“Hello sir, I am calling from Kanpur.”
It was early July, and Baburam Pal from Kanpur’s Khamela village had phoned me for the fourth time that week. He knew, of course, that I am a woman – but like many other rural men I have interviewed, he called me “sir” anyway, and I did not have the heart to correct him.
He was, after all, a grieving father desperate for a glimpse of his son’s body, for some proof that his boy had in fact died in the horrific “ONGC tragedy” in May that had already faded from news headlines.
Somehow, in the months after the incident, I had become Pal’s only reliable source of information, support and hope. Somehow, he was depending on a journalist in faraway Mumbai to help him fulfil his only wish: to give his only child a proper funeral.
A preventable tragedy
Pal’s son, 27-year-old Vijay Kumar, was one of the 86 men killed during Cyclone Tauktae on May 17, when two vessels deployed in the oil fields of the Oil and Natural Gas Company capsized and sank off the coast of Mumbai. One of the vessels was Papaa-305, a barge carrying 261 people, of whom 75 lost their lives. The other was MV Varapradha, a tugboat with 13 seafarers on board, 11 of whom died. Vijay Kumar was among them.
The vessels had been hired by Afcons Infrastructure, a company contracted by ONGC to carry out maintenance work on its oil drilling platforms. Both companies claimed – misleadingly – that when the Indian Meteorological Department first issued cyclone warnings on May 13, they asked all their vessels in the oil fields to stop work and return to shore.
But six of the vessels did not get to safe harbour on time, leaving more than 700 people stranded in the path of Cyclone Tauktae. The majority of them were fortunately rescued by the Navy’s warships between May 16 and 18. But Papaa-305 and Varapradha capsized, and many survivors spent up to 14 hours in choppy waters, waiting for rescue while watching their friends and colleagues drown.
This was India’s deadliest offshore disaster. And it was entirely preventable, I found after I spent six weeks interviewing survivors, victims’ families, and various maritime experts for an investigative report.
In the process, I also came to know that 12 of the bodies fished out from the sea still lay unidentified in the morgue, bloated beyond recognition. Attempts by the Mumbai police to match their DNA samples with possible relatives had not been successful.
For the families of these 12 “missing” persons, there was no sense of closure. Among the family members I interviewed, Baburam Pal’s helplessness was the most heart-wrenching.
Pal was a simple farm labourer from Uttar Pradesh, with no education and no savings. He had worked hard to put his only son through school and college, and was baffled when Vijay Kumar moved to Kolkata in 2013 for a six-month course for maritime crew.
“I don’t know how he came to know about this course,” Pal told me in one of our conversations. “But he told us it would help him get a good job.”
That job came at a steep cost: the agent who got Vijay a job with a shipping company in Mumbai charged Rs 3.5 lakh, and Pal had to take loans from relatives and sell all his wife’s jewellery to pay for it. Vijay set off to sea after that, and over seven years, he was promoted from “ordinary seaman” to “able seaman” – both junior-level positions for a seafarer.
Pal did not know any of these terms. All he knew was that his son’s pay began at Rs 5,000 per month and rose to Rs 19,000 over seven years – enough to gradually pay off the family’s debts.
Pal had never been to a big city or seen the sea until May 20, when he was called to Mumbai to pick out his son from row upon row of disfigured corpses. Intimidated by the metropolis and the hotel that ONGC had booked for victims’ families, Pal chose to stay in a slum with a man from his own village who sells fruit in Mumbai.
For 17 days, Pal stayed on in Mumbai, running between the police station, the morgue and the forensic lab where his DNA sample was taken for matching. But unlike some victims’ relatives who were wealthier and more educated, Pal never received the report of his DNA test.
When I first spoke to him over the phone on June 19, he had returned to Kanpur to care for his ailing wife Bhuri, who had not stopped crying from the moment she heard about her son’s death. “How long could I keep staying in Mumbai?” Pal had told me.
He was in agony over the lack of communication from Vijay’s company, Mumbai-based Glory Ship Management, which owns the tugboat Varapradha. “If my DNA has not matched with any of the bodies they have, why can’t they clearly tell me? Maybe my Vijay is still missing,” he said.
I told Pal that it was the officials at the Yellow Gate Police Station who were in charge of DNA testing and matching, and promised to find out about the status of his report from the police.
From then on, I became the central point of communication for Pal, trying my best to coordinate between him, the police, Glory Ship Management and ONGC.
When I contacted the deputy commissioner of police in charge of the ONGC accident case, he confirmed that Pal’s DNA did not match any of the unidentified bodies, but he had no explanation for why this had never been communicated to Pal.
The DCP also claimed that the police were in the midst of a second round of DNA matching: in cases where one blood relative’s DNA did not match with any of the bodies, they had taken DNA samples from a second blood relative to try their luck.
Pal was stumped when I relayed this to him. He had never been contacted about this second round of testing. Vijay’s mother was the obvious choice for it, so why hadn’t anyone asked to take her DNA samples? “It’s been a month!” Bhuri bawled on the phone. “My son has been gone for a month and we still haven’t done his antim sanskar.”
On the phone with ONGC and Glory Ship, company spokespersons claimed that they would gladly organise Bhuri’s travel to Mumbai if the police said her DNA was needed. The police, in turn, claimed they would be willing to travel to Kanpur too, if testing her was necessary. But the request for her DNA, the DCP said, had to come from experts at the forensic laboratory.
That “request” was not forthcoming, and in late June, I began to make regular phone calls to the DCP to push for Bhuri’s DNA sampling. In one conversation, the DCP asked me why I was serving as the intermediary on behalf of Pal. “You can just ask him to call me directly,” he said, in his usual courteous tone.
I had been talking to the DCP on his mobile number, and I confirmed if I could indeed share his number with Pal. “Yes, yes, just ask him to call me,” he said. For the first time, I was hopeful.
Later that night, Pal called. He was crying so profusely, I could barely understand him. “Sir, the police sahab got angry with me!” he said. “When I called him and told him who I am, he didn’t even listen. He shouted at me for calling on his mobile and then he cut the phone! What did I do wrong?”
Stunned and enraged, I struggled to find the words to console Pal. How callous and classist could people be? It was a rhetorical question in my mind, but over the next few weeks, I got an answer anyway.
From ‘sir’ to ‘didi’
In mid-July, after several more phone calls, Bhuri Pal was finally called for DNA sampling, and ONGC and Glory Ship agreed to fly three members of the family to Mumbai: Bhuri, Pal, and their young nephew. Pal had insisted on coming in a group of three because Bhuri’s emotional state was precarious, and he wanted to make sure she was never alone in the city even for a minute.
Pal is not sure which of the two companies paid for their flights, hotel stay and food in Mumbai, but I knew that neither of them had been gracious about the expenses.
In one of my phone calls with ONGC, for instance, an employee had boasted about how the company had given out monetary compensation to everyone affected by the accident “even though Afcons was responsible” for it. In another call, an employee from Glory Ship complained about the lakhs of rupees that they had “already spent” on logistics for victims’ families.
On the night of July 12, I finally met Pal and Bhuri in person, at the Mumbai hotel where they were put up for three days. There, for the first time, Pal stopped addressing me as “sir”. He began using “didi” instead. This time, I protested – he was much older than me, I said – but it made no difference. The class gap between us could not simply be wished away, no matter how uncomfortable I felt about my privilege.
The meeting was emotional for all of us. We spoke about Vijay, his dreams of joining the army and the injustice of his death, and I tried my best to console Bhuri as she broke down. As they thanked me repeatedly for helping them, I was overcome with the fear that all of this might amount to nothing.
I wish I could say that my fears were unfounded.
But just as before, no one bothered to inform the Pals about the results of Bhuri’s DNA test. When I called the DCP in early August, he claimed there were now 10 unidentified bodies remaining, but none of them matched Bhuri’s DNA. The police would “keep trying” to identify the bodies, he said, until the state government directs them to close the case and declare the missing persons dead. But the DCP had no idea how long that could take.
Now, more than seven months since Vijay’s death, there are still no answers. The DCP I was in touch with has been transferred out of Mumbai, and has no recent updates to offer. The officer who replaced him has not been available for a conversation.
In Kanpur’s Khamela village, the only thing that has changed for the Pals is their financial situation: Glory Ship Management has paid them Rs 9 lakh as their son’s insurance. “But no one is telling us anything about our son’s body, didi,” Pal told me in our latest conversation two weeks ago. “Nothing has changed.”
He handed the phone to Bhuri, whose voice was hoarse with months of crying. “Without seeing his body, without doing his last rites, hamein tasalli nahi ho rahi hai – we don’t feel at peace,” she said. As I offered feeble words of assurance, she cut me off. “He doesn’t even come in my dreams to talk to me. How can I be at peace?”