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Friday, June 18, 2021

86 dead during Tauktae: 3 executive directors of ONGC suspended pending inquiry

A huge rescue operation mounted by the Indian Navy and Coast Guard managed to rescue 628 people from various locations in the Arabian Sea off Mumbai.

Written by Jayprakash S Naidu | Mumbai |
June 4, 2021 2:07:17 am
Those stranded on Barge P305 being hauled up on to INS Kochi, in Mumbai. (Express photo)

Three executive directors of Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) were suspended on Wednesday as part of an ongoing high-level enquiry into the chain of incidents at Bombay High during Cyclone Tauktae that led to the death of 86 workers in the Arabian Sea and endangered the lives of hundreds more.

A huge rescue operation mounted by the Indian Navy and Coast Guard managed to rescue 628 people from various locations in the Arabian Sea off Mumbai.

The three senior officials are executive directors in charge of drilling, safety and executive exploration, respectively. They have been suspended pending inquiry by the high-level committee instituted by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas into the entire incident, which is the biggest tragedy so far in Bombay High due to a cyclone, said sources in the ministry.

“The directors have been suspended to ensure a free and fair enquiry and to ensure they do not interfere with the enquiry,” a source said.

One of the crucial pieces of evidence before the enquiry committee is an email sent by the Deck Officer of P 305 — the barge that served as accommodation to 261 workers — to an ONGC official and copied to many others. The email points out that a private weather forecaster Storm Geo, that many seafarers rely on, had predicted a cyclone in the “west coast/Mumbai high region”.

Noting that the wind speeds were likely to reach 40 to 50 knots, and the sea swell had been predicted to reach 7 to 9 mts, the deck officer requested the officials “to guide or instruct the concerned parties to take appropriate action and to ensure the safety of all personnel and assets”.

The suspension of the three officials has not gone down well with ONGC officers, who expressed their resentment in a strongly worded letter to the chairman and managing director of ONGC through Association of Scientific & Technical Officers (ASTO) on Wednesday. As many as 20,000 officers/engineers of ONGC are part of this association.

A senior member of the association said, “Suspension is a social insult. It demoralises us. The officials are made to sit at home and 50 per cent of their salary is cut and it can affect their future promotions if the inquiry is pending for a long time.”

An excerpt from the letter states, “The fact is that there were 22 barges working ONGC during that period and 19 of them adhered to ONGC weather advisory but the three barges belonging to M/s AFCONS did not. M/s AFCONS failed to adhere to the requirements of Marine Operations manual, bridging documents, warnings issued by ONGC. They also gave false information to ONGC that they have taken adequate precaution as per ONGC’s advisory. It is not a co-incidence that all three barges belong to M/s AFCONS because this company time and again has violated safety and human rights norms and has scant respect for ONGC’s safe practices…”

“Withdraw the disciplinary actions initiated against few officers of ONGC as they are not based on any outcome of factual inquiry. Initiate actions against the contractor M/s AFCONS and their partners as their culpability is clearly established. We therefore request you to take immediate action on ASTO’s demands. In case the same is not done by 15th June 2021, then ASTO shall be constrained to take further action in this regard,” states another excerpt from the letter.

Regarding the allegations, an Afcons spokesperson said, “The letter makes several unsubstantiated and factually incorrect allegations against Afcons, all of which are belied by the voluminous documentary evidence on record that Afcons has already submitted to the HPC that is investigating this incident. The letter is replete with misinformed allegations, including that the barges chartered by Afcons did not leave the operational area in time. 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.”

The statement said, “Given that the matter is being reviewed by HPC, it is unfortunate that such aspersions contrary to facts and devoid of truth are cast.”

9 bodies identified using DNA test

The Yellow Gate police said that so far nine bodies have been identified using DNA tests, while DNA test of one body did not match. A total of 17 bodies remain unidentified at the JJ mortuary. Two bodies kept in a mortuary at Valsad are unidentified too, and DNA testing is being done.

On Wednesday, ONGC was helping the mortuary staff in handing over four bodies identified as Vivek Singh, Umesh Chavan, Santosh Yadav from Mathew company and Sachin Pathne from Afcons. All were on board P-305.

The Yellow Gate police, who have registered an FIR over the P-305 barge sinking and the death of 75 people, have recorded the statements of 35 people. Most of them are survivors of P-305, and some are employees of the companies who hired them.

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