Part I: Why were ONGC barges in Bombay High unprepared for Cyclone Tauktae?

  • Day after Cyclone Tauktae hit the Arbian Sea, ONGC released an official statement, saying, ‘The wind speed rose to nearly 150-180 Km/hr with 6-to-8-metre-high waves’

  • The statement begs the question whether the wind speed rising to 150-180 kmph was sudden and unexpected for ONGC

New Delhi: As media reports have quoted survivors from the ill-fated barge P305 of Oil & Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) recounting their experience of jumping off the vessel and floating in the stormy sea for hours in the midst of Cyclone Tauktae, there’s one thing that has emerged clearly — that ONGC did not see it coming. In a report published on Thursday, The Indian Express quoted Chief Engineer Rahman Shaikh, who was onboard ONGC’s barge P305 and was among the 180 personnel rescued by the Indian Navy, as saying that the cyclone warning wasn’t taken as seriously as it should have been.

“We received the cyclone warning a week before it hit. Many other vessels in the vicinity left. I told the Captain, Balwinder Singh, that we must also leave for the harbour. But he told me that winds were not expected to be over 40 kmph and the cyclone would cross Mumbai in one or two hours. But in reality the wind speed was more than 100 kmph. Five of our anchors broke. They couldn’t withstand the cyclone,” Shaikh was quoted as saying.

May 18 statement released by ONGC

Day after Cyclone Tauktae hit the Arbian Sea off the coast of Mumbai on May 17, ONGC released an official statement, saying, “The wind speed rose to nearly 150-180 Km/hr with 6-to-8-metre-high waves. Due to the severe cyclonic storm, unfortunate incidences have occurred involving three construction barges of M/s Afcons working on a project of ONGC in Western Offshore fields in the Arabian Sea and one drilling rig of ONGC deployed for exploration purpose.” The statement begs the question whether the wind speed rising to 150-180 kmph was sudden and unexpected for ONGC? 

What did the IMD say?

The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) had issued a statement as early as May 14 regarding the wind speed going up to 165-175 kmph on May 17, warning of a “severe cyclonic storm” over Lakshadweep area and adjoining southeast and east-central Arabian Sea. In a subsequent statement released on May 16, the IMD had said, “Squally wind speed reaching 40-50 kmph gusting to 60 kmph likely over northeast Arabian Sea and along and off south Gujarat and Daman and Diu coasts from 16th morning and gradually increase becoming Gale winds speed reaching 150-160 kmph gusting to 175 kmph over northeast Arabian Sea and along & off Gujarat coast (Porbandar, Junagarh, Gir Somnath, Amreli) and 120 -150 kmph gusting to 165 kmph over Devbhoomi Dwarka, Jamnagar, Bhavnagar districts of Gujarat from early hours of 18th. Gale winds speed reaching 70-80 kmph gusting to 90 kmph likely to prevail along & off Dadra, Nagar Haveli, Daman, Valsad, Navsari, Surat, Bharuch, southern parts of Ahmedabad, Anand districts from 17th mid-night till 18th morning.”

Why weren’t barges moved to safety?

According to sources within ONGC, who spoke to PSU Watch on the condition of anonymity, warnings were received a week before the cyclone hit, but the seriousness of the warning was underestimated due to some miscommunication. The three barges, which were being operated by Afcons for ONGC — P305, Gal Constructor and Support Station-3 — and a drilling ship of ONGC, Sagar Bhushan, were therefore not moved to safety because the cyclone was not expected to be so severe, they said. In an official statement, Afcons, which was operating the three barges, including barge P305, said, “While the other barges moved to Mumbai Port / Mumbai Outer Anchorage / Anchorage close to Revandanda, the master of P305 chose to move 200 metres away from the HT platform, where the Barge P305 was working, and to remain at that location, deciding it as a safe location since the maximum predicted wind speed was only 40 knots and his location was 120 nautical miles away from the eye of the tropical storm.”

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2. Cyclone Tauktae: High-level committee to probe drifting of ONGC barges & employee deaths

“The sudden deterioration of weather left no time at all for any further action to be taken by the master of the vessel,” said Afcons. The company also said that the responsibility of the vessel's safety lay with Durmast.

As a result, the three barges operated by Afcons and ONGC drilling ship Sagar Bhushan were caught in the cyclone, de-anchored and drifted into the sea. One of these, barge P305, capsized in the sea and sank with 273 people onboard. By Thursday afternoon, while 26 personnel on the barge were confirmed dead, 49 were still missing. 

Barges serve as accommodation for the crew working on offshore platforms and do not have engines. They are usually towed by a tug boat to the locations they need to be stationed at. 

If Afcons was operating the barges, is ONGC responsible?

While a final verdict in the matter will be given by the high-level committee formed by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, which is investigating the ONGC P305 barge mishap, here’s a look at a recent precedent. The 2020 gas blowout incident at an oil well owned by Oil India Ltd (OIL) in Assam’s Baghjan district is a case in point because the well was being operated by a private entity, John Energy Pvt Limited. 

According to a report by a high-level committee formed by the Petroleum Ministry to probe the incident, the panel put the responsibility of conducting audits of all rigs and installations, imparting safety trainings to all levels of employees and monitoring of the day-to-day rig operations on OIL, and not the contractor. The panel also said in the report, which has been reviewed by PSU Watch, “All the oil and gas sector organisations should take actions/impose penalties against contractors and employees not following the policies, procedures and for the lapses leading to an accident."

(This is the first part of a series of reports that PSU Watch is publishing on the ONGC barge mishap during Cyclone Tauktae)

ALSO READ: Part 2: How transparent is ONGC about lapses in HSE with its workforce?

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