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‘Meal of biscuits & water’, poorly paid, months at sea — life aboard ONGC barge that sank

An estimated 60 crew members have been left dead by the sinking of a barge off Mumbai during Cyclone Tauktae. As many as 186 have been rescued while 15 remain missing.

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Mumbai: Brothers Satendra Singh, 36, and Upendra Singh, 42, of Deoria, Uttar Pradesh, were both at sea at the same spot — around 70 km off Mumbai — in the days preceding Cyclone Takutae. 

While Satendra was on a barge called Trinity Nissi, Upendra was aboard the Pappa-305, or P-305, an accommodation vessel deployed for an offshore ONGC operation.

On 14 May, the Coast Guard issued a warning about the storm and told all vessels to find a safe place. Warnings were issued in the days before as well. Satendra said the Trinity Nissi took heed and was brought to a location near the coast on 15 May. P-305, however, “stayed put”, he added.  

“Both the barges were at the same spot. While our captain took the alert seriously and left. The P-305 barge stayed there and was hit by the cyclone,” Satendra told ThePrint. 

With 261 crew members on board, including technicians, wielders, and fitters, the P-305 eventually crashed into a rig and sank on 17 May. 

Cyclone Tauktae, which made landfall in Gujarat Monday, brought winds of 150-180 km/h and waves of up to 6-8 metres high off Mumbai in the hours before. It has been reported that the anchor of the barge reportedly gave way in the small hours of 16 May and left it drifting.

Video clips purportedly recorded on-board on the day of the incident display a scene of worry and fear. As water enters the barge, a purported supervisor tells the crew to put on their life vests and jump. The Navy is on its way to help, he adds. But before help could arrive, many had lost their lives. 

An estimated 60 people died in the incident, including Upendra, while 186 were rescued. Another 15 remain missing.

Police in Mumbai have booked the barge master and a few others for allegedly ignoring warnings about the cyclone and causing deaths and grievous hurt due to negligence. 

In a statement to ThePrint for another report, Afcons — the contractor for the ONGC project — said warnings were heeded but the cyclone intensified beyond predictions. It also said the responsibility for P-305 rested with the vessel’s owner, Durmast, and the barge master. The ONGC has said that it had forwarded the weather warnings to all its vessels at sea, and blamed the incident on the barge master.

Chief Defence Public Relations Officer Commander Mehul Karnik said Friday the rescue operation is still going on. “The Indian Navy and the Coast Guard are carrying out the rescue operation,” he added.

Also Read: ONGC, barge contractor ‘ignored’ cyclone warnings, resulting in deaths of nearly 50 workers

Life at sea

The crew on the barge was working on an offshore project of the state-run Oil and Natural Gas Company (ONGC). 

Workers engaged in offshore operations say the job involves tough work conditions — they work at sea for months on end, on 15-16-hr shifts, for a salary of up to Rs 45,000/month. 

An employee working on the ONGC project said the contractor had hired labour through a number of recruitment firms. “They scoop out people from different states willing to stay offshore and pay an amount between Rs 500 and Rs 1,500 a day depending on their skill,” the employee added.

A crew member rescued from the P-305 barge said the risk-reward ratio runs askew in their job, but “people do it because, at the end of a string of lonely months, they can take a lump sum back home”. 

“People get paid anywhere between Rs 20,000 and Re 40,000 a month depending on their position. We are made to work 15-16 hours a day. After working for six months, we go back to our native place with at least Rs 1 lakh in hand. It’s like floating in water and coming up for air,” the crew member added. 

Engineers and senior officials, the two employees said, don’t stay onboard for more than a month. The low-ranking labourers have to stay for six to nine months as it is a costly affair to bring the barge to the coast and back to the offshore work site, they added. The P-305 had been at sea since October 2020. 

Prince Pandey, a resident of Taloja whose cousin Arjun, 29, was a crew member on P-305, said he had told his wife horror stories about the living conditions on the barge.  

“He said there is nothing much to eat. They largely survive on biscuits and water. He spoke to her on 17 May at 7 am. Later in the day, the barge sank,” Prince told ThePrint at JJ Hospital, where bodies of the deceased crew members were being brought, as he searched for his cousin.

Arjun, a welder originally from Bihar’s Gopalganj, was an expectant father. He had last seen his pregnant wife in January 2021, when he left for the job. His wife is currently seven months pregnant. 

“I am continuously getting calls from Arjun’s mother, wife and brothers asking about him. What should I reply to them when he is still missing?” he added. 

‘Can’t identify him’ 

Among those gathered at JJ Hospital to look for their loved ones was a relative of 23-year-old Azhar Gaddi, who hails from Bihar. Gaddi had come to Mumbai looking for a job, and joined ONGC’s offshore project six months ago when he could not find one. 

“This was the third time Azhar took up an offshore job. He is an electrician and this time he paid Rs 50,000 to get this job. He had a return ticket to Bihar from Mumbai dated 20 May,” said Lalsaheb Gaddi, Azhar’s younger brother, over the phone.

“We were informed about the barge’s sinking by a resident of our village who took Azhar for this job. We tried to contact the companies involved but were receiving no response. When we heard that new bodies were recovered and were being sent to JJ Hospital, we sent one of our relatives who lives in Mumbai to check,” Gaddi’s brother added. 

Gaddi has been identified as one of the fatalities of barge P-305. While the relative struggled to identify the bloated body, he said he had no reason to doubt it was Gaddi.

“Azhar is thin, but they say as water gets inside the body, it bloats. I sent the picture to his family, they too can’t identify him. But police recovered his mobile phone and Aadhaar card from his pocket, so it must be him,” he said. 

The family of 35-year-old Jomis Joseph reached out to a local public representative for help, alleging a lack of response from ONGC, the contractor or the recruitment agency.  

Jojo Thomas, a Maharashtra Congress functionary who was present at JJ Hospital Friday, said, “The family was trying to contact the firm, but was not getting any response. They then called the local MLA who asked me to check. I came here to get confirmation about his death. Joseph’s in-laws then reached Mumbai Thursday morning.” 

The Yellow Gate police station has assigned a sub-inspector and constable for every dead body to assist the family in formalities, a police officer said.

Mumbai Police posted personnel at JJ Hospital to help the families of the crew members who died when the barge sank | Faisal Tandel | ThePrint
Mumbai Police posted personnel at JJ Hospital to help the families of the crew members who died when the barge sank | Faisal Tandel | ThePrint

Also Read: What Cyclone Tauktae tells us about Arabian Sea & why the coast is seeing more severe cyclones

Mumbai Police books captain 

As water flooded the barge, a desperate employee filmed the situation onboard and sent two videos to his recruiter. 

In one of the videos, which the recruiter shared with ThePrint, employees are seen sitting in a line near the railing in life jackets, tightly clutching the anchor ropes. “The situation is very bad, sir. We are all waiting here. Please send help,” the employee is heard saying amid the roaring wind. 

In the other video, the supervisor is seen asking employees to wear life jackets and jump into the sea. 

The Yellow Gate Station of Mumbai Police Friday registered a case against the captain of the barge under IPC sections for death caused by negligence and causing grievous hurt due to negligence.  

Mumbai Police spokesperson S. Chaitanya said the case is filed on a complaint lodged by Chief Engineer Rahman Shaikh, who alleged that the captain didn’t take the India Meteorological Department’s alert seriously. 

By Thursday night, police had taken statements from 110 people, including the rescued crew members and relatives of the deceased, as part of theit investigation.

(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)

Also Read: Under fire over cyclone deaths, ONGC is running without 2 top officials, including its CMD


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