Rakesh Ballav, Captain or barge master of P-305, who is ‘missing’, has been blamed.
New Delhi: The blame for atleast 75 missing personnel, out of which 51 have been confirmed dead, who were on the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation of India (ONGC) contracted P-305 accommodation barge that sank on 17 May, has been laid on the shoulders of the only individual who can neither defend himself nor be punished even if he is found guilty. The barge sank at the Bombay High in the Arabian sea due to impact of Cyclone Tauktae. In a bid to escape accountability, companies have blamed the Captain or the barge master of P-305, Rakesh Ballav, who was attached with the barge since January 2019. A native of Patna, Bihar, Ballav is among the 26 who are still “missing”.
The P-305 barge, which was stationed roughly 70 km into the sea, housed personnel engaged in maintenance work of ONGC’s offshore oil drilling platforms. It had 261 people on board before it sank. The barge was deployed by Afcons Infrastructure, a construction and engineering company based in Mumbai, that is a part of the Shapoorji Pallonji (SP) Group.
The barge was owned by Durmast enterprise whose parent company is Ocean Diving Centre Limited whose CIN number is U74210MH1990PLC055420. The company’s registered office is at Vile Parle, Mumbai. It has three directors, Sunil Shantaram Mohite, Praman Vikram Naik and Vikram Bhikhubhai Naik.
The Sunday Guardian’s multiple calls and messages to Ocean Diving Centre did not elicit any response. As per specialized sites, which track ships and barges, the 17-year-old 96 metre long and 31 metre wide Papaa-305 was built in 2004 and is registered in the Caribbean island of St Kitts and Nevis. It was towed to India from Labuan, Malaysia by Jawar Al Khaleej Shipping LLC and reached Mumbai at 11.18 pm on 30 December 2018 before it was chartered by Afcons infrastructure to carry out the work of ONGC.
The personnel, who were working on the barge, were recruited by Udya Shipping Services Private limited, a Navi Mumbai-based company established in 2001 that recruits sailors and similar experts.
Officials at Udya Shipping Services told The Sunday Guardian that Ballav had 14 years of “rank” experience and it was incorrect to put the blame on him as was being done right now.
He had earlier worked with the Mumbai-based GOL Offshore Limited as a barge master for 10 years before he started working in the present role for Ocean Diving Centre Limited whose CIN number is U74210MH1990PLC055420. The company’s registered office is at Vile Parle, Mumbai. It has three directors, Sunil Shantaram Mohite, Praman Vikram Naik and Vikram Bhikhubhai Naik.
Apart from Ballav, there were 23 other marine crew working on the barge with the remaining being part of the project and catering crew. All these 23 marine crew members had experiences ranging from 2 to 14 years and were adept at handling the situation on the barge.
On Thursday, Yellow Gate Police station, Mumbai, registered a FIR against Ballav on the basis of a complaint filed by Rahman Shaikh, an engineer with P-305, for not taking the cyclone warning seriously. The case was registered under Sections 304(II) (an act done with knowledge that it is likely to cause death), 338 (causing grievous hurt by an act endangering life or personal safety of others) and 34 (common intention) of the Indian Penal Code. Senior Inspector of Yellow Gate police station Suhas Hemade told The Sunday Guardian that as the investigation proceeds, the names of other individuals and companies are likely to be added in the case.
The other relevant parties to the entire incident, the Indian Coast Guard and Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), on their behalf, have stated that they did their duty by repeatedly issuing warning to ships and other barges much before the cyclone hit, asking them to return or move to safer locations.
According to an official with the Coast Guard, the onus of this accident and the deaths lies on Afcons Infrastructure as it should have ensured that the officials at the barge, including Ballav, acted on the cyclone warning.
Afcons, on its part, said that the responsibility of the accident lies with Durmast and Ballav. In an unsigned company statement, the company said, “Durmast is the owner and the responsibility for marine operations rests with the vessel owner and his marine crew stationed on the vessel.”
The Sunday Guardian’s email to the corporate communication team of Afcons seeking their response to what was the step it took to warn people at P-305, if any, and did it get in touch with the barge master seeking why he was not following the directions to move to a safe position, generated no response.
A member of the employee union of ONGC told The Sunday Guardian that majority of the “assets” owned by the ONGC had moved to safer locations or come back much before the cyclone hit, but few like P-305 did not.
“The system is very simple, in case of bad weather, regular updates are broadcast from the control center and ships are asked to either move to different locations or to come back. Why P-305 did not come back is something that only time will tell. Also, an investigation into the sea worthiness of P-305 needs to be carried out; it was quite old,” he said.
The ONGC is yet to release an official statement on who it thinks was responsible for the accident.
However, media reports, quoting unnamed ONGC officials, said that the responsibility of the mishap was on Afcons and Durmast.
The studied silence on part of the private players involved in the entire accident, including Afcons and Ocean Diving Centre, has led to more questions on the role played by ONGC, Afcons and Ocean Diving Centre before the cyclone hit and till the time barge sank.
Email queries to the top officials of ONGC seeking the steps taken by them during the entire accident elicited no response.
Dharmendra Pradhan, minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas, on Wednesday announced a three-member High-Level Committee (HLC) comprising Subhash Chandra Lal Das (IAS), Director General of Hydrocarbons, Amitabh Kumar (IRS), Director General of Shipping, and Nazli Jafri Shayin, an Indian Audit and Accounts Service (IAAS) officer who is presently posted as Joint Secretary Ministry of Defence, to inquire into the accident. The HLC has been asked to submit its report within 30 days.
However, with the narrative already set on who was responsible for the accident, workers who go out to sea believe that the finding of the HLC is unlikely to fix the responsibility on the companies for the accident. “Big companies are involved in this mishap whose reach extends to officials in the Petroleum and shipping ministry. In a week or two, everything will be forgotten. They are trying to pin the blame on one individual so that their own mistakes don’t come out in the open,” a technician working for ONGC at Bombay High said.