the US, France, Japan have preserved their maritime relics by creating beautiful museums on warships. In India, Kalvari-class INS Kursura submarine has been converted into a museum. It is already a highly rated ‘must-visit’ place on the map of Vizag. But a maritime country like India cannot boast of many such places.
INS Vikram, which was scrapped last year, was turned into a makeshift museum, but it did not get a good response. “Firstly, since it was in the Naval area, the access to it was restricted. Plus, not many people knew about it,” a Naval officer confessed. The museum was also not done professionally. It did not evoke great public response.
INS Viraat was the first warship on which India started operating jet aircrafts. “The ship has a lot of history behind it, and it needs to be preserved,” an impassioned Naval officer who has served on-board INS Viraat, said. The warship was conceived and designed during the tumultuous period of the second World War in the United Kingdom and was commissioned in 1959, just when the Cold War was beginning.
She was known as “Happy Hermes” during her long tenure with the Royal British Navy. Her spirited reputation as “Vibrant Viraat” continued after she was inducted in the Indian Navy in 1987.
“INS Viraat and its predecessor INS Vikrant have been the cradle for Naval aviators. INS Viraat is the touchstone of the Indian Navy’s maritime strategy,” former Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Nirmal Verma is known to have said of the warship. The warship’s slogan has been, “Any Mission, Any Time, Anywhere.”
United Kingdom’s Prince Charles also embarked in HMS Hermes in the year 1975 as a pilot. When INS Viraat completed 50 years in service in the year 2009, Prince Charles wrote to the Indian Navy about the fond memories of HMS Hermes where “many lasting friendships were made”.
INS Viraat was inducted in the Indian Navy, initially for serving a period of a decade only, as the ship had already served the Royal British Navy for over 20 years from 1959. When she was launched in 1953 as a ship with a revolutionary design, J.P.L. Thomas, the first Lord of the Admirality of Royal British Navy had said of then ship, “Her flight deck is larger than a football field; her destilling plant is sufficient for most small towns; her generators could supply 10,000 homes without the fear of power cuts, and two games of badminton can be played on the after lift.”
When commissioned, she could carry as many as 20 aircraft and eight helicopters, and a complement of 2100 personnel.
INS Viraat thereafter underwent many refits periodically to be relevant through the 21st century. On the final journey with the Indian Navy, the warship now calls on the civilians to preserve its relics and cherish them. Is anyone listening?