The Ministry of Defence has formally rejected an eleventh-hour plan to try and save Viraat, the former Indian Navy aircraft carrier, from being broken up for scrap by a shipbreaker in Gujarat.
NDTV has learnt that M/s Envitech Marine Consultants Private Limited, the company looking to acquire the warship, formerly the Indian Navy's flagship, will now file an appeal in the Supreme Court this coming week.
Envitech planned to convert Viraat into a maritime museum, parked off the coast of Goa in collaboration with the Government of Goa.
In their response to a direction from the Bombay High Court to clarify their position, the Ministry has stated, "The request of the petitioner for grant of NOC (No Objection Certificate) to convert the status of Ex-Viraat cannot be acceded to."
The Ministry claims that the Shree Ram Group of Industries, the Alang-based shipbreakers which had bought the decommissioned warship from the Indian Navy for scrap, is opposed to its sale. "The Counsel appearing on behalf of Shree Ram Group of Industries before the Hon'ble High Court has categorically submitted before the Court that they are not interested in parting with the possession of the ship earmarked for dismantling."
Ironically, in a statement to NDTV in September, Mukesh Patel, the chairman and managing director of Gujarat-based Shree Ram Group repeatedly stated that he was willing to sell the warship to the highest bidder.
"Pay me Rs 100 crore, and take away the ship," is what Mr Patel had stated at the time. "I brought down my price from Rs 125 crore to 100 crore because I am a desh-bhakt," said Mr Patel. "I will transfer it to anyone who comes with a No Objection Certificate from the government and is willing to relocate the ship at their own expense."
It was the inability to acquire a No Objection Certificate from the Defence Ministry that made Envitech approach the Bombay High Court in the first place. With the matter in court, the ship-breakers stopped the process of beaching the 23,900-tonne warship before it was broken up.
"Unfortunately, this has now become a game of 'chicken and egg'," said Rupali Sharma, the Managing Partner of Envitech. "The seller won't sell without the NOC and now the Ministry of Defence won't issue the NOC as it claims the seller doesn't want to sell. The clear intent is to proceed with destroying the ship."
Acquired from the United Kingdom in 1986 after an extensive refit, the INS Viraat came to define Indian Naval power with its fleet of Sea Harrier fighter jets. Before that, Viraat had served as HMS Hermes in the Royal Navy and played a decisive role in the 1982 Falkland Islands conflict when the UK went to war against Argentina in the South Atlantic.
Viraat was decommissioned in 2016 but early plans to covert her into a maritime museum failed. She was subsequently sold to the Shree Ram group after an e-auction process through the Metal Scrap Trade Corporation Ltd.
In their statement, the government has also expressed its concern at the "safety and material state of the vessel, whose keel was laid in [the] pre-independence era." Envitech insists that they have the expertise available to protect the ship.
NDTV has learnt that the rejection letter from the Ministry of Defence reached the petitioners on December 4, Navy Day, a day when the Indian Navy celebrates its history and fighting traditions. A key part of that legacy now seems doomed.