Needed, an overhaul of marine vessel preparedness and safety

Jayant Bhatt | Updated on June 29, 2021

The extent of the tragedy in India’s worst offshore disaster, caused by Cyclone Tauktae, could have been lessened if the evacuation plan was initiated and followed as per Standard Operating Procedures

The unfortunate catastrophe in the aftermath of a violent cyclone has sent shockwaves across the country. P305 was an accommodation barge owned by Durmast Enterprises Ltd and chartered by a consortium led by Afcons Industries to carry out a project contract for the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC). The incident took place on May 17, 2021, when as many as 70 lives were lost and 16 went missing including the master of the barge. This has caused irreparable loss, pain, and suffering to thousands of families. Naturally, it has sparked debates and discussion on the issue of marine safety and adherence to standard protocols.

Tauktae was a ferocious cyclone that hit Mumbai with a strong gale force of 60-75 km/hour, and wreaked mayhem. It started as a deep depression over the Arabian Sea but turned into an extremely severe cyclonic storm which was more severe than anticipated. Whenever there are adverse weather predictions, vessels on the sea are warned to move to a safer place. A cyclone diverging from path is not uncommon. It is the duty of the master of the vessels to decide upon their movement so as to stay clear of the path of a cyclone.

According to reports, there were 99 floating vessels working for ONGC in western offshore when the India Meteorological Department’s (IMD) first weather warning was notified on May 11, 2021. ONGC as per its duty ordered all floating vessels to move to safety. However, all except five vessels including three Afcons barges moved to safety.

The Standard Operating Procedure was put into place which included securing the vessels, returning to the anchoring points by respective installations, and ensuring the safety of the people on board. However, the responsibility to take the final decision on a vessel’s safe movement between locations and taking shelter during adverse weather conditions and cyclones rests on the captain of the vehicle.

It is clear that there was a blatant disregard of the Standard Operating Procedures by the vessel. In fact, the extent of the tragedy could have been lessened if the evacuation plan was initiated and followed as per SOP. However, the captain of the vessel underestimated the velocity of the approaching cyclone and was lax in initiating evacuation and following the SOP. The chief engineer of P305 reported that they received a cyclone warning a week before being hit and that Captain Balwinder Singh chose to ignore them.

Rescue operations

ONGC has taken part in the rescue operation service assisting the Indian Navy with promptitude by deploying seven helicopters to search for survivors. Additionally, ONGC announced financial aid of ₹1 lakh for people who have been injured, and ₹2 lakh for the families of the deceased victims. This support has been extended even when none of those on barge P-305 were ONGC employees. They were either employee of Afcons or hired by it for executing a contract it had got from ONGC.

They have already provided logistic and financial support to families of the deceased persons, and support through a helpdesk and a helpline to facilitate communication between the families of the missing persons and the company. ONGC OSVs (Offshore Supply Vessels) have been engaged ceaselessly in the rescue operations along with the Indian Navy and Coast Guard vessels.

Although if one has to fix accountability, the catastrophe is not only beyond the scope of Indian labour law since it occurred in international waters and even by the standards of ‘SOLAS’ (The International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea), the onus of safety of the vessel and personnel lies on the captain of the ship and its owners (in the present case it is the contractual party — Durmast).

Nevertheless, it is imperative for ONGC to strengthen its measures for surveillance of offshore vehicles (their own and contractual) and its disaster preparedness. To assist in the rescue mission is commendable but to save lives of people what needs to be strengthened foremost is the nature of disaster management and preparedness before an imminent disaster is to strike or seems likely to strike and not in the aftermath of its destruction.

It is an extraordinary catastrophe and reports suggest that it is the biggest rescue operation since 1978. It has also been reported that in terms of fatalities, this catastrophe is the fourth-worst oil and gas related disaster in the world. ONGC is the country’s top exploration company with an operational experience of almost three decades. ONGC has shown grace, responsibility, and dignity in earnestly tackling the aftermath of the mishap although the sunk barge does not belong to the company.

Tropical cyclones are less frequent in the Arabian Sea compared to India’s east coast and usually do not form during the pre-monsoon period. However, experts claim that climate change has triggered the cyclone to intensify making it fiercer than anticipated. ONGC has shown true grit in swinging into action without any lapses in its timing or efforts.

The way forward

It is human nature to wonder whether a tragedy brought about by a freak intensification of the forces of nature could have been averted. However, the truth lies somewhere in the saying that “we cannot control the wind but we can direct the sail”.

A tip of the iceberg, a choppy sea and windy conditions are often more than what meets the eye on the open seas and thus requires precision and a bearish approach to navigation. The need of the hour is, firstly a bulletproof and overcautious approach of the vessel to weather warnings and to err on the side of caution. Secondly, proper surveillance and disaster preparedness measures spearheaded by ONGC. And last, but not the least, a safety audit of all vessels, as to equipment and drills so that their preparedness levels are ensured in case of a mishap or tragic event as it is only when we prepare for the worst can we be equipped to hope for the best.

The writer is an Advocate

Published on June 29, 2021

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