The barge tragedy off the coast of Mumbai was a classic case of failure to adhere to Standard Operating Procedures in the time of crisis and reflected a lack of coordination among various agencies involved in the offshore activity. The construction barge P305, working for the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC), broke from its anchor in heavy winds and high waves brought by cyclone Tauktae and sank, claiming 51 lives so far while some more are still missing. The mishap, which has sent shock waves among the maritime fraternity, could have been avoided if the evacuation of the personnel on board the barge was done as per the standard procedures. It is perplexing why the captain of the barge, who is among those still missing, failed to initiate evacuation, though the cyclone warnings were given at least seven days before it lashed the western coast. It is possible that the captain may have underestimated the velocity of the approaching cyclonic storm and decided to stay put without evacuating. More shocking was the revelation that many of the life rafts on board, used to take crew to safety in emergencies, were punctured. While the government has set up a panel to probe the cause of the mishap, there is a growing demand that the inquiry should be extended to not just the barge owner/operator but also to the charterer. The shipping industry has raised concerns over quality systems and training, and poor quality of staff working for contractors and ships.
The functioning of the ONGC is also coming under scanner for continuing with a faulty system of finalising work contracts in such a key industry where the safety of personnel is paramount. There are serious questions about the SOP itself and the chain of command for ONGC operations, which involve a lot of contractors and sub-contracts. The public sector corporation cannot absolve itself of the responsibility by simply pushing the blame on the contractor but must review its procedures to ensure the safety of workers employed by the contractor. The probe should cover an audit of all advisories given by ONGC to their assets during past cyclones, including assets chartered by the state-run oil and gas firm to prevent such mishaps in future. Otherwise, it will lead to continuance of the status quo. The ONGC has not been made answerable by any of the regulatory agencies for accidents in the past. Like other profit-making giant PSUs, it is seen as too big an entity to demand accountability. Unfortunately, those who lost their lives in the mishap may not come under the definition of crew under the Merchant Shipping Act and may not even have unions representing their interests.
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