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PIL in Bombay HC seeks independent probe into P305 tragedy

An ex-master mariner has moved the Bombay high court (HC), seeking an independent probe into the loss of 86 lives after accommodation barge P305 and tugboat Varaprada capsized in the Arabian Sea when severe tropical Cyclone Tauktae had hit the Mumbai coast in May
By Kanchan Chaudhari
PUBLISHED ON JUL 11, 2021 12:37 AM IST

An ex-master mariner has moved the Bombay high court (HC), seeking an independent probe into the loss of 86 lives after accommodation barge P305 and tugboat Varaprada capsized in the Arabian Sea when severe tropical Cyclone Tauktae had hit the Mumbai coast in May.

Captain Naveen Singhal has filed the public interest litigation (PIL) contending that an independent inquiry is necessary in the matter, although the director general (DG), shipping, has initiated an internal probe into the matter. Singhal has apprehended that the real root causes and systemic failures may not come out in the inquiry undertaken by the DG.

In this regard, the marine consultant has said that he “believes that the issues and allegations that need to be investigated will include the role (acts of omission and commission and lapses) of the DG itself, because it is the DG who grants licences to self-propelled and non-propelled domestic and other ships to engage in trade in the coast of India and oversees, the condition and maintenance of ships and issues certificates to operate and ply.”

His PIL points out that as early as March 10, the India Meteorological Department had announced the beginning of formation of a cyclone on India’s west coast that acquired the name Tauktae. As it consolidated over the Arabian Sea and moved towards the north-western direction, the cyclone started gathering intensity and was constantly upgraded.

The PIL stated that while all other vessels returned to the safety of the port and anchorages, barge P305 with 261 on board, GAL Constructor – a floating crane with 137 crew members, and an ONGC (Oil and Natural Gas Corporation) vessel named Sagar Bhushan continued near an unmanned platform. Being “dumb” barges, they were unable to move by themselves, stated the PIL.

“As events showed, despite the early warnings, ONGC and Afcons (a contractor of ONGC), continued work on the platform [in Mumbai High oilfields] and retained their full complement untilled it was too late,” the PIL read.

It added that after the weather became severe, the captain of GAL Constructor insisted on returning to safety of the harbour and accordingly, tugboat Varaprada brought it out of Mumbai High, but had to remain in unsheltered water outside Mumbai port, known as Bombay Floating Light. Varaprada anchored somewhere else.

P305, the PIL said, continued at the platform in Mumbai High and was moved off the rig platform (for safety of the platform) and made to anchor in unsheltered waters, without any protection.

“It is believed that even life rafts on P305 failed. The vessel is registered on Saint Kitts and Nevis, one of the most lax and notorious flags of convenience,” Singhal alleged.

The PIL also raised the issue of sea worthiness of the vessels involved. ONGC as a matter of policy does not allow use of vessels that are more than 21 years old. However GAL Constructor was 48 years old, while Varaprada was built in 1984.

Referring to the statement of Varaprada’s chief engineer – who is one of the two survivors of the vessel – the PIL added that when the tug began to take in water, its pumps were not working and the crew had to manually bail out water, which ultimately is an impossible task.

“It could not or did not send out a distress signal till 5pm of May 17, that is 12 hours after it broke anchor and began to drift, and seven hours after it began to take water in. It is not imaginable that any sailor would delay asking for assistance for that long and presumably, the vessel’s communication status needs to be checked,” stated the PIL.

The litigation will come up for hearing before the bench of chief justice Dipankar Datta and justice Girish Kulkarni.

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