Deaths at sea : Failure most foul

img1 A. J. Philip
24 May 2021

Mimicry as an art form is at its apogee in Kerala. Some of the top film stars like Jayaram and Dilip started their career as mimicry artistes. Until a few decades ago, no mimicry show was complete without the artiste making fun of the weather forecast broadcast by Akashvani.

Every news bulletin those days ended with a weather forecast. A typical forecast would be like this: “There are chances of heavy or scant or no rains during the next 24 hours. There are also chances of the heat wave aggravating or alleviating during the same period”.

As a result, nobody ever gave any attention to the forecast. It was treated as a joke. This was at the back of my mind when I went to the Mausam Bhavan, the headquarters of the meteorological department, on Lodhi Road in New Delhi to interview the director, who was a Malayali lady, whose name I have forgotten. This was in the early seventies.

She told me that the science of weather forecast was no longer in its infancy. Her department was able to predict weather with greater precision than was the case earlier. In view of the improvement in forecasting standards, she hoped that the mimicry artistes would stop lampooning the weathermen.

Many decades later, I visited the Ersama Block in Jagatsinghpur district in Odisha following the super cyclone of 1999. It was one of the worst-affected areas with the highest death rate. I wondered why so many people were washed away by the sea water if the weather forecast was as precise as the director had claimed to me.

I was at that time with Pratichi (India) Trust and we chose a village which had the largest number of orphan children to start a primary school where mid-day meal was also provided. I had never seen nature causing so much havoc.

The morning after tsunami hit India in 2004, I had breakfast with the science and technology minister, Kapil Sibal, at Taj Bengal in Kolkata. He told me that he did not even know the word tsunami until waves in the Indian Ocean rose as high as 40-50 feet.

Later, I visited the tsunami-hit areas in Alappuzha district in Kerala and Nagapattinam district in Tamil Nadu and learnt about the death and destruction caused by the earthquake that happened under the seabed.

In the third decade of the 21st century of the third millennium, forecasting of weather has become much more scientific. True, earthquakes, caused by tectonic shifts, are still unpredictable. Work is in progress to study how earthquakes happen. We can only hope that, sooner than later, scientists will be able to predict the area, the date and time of an earthquake.

That is not the case with cyclones. When warm, moist air over the ocean rises upward from near the surface and air from surrounding areas with higher air pressure pushes into the low pressure area causing cyclone, weathermen get hint of it, calculate the wind speed and say exactly when and where the cyclone will eventually dissipate.

We also have in place a disaster management system which can handle cyclones. It was proved useful in coastal states like Kerala, Odisha and Gujarat. Today, information is at the tip of anyone who has a mobile phone. And there are 760 million mobile phone users in India today.

It has become easier for the government to take quick action to alert people about the dangers and move them to safer places. There are also cyclone shelters built in coastal areas like Paradeep in Odisha and Velankanni in Tamil Nadu. As a result, there has been a drastic fall in the rate of deaths caused by the heavy rains combined with heavy wind, called cyclones.

Media, both print and electronic, have been flooded with reports about the cyclone named Tauktae and how it has been moving to the Western coastal states of Maharashtra and Gujarat. The reports were clear that it could cause destruction over a vast area.

The media even reported how the cyclone, one of the fiercest to hit the region, got the name Tauktae, pronounced Tau’Te. It got its name from Myanmar where the word means ‘gecko’. It is a highly vocal, nocturnal lizard in Burmese dialect. It produces an adhesive-type substance to get grip while climbing high surfaces.

By the way, there is a rotation system under which countries in the region are allowed to name cyclones. I do not know when India would get a chance to name a cyclone. Be that as it may, Tauktae would not have become what it is but for a clear human failure.

At the time of writing, nearly 100 people have died, half of them in Gujarat alone. Had the disaster management system in Gujarat been as it should have been, many of these deaths could have been averted. Anyway, it is too early to reach a conclusion, which should be left to the experts concerned.

The country needs to draw appropriate lessons from the disaster so that no life is wasted in future. There is one single tragedy which alone accounts for the death of 49 people with many still missing. Allow me a digression here.

Years ago, one of my friends from Seethathode in Pathanamthitta district in Kerala, an engineer by profession, got a job in the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC). His was a highly specialised job.

He was posted at Bombay High, an offshore platform, from where the ONGC was searching for oil. He had to work at a stretch for 14 days. Thereafter, he would get leave for 14 days. What’s more, he was given free return air tickets on the Kochi-Mumbai sector every 14 days.

High-calorie food for those posted at Bombay High was dropped by helicopter every day. His salary was also substantial by Indian standards. Of course, it was no fun living on the platform, exposed to the elements, day and night for 14 days. He had told me in detail about his life on the Bombay High.

So I have a fair idea of how life on Barge P305, off the Mumbai seacoast, would have been. It was not a small Barge as 261 persons were on board, out of whom 186 have been rescued. The Barge did not belong to the ONGC. Instead, it belonged to Afcons Infrastructure, a private company engaged by the ONGC for a specific job.

When reports of Tauktae hitting the sea off Mumbai came in advance, the Barge should have been moved to a safer area and the personnel shifted to the coast. Nothing of the kind happened. Instead, Afcons has blamed the Master of P305, Balwinder Singh, for the decision to move  the barge just 200 metres away from where it was stationed.

He reportedly took shelter in the belief that Tauktae was just a tropical storm and P305 was not on its path. Since Singh is also missing, it is easy to blame him. For the master of any barge or the captain of any ship or the pilot of any aircraft nothing matters more than the life of those on board. Why would he risk the life of so many people under his care?

Shifting P305 and evacuating such a large number of people to hotels in Mumbai would have entailed a heavy cost. The shrewd owners would have calculated the cost before taking a decision. It is unbelievable that Balwinder Singh was not in regular touch with his employers while taking the decision to stay put.

So what happened was that Tauktae hit P305 as a result of which it lost its moorings and began to float like flotsam until the wind turned the barge upside down leaving 261 persons at the mercy of the ocean.

The state of preparedness of P305 could be gauged from the statement of the chief engineer of the Barge that 14 of the 16 rafts that his men checked were unusable as they had holes in them.

Even more worrisome is the report that the information that P305 had broken free of its anchor had not reached the Mumbai-based Digital Communication Centre (DCCOM) of the Ministry of Shipping in time. This delayed by several hours the search and rescue operation launched by the Indian Navy, the Coast Guards and other agencies. The victims had to remain floating in the sea for several more hours than was necessary.

The failure can only be described as colossal. Yet, nothing has been heard from the Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan. “On May 31, 2019, Shri Pradhan began his second consecutive tenure at the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas becoming the first such incumbent in the history of independent India”.

When a train accident happened, the then Railway Minister and, later, Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, tendered his resignation from the Cabinet owning moral responsibility. In 1992, when an aircraft was lost in an accident in which no one was killed, the then minister for civil aviation, the late Madhavrao Scindia, resigned from the Cabinet.

Forget resignation, Shri Pradhan has not even spoken about the colossal failure of the ONGC. The Commission cannot escape from its responsibility claiming that the barge belonged to a private company. Allowance has to be made for the fact that it was placed there to do the work of the public sector behemoth.

The failure of the Shipping Ministry to alert organisations like the Indian Navy to start their rescue operations is also very clear. A minister of state, Shri Mansukh Mandaviya, is in charge of the ministry. Will he atone for the failure of agencies like the DCCOM under him?
It seems accountability is something which the nation cannot expect from any of the ministers who think or believe that they are answerable only to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

We as a nation claim to have attained Himalayan heights in science and technology. We are even planning to send a manned spacecraft to the outer space. It is now five years since an AN-32 aircraft of the Indian Air Force disappeared over the Bay of Bengal. It had 29 Air Force personnel on board.

The plane had taken off from Chennai and was going to Andamans. A massive Operation titled Op Talash was launched to trace the aircraft and save the IAF personnel. The operation has failed totally. It could not even locate the area where the aircraft is believed to have crashed. Otherwise, some wreckage could have been recovered.

If someone thinks that a country inimical to India took it away, he cannot be blamed. Evidence of the crash is yet to be obtained. I do not know what the Air Force has been telling the families of the 29 missing IAF personnel.

An impartial inquiry to find out the truth of why the master of the Barge took a decision to keep the vessel and the personnel in an area which was threatened to be hit by Tauktae has to be ordered at once. When the Bhopal gas tragedy occurred, the Chairman of Union Carbide, who had come to India to inquire about the tragedy, was arrested by the Madhya Pradesh police.

It is a different matter that he was released within a short time and he never came back to India to face trial. Using the same logic, action should be taken against the owners of the barge who not only did not heed the warnings given by the authorities concerned but also kept life boats that leaked like sieves.

Before any action can be taken, responsibility has to be fixed. If ministerial heads need to be sacrificed, so be it. In no case should what happened be allowed to happen again. Will Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had an aerial view of the area affected by Tauktae, end his silence and bestir himself to take remedial action? Lives have to be saved, not lost.

ajphilip@gmail.com
 

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