A barge that was grounded last month for smuggling oil along the shores of Mumbai was unloading the fuel at Victoria Docks in the Mumbai Port Trust, police have discovered. The police have come to suspect that the barge — M T Farzana — was smuggling diesel from merchant vessels undetected for at least 10 years. The case has alarmed police officials, who say the barge could have been used to smuggle weapons into the country had it not been caught.
Interviews with police officials have shed light on the chain of events that led to the exposure of the alleged smuggling racket, and the arrest of its crew. But police are yet to discover what happened to the stolen diesel, and how many vessels were targeted.
In April, the Mumbai Police arrested four crew members of the M T Farzana for allegedly stealing oil from merchant vessels in the Mumbai Anchorage. Sludge oil is a waste product generated in diesel engines, which can damage the engine if not removed. There are many barges on the Arabian Sea working as contractors to procure sludge oil from merchant vessels, who then sell it for recycling into supplemental fuel. According to the police, the M T Farzana was smuggling diesel though it only has a licence to procure sludge oil from merchant vessels. Later in May, the vessel’s owners were arrested.
An anonymous tip
On April 10, the Mumbai Police’s south region control room in Nagpada received a phone call from a man who claimed that the barge — M T Farzana — had illegally stored diesel on board. The caller, who asked to remain anonymous, also gave its location in Mazgaon. But three days of questioning the master and crew, and a thorough examination of the vessel, did not substantiate the allegations. Lata Donde, Assistant Commissioner of Police, Yellow Gate Division, said the police did not find any evidence until the fourth day.
“On the fourth day, we noticed a few nuts and bolts that were used to shut a pipe. They looked like they were part of the vessel, until we asked the crew to unscrew them,” said Lata. Inside, the police found two tanks filled with 29 tonnes of sludge oil worth Rs 5.85 lakh, and 11 tonnes of diesel worth Rs. 6.6 lakh.
The Yellow Gate police station registered a case of theft, negligently storing combustible material and common intention under the Indian Penal Code and relevant sections of the Essential Commodities Act.
The police arrested the barge’s master, Rambabu Thakur, the oiler, Kashinath Das, and two seamen, Mohammad Arshad Altaf and Manoj Joshi. A hunt was also launched to trace the vessel’s owners, Lalit Kumar, Mohammad Ali Punjarkatty and Akbar Pinjar. They were arrested earlier this month.
‘Diesel they were not supposed to have’
According to the police, in February, the crew of M T Farzana said they collected 60 tonnes of sludge oil from the merchant vessel Tag- 5. But the crew of Tag-5 claimed to have transferred only 10 tonnes of sludge oil and 50 tonnes of oily water to Farzana, the police say in their application to the Ballard Estate court seeking custody of the accused. In their search of Farzana, the police had recovered 29 tonnes of sludge oil, 19 tonnes more than what Tag-5 claims to have transferred. The police suspect the accused acquired sludge oil from other vessels. “We found 29 tonnes of sludge oil onboard Farzana. The possibility of the accused acquiring sludge oil from other vessels cannot be ruled out,” said a police officer.
On March 2, the Farzana crew went aboard the merchant vessel Farah-1, which was heading towards the Alang Shipyard in Gujarat to be dismantled. According to the police, the two crews dined on Farah-1 while finalising a deal for the transfer of sludge oil. But instead of taking sludge oil, the crew of Farzana used pipes to take diesel from Farzana. The police remand application states: “However, the crew was unable to transfer the sludge oil onboard the Farzana so they used pipes to transfer diesel onto the barge.”
According to the police, when the new captain of Farah-1 learnt about the transfer of diesel to Farzana, he claimed to have screamed at his crew. “We have made the captain and crew of the Farah-1 witnesses, and will be writing to the court to record their statements under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure,” said Assistant Police Commissioner Donde.
According to Donde, the crew of Farzana claimed during questioning that they had been purchasing diesel for their own use. But investigation has revealed that the barge had been unloading the fuel at a godown at Victoria Docks, Donde said. “The accused had also been mixing diesel with sludge oil so that they would not be caught smuggling diesel,” said Donde. All seven are currently in judicial custody. “The barge has been purchasing diesel under the cover of collecting sludge oil. They could have smuggled weapons into the country if they hadn’t been caught,” she said.
But advocate Akil Shaikh, who is representing the accused, said the police have not put forward any evidence to show that his clients have stolen diesel.