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Two months on, a fishing village continues to bear the brunt of Cyclone Tauktae

Cyclone Tauktae brushed past the coast of Maharashtra on May 17 this year, killing at least 19 in the state, damaging between 3,000 to 5,000 acres of standing crops, and unleashing record-breaking rain and winds over Mumbai
By Prayag Arora-Desai, Mumbai
PUBLISHED ON JUL 21, 2021 11:29 PM IST

Cyclone Tauktae brushed past the coast of Maharashtra on May 17 this year, killing at least 19 in the state, damaging between 3,000 to 5,000 acres of standing crops, and unleashing record-breaking rain and winds over Mumbai. Though the event is now firmly in the past for most city folk, a coastal community in Palghar district, around 115km north of Mumbai, continues to deal with the storm’s aftermath – allegedly with little help from authorities.

Stranded barge still grounded in Palghar

Fisherfolk operating in the vicinity of Vadrai beach (in Palghar’s Mahim village, 10km from the district headquarters), have been particularly affected by the grounding of a cargo barge – the Gal Constructor – which washed up on Vadrai’s rocky shore on the morning of May 18. The vessel, originally anchored in Alibag on contract to ONGC by infrastructure company Afcons, was driven north during the cyclone and remains grounded in Vadrai.

At low tide, one can inspect the Constructor’s broken hull, from which several thousand litres of diesel, ballast water and bunker oil began spilling into the ocean around May 28. A spokesperson for ONGC told Hindustan Times that the barge had at least 78,000 litres of high-flash high-speed diesel (HFHSD), “majority of which was recovered directly from the barge.” There was no crude oil on board, the spokesperson said, clarifying that hydrocarbons extracted from oil wells at Bombay High are transported via submarine pipelines.

Manendra Arekar, chairman of the Vadrai Sarvodaya Machimaar Society (VSMS), along with several other fisherfolk, said the barge continued to leak a dark, oily liquid for at least eight days before Afcons agreed to contain the spill Afcons later confirmed this. “There was diesel, ballast water and residual fuel oil which was used onboard, hence the dark colour of the spill,” an Afcons spokesperson admitted, seeking confidentiality.

“Afcons initially began to empty all the valuables from the barge,” said Arekar, who represents owners of around 50 motorised fishing boats in Vadrai. “Machinery, containers, cranes and all sorts of things. They also began removing the stored diesel, but contracted a separate company to contain the spill only after we forced their hand.”

Marginal fishermen hit hard by spill

Unfortunately for fish workers, the barge is stranded right in the middle of a productive intertidal fishing ground which yields oysters, shellfish, crab, mudskippers, prawns, mullets, catfish, milk sharks, lobsters, groupers, rays and several other varieties of small fish. These provide not only incomes but also nutrition; they are a valuable source of meat for poor families.

“For at least a month after the spill, fishing in the area came to a complete halt,” said 48-year old Nilesh Mahalkari, one of several Vadrai residents who rely entirely on near-shore fishing during the off season, from June to July. Things improved a little after the rains, but the quality of the shellfish, snails and oysters is still bad. People in the market are reluctant to buy from me because they know where I catch my fish. Some of the more valuable stuff, like dhoma, hekru, and prawns, are not coming to that area anymore.”

Since the barge arrived on their beach, Mahalkari and others have started going to Shirgaon, 2km north of Vadrai where there is still an abundance of oysters, shellfish and snails – the three main species available in large enough quantities to guarantee a day’s income. It takes about 45 minutes to walk there one way from Vadrai, which means they have less time to collect as much as catch before the tide comes back in and the workers have to return home for lunch.

‘The fish tastes like kerosene’

For most of these fisherfolk, with incomes fluctuating between 100 to 300 per day, the barge accident led to immediate financial losses. Rajni Thapar, a fishmonger from Vadrai, remembers the sight of dead shellfish and oysters in the days immediately after the Constructor began to spill its contents. “We couldn’t sell anything from the area for over a month. The quality of the catch has gotten better only in the last ten or twelve days, but something is still not right about the way the fish tastes,” she said on the morning of July 14, as she made her way back from Shirgaon.

This was a common account narrated by over a dozen fishermen and locals. “The fish tasted like rakel (kerosene). It left a burning sensation in the mouth,” said Rekha More, a fishmonger and resident of Mahim village. Women from the nearby adivasi settlement of Rawlepada, which abuts Vadrai beach, also had similar testimonies.

“Just this week, I brought home some khubre (sea snails) from near the barge and boiled them. There was such a foul smell that you couldn’t eat the snails. Even the boiled water, which we use for cooking, had to be thrown out,” said Sunita Kawat, from Rawlepada, speaking to HT on July 14. A letter written by over a dozen adivasi women to the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB), dated June 28 – pleading with the MPCB’s regional officer to “get to the root of the problem by visiting our coast” – has so far gone unanswered.

Vessel will hinder navigation, should be removed at the earliest

The fisherfolk of Vadrai unanimously said that they want the barge removed at the earliest, and voiced opposition to a growing rumour that the vessel may be dismantled on the beach itself. Locals, well aware of the ecological impacts of ship-breaking, expressed concern over how this may further affect intertidal fishing. With the on season for fishing set to begin in just over a week, even fishermen who venture out to deeper waters are foreseeing problems.

“The barge is now stuck in the middle of our navigation route. The rest of the beach is too rocky, so when the fishing season starts in August, we will have to take a longer detour to reach our fishing grounds. It will take too much time, and with diesel prices being what they are, it will hurt our pockets,” said Ganesh Meher, an artisanal fisherman from Vadrai and member of the VSMS.

Arekar, meanwhile, rued the lack of initiative from any authority in getting the vessel removed from the location. “We have written to Aaditya Thackeray (state environment minister) twice and made representations to everyone from the collector’s office to the maritime board. So far everyone seems to be shrugging responsibility. At the moment, we have no idea as to how and when the vessel will be moved. There are rumours going around that the barge may be broken down at location. This is not acceptable to us. Marginal fishermen have already been affected by the oil spill and we cannot take any risk that threatens the larger community, especially with the fishing season about to start soon,” he said.

An official with the MPCB’s regional office in Thane, which also presides over Palghar district, claimed that it is near impossible for the barge to be simply towed away. Given the substantial damage it suffered during the cyclone, along with its age (the Constructor was built in 1978), and the fact that no tugboats will be able to reach it given the rocky shore, authorities have accepted that it will have to be “dis-assembled on site”.

“It is the only way,” said the MPCB official, preferring anonymity, “The responsibility rests with the owner of the barge, and not with any other authority. The superintendent of police, Palghar, has already warned both the parent company Tirupati Vessels, as well as Afcons, saying an FIR will be filed in case the issue is not resolved.”

Contesting claims on pollution from spill

A spokesperson for Afcons, seeking anonymity, denied any wrongdoing on their part. “Our contract with the barge owner and ONGC had already lapsed by the time the accident took place. For a week after the spillage began, we tried to contact the owner but he was not reachable. We only stepped in because Afcons was getting a bad name in the press. We do not have any liability in the matter, and besides, no pollution from the spill reached the shore,” they said.

Dr Rajendra Rajput, the MPCB’s regional officer in Thane, however, revealed that there was a total of 84,000 litres of HFHSD on board the Constructor – as against the 78,000 litres claimed by ONGC. Of this, 79,000 odd litres were recovered before they could be spilled. “But about 5,000 litres of diesel, mixed with ballast water and bunker oil were released into the sea. Containment booms were able to soak up about 3,000 litres of the spill, but the remaining 2,000 litres nothing could be done about,” said Rajput.

A walk down Vadrai beach shows that several containment booms – long, tubular sponges used to soak up the spilled oil and diesel, and which are classified as hazardous waste – remain washed up on the beach, as far as the high-tide line. However, according to laboratory tests conducted by the MPCB on surface water samples from Vadrai beach over eight days in late May-early June, oil and grease were found to be below the detectable limit. “So ultimately there is no major impact that could be found,” said Rajput.

These statements have been contested by locals and independent researchers monitoring the situation. “How can Afcons say that the spill did not reach the shore? The containment booms have themselves washed up on the beach and have not been cleared over two months later. The MPCB has not taken any action or served a notice to Afcons for the same. There should be an unbiased study to understand the impact of this accident, rather than plainly denying any possibility of ecological impact,” said Dhwani Shah, an independent environmental researcher who has been working with fishing communities in Palghar for the last two years.

Vessel owner, officials vacillate on taking responsibility

As far as removing the damaged vessel from the area is concerned, spokespersons for Afcons and ONGC, as well as officials in the Coast Guard and the district collector’s office and the MPCB, all repeatedly emphasised that the responsibility rests with Tirupati Vessels Pvt Ltd.

Rajiv Agarwal, a director at Tirupati Vessels, did not provide an official comment for this story despite being contacted multiple times over the past week, while VK Singh, coast guard commandant, declined to comment on the matter until permitted to do so from his headquarters.

Officials in the district collector’s office, too, shunned responsibility for the accident, even though the defence ministry’s national oil spill disaster contingency management plan (NOS-DCP) formally mandates them to “provide personnel and equipment for shoreline clean-up and ensure safety and protection of the local population and resources.”

“We have written to the Maharashtra Maritime Board, who has further written to the director general of shipping to look into the matter. You may talk to the MMB for an answer,” said Kiran Mahajan, deputy collector, Palghar district, when contacted by HT.

Captain Praveen Khara, regional port officer, Maharashtra Maritime Board, also did not respond to multiple calls and messages seeking comment, while SK Nath, head of security and safety at the MMB, could not be contacted despite several attempts to reach him.

Yashwant Sontakke, joint director (water), with the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB), said there was “no way” to assess the true scale of impact. “We have done a site visit, conducted tests, and not found any significant pollution due to the spill. I cannot 100 percent deny that fisherfolk have been impacted, but the fisheries department is the right authority to comment on that, not the MPCB,” he said.

The lack of any environment impact assessment following the incident has irked experts. “There are whole patches of mangroves along Vadrai and the adjacent Thembi beach which turned completely black with oil and died. These are breeding grounds for fish, which the locals rely on for commercial sale and personal consumption. It is irresponsible for officials to say that they cannot conclusively determine any impact, when no such attempt has been made in the first place,” said Bhushan Bhoir, a marine researcher and zoologist based in Palghar, who was present during Afcons’ clean-up operation.

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