Lessons from tragic barge sinking off Bombay High: Glaring omissions and inadequacies

The P 305 tragedy ought to be the catalyst for radical reforms in India's offshore support sector, writes Commander Anand B Kulkarni (retd) for South Asia Monitor

Barge P305 tragedy

The sinking of an accommodation barge (P 305) off Bombay High, in the Gulf of Cambay, in mid-May when Cyclone Tauktae struck the west coast of India led to the loss of many precious lives. At the time, the master of the ill-fated barge was among those missing.

A recent news report (June 5, Hindustan Times) stated that the body of Captain Rakesh Ballav, the master of P 305, has been identified through DNA testing. There were a total of 261 persons on the barge and of these, 186 persons were rescued by the Indian Navy.  As of date, 71 bodies have been recovered – of which 52 have been identified and DNA testing of the remaining is being carried out.

Barge P 305 was owned by Durmast Enterprises Ltd and chartered by Asia Foundations and Constructions (AFCONS Infrastructure) for work in Bombay High. The AFCONS had hired weather service from a well-known international service provider. Besides this, weather warnings were received from the India Meteorology Department (IMD). Thus it may be surmised that there was adequate weather update available and given the severity of the cyclone, all barges and vessels could have left the area for safe locations. Regrettably, this did not happen.

Reasons behind tragedy

After the tragic incident, predictably, the buck is being passed by the principal stakeholders and those in the responsibility loop. The Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) has stated that their Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) is laid down in the Marine Operations Manual (MOM). The ONGC has contended that the contractors failed to act as per the MOM. The contractor AFCONS laid the blame on Durmast, the owner and the master of the barge.

There is always work pressure in off-shore oilfields as deadlines are seldom met. Besides this, the movement of barges and vessels to safer areas and back increases operating costs. As per the grapevine, AFCONS felt their barges could withstand a wind speed of 40 knots and hence, despite the cyclone warning - could stay put in the oilfield, but a little away from the work location.

The master of the Barge P 305 agreed but the masters of two other vessels - GAL Constructor and SS3 did not. Despite this, the company did not book the barges for entry to the port. So they had to anchor in the port anchorage area which was also in the open sea. It is fortunate that while these vessels did get into trouble, due to drifting/grounding - all crew were safe.

Barge P 305 which was in the Heera Field, about 72 km from Mumbai, shifted just 200 meters away and bore the brunt of the cyclone. It was a ‘dumb’ barge – meaning that it had no self-propulsion and had to be towed from one location to another.  As per reports, on May 16 all its anchor wires broke in the fury of strong winds. After this, she collided with an oil platform and had a breach in the hull through which seawater entered and while the workers and crew desperately scrambled for safety - the barge sank.

Three directors of the ONGC have been suspended and a high-level inquiry committee has been constituted to go into the lapses and recommend suitable measures for the prevention of such incidents in the future. The committee will no doubt go into all the details – but this is not an independent inquiry.

Omissions and inadequacies

Certain omissions and inadequacies are very glaring and bring the working of the local maritime administration and ONGC into question. 

The tug Varaprada, which was hired for anchor handling and towing, sank in this incident and 11 lives were lost. This tug was 34 years old and its deck, hatches, doors and vents reportedly had no water-tight integrity; and the vessel was unable to pump out the water coming in. There was no Chief Engineer onboard.

The question that arises is - how did such a tug pass the ONGC safety audit? How did it clear the Mercantile Marine Department (MMD) and Indian Register of Shipping (IRS) survey? Why did the ONGC allow barge P305 to remain in the field after a severe cyclone warning? ONGC is institutionally responsible for safe operations in the oilfield as the company which hires all barges and vessels through contractors.

Climate change effect 

There are several lessons to be learned from this incident. The main one is climate change. In the past, cyclones which came near the coast off the Arabian sea were rare. However, rising sea temperatures have increased the frequency of cyclones in the recent past. Tautkae, Nisarg, Vayu and Ockhi were the major cyclones in the past few years. The cyclones on the east coast are fairly regular in May and November.  Hence ONGC (East) and the east coast states are therefore ready. The ONGC and the west coast states must similarly get ready. At least simulation drills should be carried out regularly so that they are ready for the next one and SOPs are reviewed and updated.

The next aspect is barge construction. It is time for ONGC to consider employing double-hulled barges which can better survive.  Employing vessels instead of dumb barges should also be considered as vessels have their own propulsion. After their anchor handling is done, they can sail away on their own power. The barge should be registered in a flag state with stringent conditions for safety and not blacklisted ones like St Kitts. Also, the class should be of international repute like the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) or IRS.

Last but not least is the competence and integrity index of the local marine administration. Old and unseaworthy vessels should not be allowed to sail. The Varaprada and the Coromandel Supporter 9 (which floundered off the Udupi coast on 16 May) were clearly not seaworthy. The ONGC should have an age limit for the vessels hired by their contractors. The ONGC safety audit at the time of hiring the vessels should not be a remote paper exercise. Fly-by-night companies that flout safety and Martine Labour Convention (MLC) rules should be blacklisted.

The P 305 tragedy ought to be the catalyst for radical reforms in India's offshore support sector.

(The writer is an Indian Navy veteran. The views are personal. He can be contacted at Kulkarni.ab@gmail.com)

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