Rahman Shaikh never really cared about birthdays.
On May 15, he turned 51 without any fanfare, and went about his usual work as the chief engineer on board Papaa-305, an accommodation barge anchored at the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation’s Heera Oil Field, around 70 km off the Mumbai coast. When his colleagues wished him for his birthday, he thanked them politely, and did the same with his family during his regular afternoon phone call with them.
The Wi-Fi on the barge allowed Shaikh to have frequent Whatsapp calls with his brother, sister-in-law and their two sons, with whom he lives for four or five months a year, when he is not at sea. Just the previous day, they had all exchanged greetings for Ramzan Eid.
On the morning of May 16, Shaikh had a casual phone conversation with his brother, but did not talk about Cyclone Tauktae, the storm that was scheduled to pass northwards along the coast of Maharashtra later that night. “Cyclones are quite common when you are out at sea, so we are used to it,” said Shaikh, a stout man who speaks in short, quick sentences.
Shaikh’s father had spent all of his working life as a cook on international ships; his brother too had worked on ships and barges, as an engineer, before setting up a shipping company eight years ago. Shaikh started his own career in 1990 in a marine parts manufacturing workshop in Mumbai, but took up an opportunity to be an offshore diesel mechanic on a ship in 2005. It took him 15 years to rise up the ranks and become a chief engineer, and he has seen dozens of cyclones at sea over the years. “They are usually manageable, but with this one, we did not imagine how bad the storm was going to be,” he said.
Rajesh Prasad, a technical worker onboard Papaa-305, first heard about Cyclone Tauktae on May 15, when a supervisor informed him and his colleagues that the storm was not going to impact them, since they were not in its path. “Our supervisor had heard this from the captain, but we were worried because the sea had started becoming a little rough,” he said.
Prasad, whose actual name has been withheld on request, is in his twenties. He was the first member of his family to take up a job at sea. In the three years that he had spent working on maintenance projects on the ONGC’s oil fields, he had been trained in swimming, safety and emergency rescue while at sea. But the training was basic, and Prasad had never actually been in a potentially dangerous situation.
As the weather worsened on May 16, Prasad found himself grappling with anger, frustration and growing fear. “It was very scary when the cyclone started, but I did not have the authority to do anything,” he said.
His supervisor’s assurance that they would be safe proved to be horribly wrong.
That night, as Tauktae barrelled up the coast in all its fury, it lashed the barge, causing it to loll violently in the sea. Papaa-305 was an 8,900-tonne, 96-metre long barge – stacked vertically, it would be about 24 floors high. As its eight anchors snapped one by one, it was left adrift in the sea. At 9.45 the next morning, the barge collided with an oil drilling platform nearby, and gradually began to capsize. Sheikh, Prasad and the other 259 men on board were forced to jump into the sea, where waves nearly 10 metres high tossed them around like rag dolls.
As they struggled to remain afloat in their life jackets, Shaikh and other men tried holding hands and staying in groups of 10 or 12 people.
“When we were in a group, we kept talking to each other, telling each other that hum bach jayenge, we will be saved,” said Shaikh. “When a man is about to die, all he can think of is survival. And I had faith that I was going to survive.”
At 10 am on May 18, after a 36-hour nightmare, Shaikh was hauled to safety during extensive search-and-rescue operations carried out by the Indian Navy. He had severely injured his right knee and was wheelchair-bound for weeks after his rescue. But somehow, he had managed to cling to life.
Prasad, too, was rescued by the INS Kolkata, a Navy ship. “I was not injured, but I was freezing and vomiting blood,” he said. “They took me to the ship’s hospital and later gave me a phone so I could let my family know I was safe.”
Shaikh and Prasad were among the 186 men from Papaa-305 who survived; 75 died.
“I don’t usually like to celebrate my birthday. But that day it felt like I was born again,” said Shaikh. He spoke to Scroll.in in mid-June, seated on a sofa in his small, modest apartment in Mumbra, a densely-populated town in Thane district, north of Mumbai.
“I was very lucky,” he said. “But many of my friends were not.”
Papaa-305 was not the only vessel caught in the midst of Tauktae on May 16 and 17. It was one among 99 different supply ships, drill ships, barges and tugboats deployed to work at the ONGC’s offshore oil and gas fields in the Arabian Sea.
Most of the 99 vessels had moved to safe locations after the India Meteorological Department first issued warnings about an approaching storm on May 13. But six vessels did not, of which two capsized during the storm. One was Papaa-305. The other was tugboat MV Varapradha, which lost 11 out of the 13 men on board.
In all, 86 people died – and 86 families were left bereaved – in what has become the deadliest accident in the history of the ONGC, a public sector unit under the union Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, and India’s largest producer of crude oil and gas.
In statements by the Navy and the ONGC, the dead were described as “BNVs” – Brave Nature’s Victims. But conversations with survivors and crucial email correspondence reveal that the tragedy was entirely man-made and entirely preventable.
Two days after his rescue, while Rahman Shaikh was still recovering from his knee surgery at a south Mumbai hospital, he registered a complaint with the city’s Yellow Gate police station blaming Papaa-305’s captain, barge master Rakesh Ballav, for knowingly putting the lives of the 261 people on board in harm’s way. In the first information report filed on the basis of this complaint, the police has made out a case of culpable homicide, naming Ballav “and other related people” as the main accused.
Ballav is among the 86 people who died at sea on May 17. Scroll.in was unable to trace his family members. Ballav’s side of the story will never be known, but in the blame game that ensued after the tragedy, he was accused of negligence not just by Shaikh but also by the two major agencies involved in the incident, which have not accepted responsibility themselves: the ONGC and Afcons Infrastructure, the company contracted to carry out maintenance work on ONGC platforms.
The ONGC runs three major offshore oil fields discovered in the Arabian Sea in the 1960s and 1970s: Mumbai High, located around 170 km off Mumbai’s coast, Bassein and Satellite Fields, around 80 km to the north-west of the city, and Neelam and Heera Fields, around 45 km to the south-west of the city.
Together, these expansive operations contain 12 fixed platforms for exploring and extracting oil and gas, eight moveable oil rigs owned by the ONGC, and 28 rigs hired on contract from other companies. Over 4,000 people work on these offshore assets, of which around a third are employees of the ONGC. Most of the work – particularly the mammoth task of maintaining the infrastructure of the platforms and rigs – is typically outsourced on a contract-basis to an assortment of private companies. These include infrastructure developers, ship owners, ship managers, manpower suppliers and agencies that recruit licensed seafarers.
A consortium led by Afcons had been contracted to carry out maintenance work on these oilfields. A company within the Shapoorji Pallonji conglomerate, Afcons brought in a total revenue of over Rs 10,130 crore in 2019-’20. Afcons, in turn, had contracted technical workers like welders, riggers, scaffolders, electricians and engineers from different manpower supply agencies.
The main benefit of his job as a technical worker, according to Prasad, was knowing that he would not have to spend most of his salary on accommodation or food. But this benefit came at a steep price. “We have to work 15 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week. And we don’t get any days off when we are at sea,” said Prasad. “None of these things are written in our contract, but they have been followed for years.”
Apart from contracting the workforce, Afcons also chartered, or hired, a variety of vessels from ship-owning companies to ferry and house workers and materials. Papaa-305 was an accommodation barge – a large, flat-bottomed floating vessel with living amenities for workers and no engine or propulsion of its own. Such barges are towed and anchored with the help of tugboats – Afcons had assigned one to each barge.
Papaa-305 was paired with tugboat Nove, both owned by Durmast Enterprises, a company registered in the island nation of Seychelles and a subsidiary of Mumbai-based firm Ocean Diving Centre. While the technical workers on the barge had been recruited from a Mumbai-based manpower agency named Mathew Associates, the seafaring crew of the two vessels, including captain Ballav and chief engineer Shaikh, were hired for the ONGC project through Papaa Shipping Pvt Ltd, another Mumbai-based subsidiary of Ocean Diving Centre.
“Durmast, Papaa Shipping, Ocean Diving – they are all different companies on paper but they are run by the same people,” said Shaikh, who has worked with the companies for the past 15 years. “For different offshore projects my contracts have listed different companies within the group as my employers, but I have always dealt with the same staff, the same HR [human resources] and accounts team.”
According to a lawyer who specialises in shipping and maritime matters, this kind of convoluted business structure is common in much of the world’s shipping industry.
“It is the norm rather than the exception. One business owner sets up multiple shipping companies in different jurisdictions, and does not directly own most of them,” said the lawyer, who requested anonymity. “This insulates the main owner from claims and liabilities.”
These include insurance claims by workers and seafarers who may get injured while on a vessel, or by the families of those who die.
Shaikh’s contract for the ONGC project named Papaa Shipping Pvt Ltd as the employer, but the agreement was drafted under the letterhead of Udya Shipping Services, a crew management company. The agreement was signed with an illegible signature, accompanied by a seal of Udya Shipping and the words “on behalf of the Employer as agents only”. Such arrangements are common in the shipping industry, said Shaikh, because every shipping company may not have the Recruitment and Placement Services License that is mandatory under Indian law for firms recruiting seafarers.
The ONGC’s model of contracting companies that subcontract others is not unique. Such outsourcing has become the norm in India’s public sector companies. A 2014 study by the Indian Staffing Federation found that as much as 43% of the government sector employed contract labour to get its work done. When things go wrong, complex chains of contractual agreements allow various stakeholders to shrug off responsibility for the lives and safety of workers and pin the blame on others.
This is exactly what played out in the days after the 86 men died at sea while working, on contract, in oil fields owned by a government-run company.
In an interview with television channel Times Now soon after the incident, an ONGC spokesperson claimed that following cyclone alerts and ensuring safety was the responsibility of vessel captains and the consortium of companies contracted to carry out maintenance work at the oil fields.
In statements to the media soon after the cyclone deaths, Afcons claimed that the captain of Papaa-305 and its owner Durmast Enterprises were in charge of making decisions about the barge’s safety. Durmast has made no public statements about the incident so far, but in an interview with The Sunday Guardian, officials from Udya Shipping claimed it would be incorrect to blame Ballav, who had 14 years of experience, for the tragedy.
On July 2, as part of its investigation into Shaikh’s FIR, the Mumbai Police arrested three onshore employees of Papaa Shipping Pvt Ltd. According to the police, the three senior staffers had ignored weather warnings about the cyclone and went along with the captain’s decision to keep the barge anchored near the oil drilling platform at Heera Field rather than move to safety.
The deaths of 11 crew members on tugboat Varapradha are also under criminal investigation by the Mumbai Police. Varapradha, owned by Mumbai-based company Glory Ship Management, was assigned to handle accommodation barge Gal Constructor, owned by Kolkata-based Tirupati Vessel Pvt Ltd.
On June 24, the police filed an FIR against Glory Ship Management and its managing director Rajesh Shahi, booking them for culpable homicide based on a complaint by Francis Simon, the acting chief engineer of Varapradha and one of its two survivors. Simon’s allegation is that the tugboat sank because it was an old vessel in a poor condition, and that the owners deployed it even though it was not seaworthy.
Running parallel to the police investigations is an inquiry by a high-level committee instituted by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas on May 19. The three-member committee, comprising senior bureaucrats from the ministries of shipping, petroleum and defence, is yet to complete its probe to determine who should be held accountable for the May 17 incident.
In June and July, Scroll.in had extensive conversations with survivors and senior crew members of the vessels stranded in Cyclone Tauktae. Their accounts of the sequence of events between May 13 and 18 suggest that the blame for failing to prevent the tragedy lies beyond just the captains of the stranded vessels, and extends all the way up to the ONGC and Afcons.
The “health and safety” page of the ONGC’s website opens with a popular quote about safety: “All accidents are preventable.”
In the aftermath of Cyclone Tauktae, this statement rings with irony.
The India Meteorological Department first issued warnings about a tropical storm moving towards southern India in the Arabian Sea on May 13. The next day, as the storm moved towards Kerala with a wind speed of 25 knots, it was named Cyclone Tauktae.
Over the next three days, Tauktae intensified rapidly as it moved northwards along India’s western coast, prompting the IMD to upgrade it from a “severe cyclonic storm” to a “very severe” one and finally, at its peak on May 17, an “extremely severe cyclonic storm”. State authorities in Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujarat responded to the IMD’s red alerts by suspending flights, evacuating coastal residents, pausing all fishing activities and placing military and disaster response forces on standby.
The ONGC has maintained that it had immediately alerted everyone at Mumbai High about IMD’s first cyclone warnings on May 13. The ONGC’s fixed installations were asked to go into “sea survival mode” – where all operations are halted in preparation for adverse weather – and 99 floating vessels at the oil fields were advised to move towards safe locations.
This, according to the ONGC, was the extent of its role, since operations of many of the vessels were under the charge of Afcons and the companies it had subcontracted. In a statement to the Indian Express on May 21, an ONGC official claimed, “we are not mariners, we are oil and gas experts”.
Does the ONGC’s responsibility simply end there?
An official within the company claimed that it does. “ONGC can only issue advisories and suggestions about the weather,” the official told Scroll.in on the condition of anonymity. “Afcons had full responsibility for acting on the advisories for all the vessels it had chartered during that time.”
According to the official, the ONGC receives regular and detailed weather updates from international meteorological agencies, and the updates are conveyed to all their offshore rigs, installations and vessels every day. “In case of cyclone warnings, all rigs are required to stop work, installations have to secure their operations and vessels are asked to move to a safe zone,” the official said. “We followed all these procedures.”
The official clarified that the ONGC’s standard operating procedures for adverse weather do not specify exact safe zones to move to, and that those decisions are left to the vessels. “We are not an agency that can tell them forcefully to go from here to there. The vessels are guided by DG Shipping [the Directorate General of Shipping] and the Navy,” the official said.
Amitabh Kumar, the Director General of Shipping, who is one of the three members of the high-power committee inquiring into the incident, declined to answer any queries. “The inquiry is still ongoing, and it will take some time,” Kumar said. “Till then I cannot answer anything.”
Rahman Shaikh, however, does not accept the argument that the ONGC is only responsible for issuing advisories. “The oil fields belong to ONGC,” said Shaikh. “If ONGC had simply ordered all the vessels to evacuate its fields, they would have to do it.”
A survivor from Gal Constructor, one of the barges stranded during the cyclone, also echoed this view. “ONGC is the master of everything at Mumbai High,” said the survivor, who asked not to be identified. “They can pass any order, and drive any vessel out of their fields. Afcons works under ONGC.”
These assertions are particularly significant given that, according to Shaikh, a senior crew member on Papaa-305 had emailed the ONGC seeking advice on May 14, the day after the first weather warnings were issued and almost three days before the cyclone hit the barge.
These assertions are particularly significant given that, according to Shaikh, a senior crew member on Papaa-305 had emailed the ONGC seeking advice on May 14, the day after the first weather warnings were issued and almost three days before the cyclone hit the barge.
The barge had been anchored right next to an oil rig platform at Heera Field, and when the first weather warnings were issued on May 13, the captain, Rakesh Ballav, decided to move the barge 200 metres away from the platform, to prevent any collisions during the storm. The next morning, the senior crew members convened to take stock of the situation.
“We were in our regular morning meeting, talking about how other vessels in the oil field were leaving. So we asked our deck officer to email ONGC and find out if they had said anything about whether we should leave too,” said Shaikh.
Sachindra Prasad Singh was the deck officer of Papaa-305. His many tasks included overseeing navigation, handling security equipment and coordinating between different departments on a vessel.
At 9.28 am on May 14, on the instructions of the captain, Singh sent an email to several officials at the ONGC, as well as the email address “[email protected]”. LEWPP refers to the name of the platform maintenance project: Life Extension of Well Platform Project 2. The email described the cyclone predictions made by private weather forecast company Storm Geo, which included wind speeds of up to 50 knots and wave swell of between seven and nine metres, and asked for urgent advice or instructions.
“Based on these extreme environmental conditions & further discussion with Barge Master on this he stated that he need sufficient time to pick up anchors and move to safe distance from platform,” the email said. “Therefore, we request you to guide or instruct the concerned parties to take appropriate action and to ensure the safety of all personnel’s and assets.” (sic)
According to Shaikh, the “concerned parties” mentioned in the email refer to Afcons representatives at Heera Field, who would then instruct the captain to move the barge. “The idea was that ONGC should say something, since it is their barge,” said Shaikh, who was not copied on the email himself.
Deck officer Singh died when the barge capsized three days later. But Shaikh claims that to the best of his knowledge, Singh’s email did not receive a response from the ONGC. “We specifically asked the deck officer on 15th morning if ONGC had mailed back, and he said they had not,” said Shaikh.
Harish Awal, the ONGC’s group general manager and official spokesperson, did not respond to queries on the phone and asked Scroll.in to email him. As of the time of publication, he had not responded to emailed queries.
On June 2, however, the ONGC suspended three of its executive directors in charge of drilling, safety and executive exploration. According to a report in the Indian Express, a source in the petroleum ministry claimed that the officials were suspended “pending inquiry”, to ensure a “free and fair inquiry”. However, an employees union within the ONGC, the Association of Scientific and Technical Officers, has condemned it as “unjustified disciplinary action”. In a letter to the company’s chairman, the union has called for the suspension to be revoked, and for Afcons alone to be held responsible for failing to adhere to the ONGC’s weather warnings and safety advisories.
Afcons has claimed that the ONGC union’s allegations are “unsubstantiated” and “misinformed”. “It is well known and documented that all barges charted by Afcons were instructed to demobilise from the work area and did so by May 14/15, well before the onset of the full fury of Cyclone Tauktae,” an Afcons spokesperson told the media in response to the union’s letter.
However, conversations with survivors of three stranded vessels, as well as the owner of one vessel, suggest that Afcons not only failed to heed cyclone warnings but also chose to prioritise work targets over the safety of hundreds of workers and seafarers.
At 6.45 am on May 15, as they waited for the ONGC’s response to the deck officer’s email, Shaikh and other senior crew members on Papaa-305 gathered for their regular morning meeting. Those present at the meeting included barge master Rakesh Ballav, assistant barge master Devesh Mishra and deck officer Sachindra Singh, and Nilesh Biswas, the Afcons representative on the barge in charge of communicating Afcons’ instructions to the crew and overseeing the technical work.
“At the meeting, Rakesh Ballav asked the Afcons representative if anyone from ONGC or Afcons had asked us to pull out of the field,” said Shaikh. “The Afcons representative said no, there is no such news from anywhere.”
Devesh Mishra did not respond to calls or messages from Scroll.in, while Nilesh Biswas lost his life when the barge eventually capsized.
By the evening of May 15, an unfortunate decision was made.
“At around 6 pm, the barge master had calls with somebody from the Afcons head office and someone from the barge owner’s [Durmast’s] office. I don’t know what they discussed on that call, but afterwards it was decided that the barge would stay where we were, 200 metres from the platform in Heera Field,” said Shaikh. “I think they decided that the weather was manageable.”
As a safety precaution, Papaa-305’s designated tugboat, Nove, was asked to be on standby five nautical miles (9 km) away from the barge.
The captain of tugboat Nove, Sujeet Singh, seemed to have a better idea about the conversation that Ballav had with Afcons on May 15.
“On May 15th morning, around 7.30 am, the captain of Papaa-305 called me to say that we were going to leave for Mumbai because of the cyclone, and I should be ready for anchor handling,” said Sujeet Singh, who has 18 years of maritime experience and has captained Nove for the past two years.
Anchor handling is a lengthy process in which a tugboat secures or removes the anchors of engine-less barges or oil rigs. For eight-anchor barges like Papaa-305, it is a whole day’s work, and Nove’s 13-member crew began greasing their anchor handling equipment on May 15 to prepare for it.
“But then later in the evening, the Papaa-305 captain called and said we were going to stay there itself [in Heera Field]. He said there are just four or five more days of work left, which we will finish after the cyclone, and then return to Mumbai on May 25 or 26,” said Sujeet Singh. As the captain of the tugboat assigned to Papaa-305, Singh claimed he was not in direct touch with Afcons’ representatives, but took his instructions from the captain of the barge.
“I asked him, why aren’t we leaving? But he said the charterer [Afcons] has said we need to stay.”
Onboard Papaa-305, when workers like Prasad realised that other vessels in the oil field were moving towards the Mumbai shore, they urged their seniors to take them to safety too. “They told us we were going to stay and finish the platform work soon.”
What happened next has been chronicled, in all its terrifying detail, in dozens of media reports and survivor accounts of the May 17 barge accident.
The cyclone arrived on the night of May 16 with wind speeds of between 40 and 50 knots, and grew progressively worse by the hour. At 2 am on May 17, two of Papaa-305’s eight anchors snapped. “Around that time, the barge master called Nove for help, but Nove said it was 12 nautical miles away,” said Shaikh. “The master asked them to come closer, but Nove refused, because of the strong winds and high swell.”
By 4 am, three more anchors were lost and by 8 am, as wind speeds increased to 70 knots, all of Papaa-305’s anchors had snapped. The barge was shaking so violently in the waves that a 17-tonne container slid off the deck into the sea. Soon after, the drifting barge collided with the oil platform. The collision did not, fortunately, trigger a fire, but it spelt doom for Papaa-305, which began to flood and sink.
Prasad and other technical workers, who until then had been asked to stay in their rooms, were issued orders to abandon the ship. They had to don life jackets and make their way towards the life rafts on the deck.
There were 32 life rafts for the 261 people on board – each raft could hold at least 10 people, according to Sheikh. Each side of the deck had 16 rafts, but with the barge tilting in the waves, those on the starboard side were not accessible at all. “We tried inflating the other life rafts, but only the first two worked. The rest of the rafts did not inflate – they had holes in them,” said Prasad.
Sixteen life rafts could not be accessed. Fourteen were punctured and could not be used. The only option that most of those on board had was to jump into the water in their life jackets and pray for the rescue ships to arrive.
“But because of the severe weather conditions, they could not reach us easily,” said Shaikh, who was among the last to jump from the sinking vessel.
Some survivors spent eight hours in the choppy sea before they were rescued; others, like Shaikh, had to battle the waves for between 12 and 14 hours. All through this ordeal, Shaikh and other survivors reported similar experiences: they tried to hold hands with others and stay together in groups so that they could be easily spotted by rescuers, but were forced apart by the waves and had to watch their colleagues disappear.
Somewhere at a long distance, Sujeet Singh and his crew on Nove watched helplessly as Papaa-305 sank. “They had asked us for help, but how could we get to them? There was so much wind and swell,” said Singh, his voice breaking over the phone as he spoke to Scroll.in from his hometown in Haryana. “We tried our best to get close – anyone would try to save a drowning man. But the waves kept throwing us in different directions, and we were struggling to just keep cruising and stay in control of our vessel.”
Since Nove managed to save itself and did not need to be rescued, it was not listed as one of the vessels stranded in the cyclone. But if the tugboat had been directed to tow Papaa-305 to safety on May 15 instead of staying just nine km away, 75 lives on the barge could have been saved. In addition, the 13 men on Nove would not have had to spend two days of terror trying to stay afloat through the cyclone – though they were fortunate that their vessel did not capsize and their crew did not suffer injuries or fatalities.
Besides Papaa-305 and Nove, four other vessels had to live through this nightmare.
Sagar Bhushan, a flat-bottomed drill ship chartered by Afcons, stayed anchored at the company’s Bassein Field with 101 people on board. During the cyclone on May 17, all of its eight anchors gave way, and the vessel began to drift northwards in the Gulf of Khambhat.
Support Station 3, a construction barge chartered by Afcons, which had 196 on board, began moving out of Mumbai High’s South Field on May 16, but got stuck at Heera Field on the way to Mumbai as the cyclone struck. It, too, lost its anchors and drifted northwards, constantly at risk of colliding into rocks and other obstacles, and of capsizing in the choppy waves.
Fortunately, those onboard Sagar Bhushan and Support Station 3 were rescued by the Navy on May 18.
Accommodation barge Gal Constructor was also stationed at South Field, around 160 km from Mumbai’s coast, with 137 people on board. The barge, along with its tugboat Varapradha, could have been safe inside Mumbai’s Princess Dock by the night of May 16 had it not been for delays and questionable decisions made by Afcons officials.
Gal Constructor’s captain, Goa-based Agnelo Rebello, said he did not wish to speak with the media about his experience anymore, but referred us to his interview in the Indian Express, published on June 2.
In the interview, he claimed that he had informed the Afcons representative at South Field about the need to move his vessel to the Mumbai port on May 13 itself. As a captain with 37 years of maritime experience, he had seen several cyclones before and knew Tauktae was going to be very dangerous.
But Afcons, he claimed, asked him to stay within the operational area of the oil field. The company gave Gal Constructor’s crew the example of Papaa-305, which it claimed had already agreed to stay in Heera Field through the cyclone. But the barge’s captain insisted on leaving for Mumbai, and on the night of May 14, Afcons sent tugboat Varapradha to tow Gal Constructor.
“We could not get to Gal Constructor earlier because the Afcons representative first sent us to do anchor handling for another vessel, MV Workboat 1,” said Francis Simon, the chief engineer of Varapradha and one of its only two survivors. MV Workboat 1 had its own propulsion and engine, but needed help with its anchors. Once Workboat 1 was on its way towards the shore, Simon and his team spent all night and most of May 15 de-anchoring Gal Constructor.
The tug then took over 30 hours to tow the barge to Mumbai. It was 7.30 pm on May 16 by the time the two vessels reached Bombay Floating Lights, the entryway to the water channels leading to Princess Dock in Mumbai and Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust in Nhava Sheva. To enter any of the safe, inner-anchorage areas of the ports, vessels need prior approval from port authorities and must book a “pilot” from the port to guide the way.
But according to Rebello in his Indian Express interview, Afcons did not secure permissions for Gal Constructor to enter any of the inner-anchorage areas, despite his requests that it do so. Instead, “possibly to save money and time”, he claimed that Afcons directed the barge and tugboat to anchor further south, around 10 km away from Alibaug’s Revdanda port.
“This is what Afcons underestimated,” said Simon. “We were not sent all the way inside the port because they felt that after the cyclone, it would be easier for us to return to work if we were anchored outside. There were just a few days of work left before the monsoon.”
Afcons Infrastructure’s official spokesperson, Bivabasu Kumar, told Scroll.in that the company would not be able to answer any queries about the incident. “This incident is being probed by a high-powered committee, and we have already submitted voluminous information to them,” Kumar said. “Prima facie we do not want to make comments to individual journalists, but you can email your questions.” As of the time of publication, the company had not responded to emailed queries.
Both Gal Constructor and Varapradha suffered the consequences of being denied safe shelter in a port.
On the morning of May 17, Gal Constructor’s anchors snapped and the vessel was left to the mercy of the sea. The barge drifted northwards from Revdanda, got stuck in sand at Colaba in southern Mumbai a few hours later, then was dislodged by the waves and carried further north. The vessel, which was constantly in danger of capsizing, could not easily be reached by rescuers, and finally ran aground on a rocky shore in Palghar, 100 km north of Mumbai. After more than two days of distress and hunger, on May 18, all 137 men on board were airlifted to safety.
Despite their ordeal, the workers on Gal Constructor survived because its captain chose to leave the oil field and move towards the shore in defiance of Afcons’ wishes. Had it stayed at South Field, the barge could have collided with any of the five oil drilling platforms on site and suffered the fate of Papaa-305.
This has been the basis for the accusations that Papaa-305’s captain, Rakesh Ballav, was responsible for endangering the lives of the 261 people on the barge. According to global shipping rules, the captain of every vessel at sea is empowered with something called “overriding authority” in times of crisis. Their duty, in such times, is to take any decision necessary for saving the lives of people on board, even if it means overriding instructions from other authorities. The captain of Gal Constructor exercised his overriding authority and insisted on moving his barge out of the oil field. Ballav, it appears, did not.
This is the crux of Rahman Shaikh’s FIR filed on May 20 accusing Ballav of culpable homicide.
But when Scroll.in met Shaikh in mid-June, he had softened his stance against Ballav. The chief engineer and the barge master had been colleagues for two years, spending as many as seven or eight months together at sea each year. “We cannot blame the captain alone for what happened. He cannot make his own decisions,” said Shaikh, who had given several more detailed statements to the Mumbai Police after he first filed the FIR in May. “Afcons and ONGC are just as responsible for what happened.”
Nove’s captain Sujeet Singh also defended Ballav. “In any situation, the charterer decides what we should do, and we have to do as they say,” said Singh. In this case, the charterer for the stranded vessels was Afcons.
“Yes, in an emergency the captain does have overriding authority, but if we don’t do what the charterer says, they will simply tell us to leave, and they will hire a new captain.”
Abdulgani Serang, the general secretary of the National Union of Seafarers of India, acknowledged that this is a dilemma that many captains face.
“Captains are the final authority on a ship, but there are commercial pressures that they, too, are under,” Serang said. “We are not in an ideal world.”
Francis Simon, one of the two survivors from Varapradha, believes that the tugboat capsized because of an array of ignored technical problems.
Simon spoke to Scroll.in at length from his home in Kochi, Kerala, where he lives with his wife and young sons aged nine and 13. Drawn to engines and other machines from a young age, he became the first member of his family to choose a career in shipping 17 years ago. He served as an engineer on both national and international passenger ships, including the ships ferrying between Kochi and Lakshadweep islands before he moved to Mumbai in January 2021 to join Glory Ship Management.
While he took up the position of the second engineer on Varapradha, to his frustration, he found he also had to stand in as the acting chief engineer, since the company hadn’t engaged one beyond a 15-day period when the vessel’s license was up for renewal. “Not having a chief engineer on board goes against the safe manning requirement laid down by the Director General of Shipping,” Simon said.
On May 16 and 17, anchored outside the Revdanda port, Varapradha was battered by cyclonic winds and violent waves for over 15 hours. The vessel had begun to drag its anchor, causing it to tilt and fill up with water. Simon believes this would not have happened if the vessel itself was not in a poor condition.
Tugboat Varapradha was 34 years old. Most vessels across the world, said Simon, are retired after 20 or 25 years at sea. In his FIR with the Yellow Gate police, accusing Glory Ship Management of putting 13 crew members on an old, “unseaworthy” vessel, he pointed out that Varapradha’s hull was deteriorating. Its weather decks, hatches (the openings that lead down to the cargo hold) and its coamings (the frames around the hatch) were corroded and rusted, filled with holes in some places and thinned down in others. These corrosions made it difficult for the tugboat to stay watertight during the cyclone, and eventually led to the boat capsizing.
Simon claims that Varapradha’s captain had informed Glory Ship Management about these problems several times in the months before the cyclone, but that the company did not address them. Glory Ship’s managing director, Rajesh Shahi, denied these allegations, calling them “false statements”.
“The vessel was certified by multiple Government agencies such as the Indian Register of Shipping, ONGC safety audit, Mercantile Marine Department, Marine warranty surveyors etc,” said Shahi in a text message. “After their approval, the vessel was sent to the ONGC field.”
Apart from the poor condition of the tugboat, Simon believes the lives of the crew members were also jeopardised by a delayed emergency response from the captain, Nagendra Kumar.
At around 5 pm on May 17, an hour before Varapradha sank, Nagendra Kumar sent out a distress signal. Present on every vessel, a distress signal alerts the nearest Marine Rescue Coordination Centre about a ship’s location so that it can be helped.
“In any dangerous situation, the captain has the authority to take any action to save lives,” said Simon. “In this situation, I feel our captain sent out the distress signal too late – he should have pressed the button at least two or three hours before, when the ship first started sinking.”
The crew abandoned the ship at around 6 pm, and had to wait for the life rafts to self-inflate as the vessel capsized. Simon said that only one of the rafts inflated. He and another seafarer, Saheb Bhuniya, “had jumped from the left side of the tug, and we were lucky that one life raft inflated right in front of us,” Simon said. “The rest jumped from the right side of the tug, and that life raft did not inflate.” He soon discovered that their raft was punctured. “But somehow it managed to stay afloat,” Simon said.
Shahi, Glory Ship’s managing director, denied that there was a punctured life raft on Varapradha. “Only one life raft was launched, and it worked perfectly,” he said. “The other raft could not be launched, probably because the vessel had tilted to one side.”
Simon said he and Bhuniya spent four frightening hours clinging to their raft before they were rescued by the Navy’s INS Kolkata, at around 10 pm that day. Throughout the ordeal, all he could think about was whether he would see his family again.
He said he does not intend to return to his job at Glory Ship Management. “I would rather stay close to my family in Kochi, and work on passenger ships here.”
Like Simon, most of the survivors of the May 17 tragedy returned to their homes in towns and villages across India, scattering into oblivion.
The few that Scroll.in spoke to confirmed that the ONGC had paid the compensation amount they had announced right after the incident: Rs 2 lakh to kin of deceased victims, and Rs 1 lakh to survivors. Afcons had announced that it would provide compensation of between Rs 35 lakh and Rs 75 lakh to families of the deceased, but in the ten weeks since the incident, none of the victims’ families have received the money or heard from Afcons about it.
Ship owners are typically responsible for providing insurance covers to all workers on their vessels. Simon confirmed that Glory Ship Management had already initiated the procedures to pay him insurance for the loss of his property, specifically his bag containing all his identity documents. At his payscale of Rs 2.5 lakh a month, Simon expects the insurance amount to be between Rs 2.2 lakh and Rs 3 lakh. “It is a small amount and I will probably fight them for better payment,” he said.
Unlike Simon, however, most of the seafaring crew and the technical workers on the stranded vessels had low-income jobs and little privilege.
In Haryana’s Allika village in Palwal district, for instance, 25-year-old widow Pooja has little hope of getting substantial insurance money for the life of her husband Vicky.
Vicky, who went by a single name, was an “ordinary seaman”, a junior-level apprentice in Varapradha’s deck department, who earned Rs 10,000 a month. He was the sole breadwinner for his family, which comprised him, his wife Pooja, whom he married five years ago, and their three-year-old son Kunal. “Five years ago Vicky had got a job to sell tickets in the Delhi Metro, but he chose the merchant navy line and went to live far away in Mumbai. He said this job would pay much better in the long run,” said Pooja. “Vicky wanted to make Kunal a cricketer or a doctor. But now he is gone and I don’t even know how I will survive.”
In Uttar Pradesh’s Khamela village in Kanpur, the family of 27-year-old Vijay Kumar received the ONGC’s compensation amount only in the second week of July, and had not been told anything about insurance. More than two months after the cyclone, Vijay’s ageing parents are still struggling to get their deceased son’s body home.
Vijay was an “able seaman” on Varapradha, one rung above an ordinary seaman, and earned a salary of Rs 19,000 a month. This income was the primary sustenance for his parents, who work as farm labourers. Their village is far removed from India’s coasts, and maritime jobs are almost unheard of. But in 2013, soon after completing his BSc degree from a local college, Vijay enrolled himself in a six-month course for maritime crew in Kolkata.
“An agent from another village told him about the course and promised him a job after he did it,” said Baburam Pal, Vijay ’s father. “The agent took Rs 3.5 lakh to get him the job. We had to sell all our jewellery and take loans from relatives to give it to him.”
Pal has no idea what the nature of his son’s work at sea was. All he knows is that over seven years, Vijay’s salary rose from Rs 5,000 a month to Rs 19,000. The last time Pal and his wife Bhuri spoke to their son was on May 4, when Vijay mentioned that he would be returning to shore by May 25 and would then make his way home. Pal heard about the cyclone only on May 19, when he received a phone call telling him that his son had died during the storm.
Like the distraught relatives of the other 85 victims, Pal rushed to Mumbai as soon as he heard the news. The bodies of most victims were identified and claimed by their kin, but some were so bloated in the sea water, they were beyond recognition. The police began collecting DNA from the victims’ blood relatives to help identify these bodies, but as of August 2, 10 bodies still lie unidentified. Vijay’s body is believed to be among them, since the ONGC and the Mumbai Police claimed that all 86 bodies were recovered from the sea.
“They took my DNA, but till today I have not been given any report about it,” said Pal, who had returned to Kanpur after 17 days of waiting in Mumbai. In several cases, the police had taken DNA samples from at least two blood relations to identify the bodies, but in Vijay’s case, only Pal’s DNA was sampled, not his mother’s.
It took seven weeks of repeated phone calls to Vijay’s employers – Glory Ship Management – and ONGC before the companies finally made arrangements for Pal, Bhuri, and their nephew to be flown to Mumbai so that Bhuri’s DNA sample could also be taken for testing. They have not yet been directly informed about the result of this DNA test, but when Scroll.in contacted the police official in charge on August 2, he confirmed that Bhuri’s DNA did not match any of the bodies lying in the morgue.
When Scroll.in informed Vijay’s parents about this, they tearfully repeated what they have been saying for weeks: “We just want our son’s body, nothing else. We just want to perform his last rites.”