by BA and Venkatesh Sundaram
Photo caption: Three personnel rescued by Sea King helicopter from Barge P305 being taken for medical attention at INS Shikra. (Photo: IANS)
Photo source: https://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-cyclone-tauktae-93-crew-members-of-sunken-ongc-barge-still-missing-off-maharashtra-coast-massive-search-operation-on-2890957
All 11 personnel aboard the tugboat Varapada and 75 persons on the barge P305 that sank in Bombay High during the passage of Cyclone Tauktae appear to have lost their lives in a preventable tragedy. It is considered one of the worst maritime tragedies in recent history and in the history of the country. There has been no resolution of the mystery as to why the craft were allowed to stay out at sea at a time when there were sufficient warnings about the intensity of the storm. It should be noted that the barge which was owned by AFCONS which had a contract with the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation of India Ltd. as part of the infrastructure needed to produce oil from Bombay High. It may be recalled that Bombay High produces roughly two-thirds of India’s domestic oil and the oil so produced is collected and shipped to various refineries for production of hydrocarbons and fuels necessary for transportation as well as for fertilizer. The families of the persons who have lost their lives have said the ONGC is responsible for the deaths, and have sought an explanation, and are also awaiting compensation for the loss of life and livelihood.
Industrial accidents and accidents in supporting sectors in India are altogether too common. In the present case, there is much evidence that the craft were not seaworthy and did not have sufficient safety equipment, rafts, and lifeboats. Regular inspection of basic safety equipment is often not done seriously enough in many sectors of the economy. The only thing that matters for most owners of infrastructure and plant and equipment is the bottom-line and profit. Seafaring is a particularly hazardous and dangerous sector of the economy, and it is a fact that India today provides a huge portion of the world’s trained personnel who man ships and are crew of craft all of the world irrespective of the ownership of the craft, and the origin and destination of the craft. It is of paramount importance that the Indian Government safeguards the life of its citizens, and demands that all those who are involved in sea-faring activities maintain the highest standards of safety and do not compromise in any way.
This case has also raised the issue that in India there is no analog of the `class-action suits’ that are available in, say, the United States of America, that can give some protection to workers who may bargain collectively for their rights as well as for compensation in the event of loss of limb or life. Such a provision if instituted can go a long way in the establishment of norms of safety in the future.
Right now, one cannot but draw the grim conclusion that the lives of the people of the country do not matter to the Union Government nor to the big employers and owners of property and or plant and equipment. The latter are interested only in their contracts and their profits. A fight for the rights of those who have been affected in this tragedy and due compensation, together with a fight for ensuring presence of sufficient quantity of seaworthy lifesaving equipment on all such barges and vessels is a must to prevent such disasters in the future.