Cyclone Tauktae: Maharashtra govt targets Centre over mid-sea mishap
The deaths of 49 crew members of a barge that sank after being walloped by Cyclone Tauktae sparked a political controversy on Thursday with Maharashtra’s ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi targeting the central government and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) amid allegations that the barge captain didn’t move the vessel despite warnings of a powerful storm.
The barge – which had 261 people on board and sank around 7pm on Monday after its anchors were snapped by gale-force winds -- was owned and operated by Durmast Enterprises, chartered by Afcons Infrastructure Limited, a construction and engineering company, and engaged in contract work for state-run oil major Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC).
Shiv Sena spokesperson Arvind Sawant wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, asking that he seek the resignation of petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan and ONGC chairperson and managing director Subhash Kumar. Sawant also demanded a judicial probe into the alleged “callousness” of ONGC management.
Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) demanded a culpable homicide case be registered against ONGC officials for allegedly risking the lives of employees working offshore. “There were alerts of cyclone Tauktae from concerned authorities but ONGC chose to overlook them…We want the responsibility of the concerned officials to be fixed,” said Nawab Malik, state minority affairs minister.
Former chief minister and senior Congress leader Prithviraj Chavan asked why people on board the barge were not brought back immediately after cyclone warnings and said responsibility for the “manmade tragedy” should be fixed for criminal negligence. Sena, NCP and Congress run the Maharashtra government in alliance.
On Wednesday, the ministry of petroleum and natural gas had constituted a three-member high level committee to probe the incident.
“The committee will inquire into the sequence of events leading to the stranding and drifting of these vessels, and subsequent events thereof and will also make recommendations to prevent recurrence of such incidents in future,” the ministry had tweeted, adding that the panel will submit its report in one month.
Apart from the political storm, a controversy also raged over the role of the barge captain, Balwinder Singh, who is one of the 26 people still missing.
Afcons Infrastructure claimed the barge captain chose to stay close to the oil field though he was warned of the storm three days in advance.
“While the other barges moved to Mumbai port or outer anchorage, the master of P305 chose to move 200m away from the platform where they were working, and to remain at that location, deciding this as a safe location since the maximum predicted wind speed was only 40 knots and his location was 120 NM [nautical miles] way from the eye of the tropical storm,” a statement issued by Afcons on Thursday read.
Afcons said the responsibility for all marine operations of the barge rested with its owner Durmast Enterprises.
“Durmast is the owner and the responsibility for marine operations rests with the vessel owner and his marine crew stationed on the vessel... Afcons, as charterer deploys its construction workmen and supervisors, who stay on the barge and carry out construction or revamp work on the platform,” the statement added.
A statement from Durmast Enterprises was awaited.
Rahman Shaikh, chief engineer of the barge, also blamed Singh and questioned the vessel’s seaworthiness.”The captain said the wind will not go over 40 knots (about 75 kmph). It will start at 11 and end at 12. The entire incident happened because of the captain and client,” 48- year-old Shaikh said, recovering from his injuries.
Two other barges chartered by Afcons were battered by the cyclone, but all on board were rescued, including 137 on board barge Gal Constructor, which ran aground about 90km north of Mumbai’s Colaba Point, and 196 on board barge SS-3. The 101 on board oil rig Sagar Bhushan, which was also set adrift due to the gusty winds, were brought to safety as well, an official involved in the SAR operations said. However, a tugboat with 11 members on board, remains missing.
(with agency inputs)