On the morning of May 19, Baburam Kumar received the most haunting phone call of his life. It was his son’s employer, Mumbai-based Glory Ship Management, calling to say that its tugboat Varapradha had sunk in the Arabian Sea during Cyclone Tauktae.

Baburam’s 27-year-old son Vijay Kumar was one of the 13 seafarers on board. Eleven had died. He was one of them, they were told.

Distraught, Baburam took the first train out of his village in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, and reached Mumbai on May 20, where he was rushed to JJ Hospital to identify his son. “They must have shown me dozens of bodies, but I could not identify any of them,” said Baburam, 56, a farm labourer from Kanpur district’s Khamela village.

Most of the bodies he saw were of men who were on board Barge P-305, one of several vessels working on contract for the government-run Oil and Natural Gas Corporation at Bombay High, an oilfield located 176 km off the coast of Mumbai. Tugboat Varapradha was assigned to tow another vessel called Gal Contractor.

After the first warnings about Cyclone Tauktae were announced on May 11, most of these vessels moved to the safety of the shore. But P-305 and Varapradha were among five vessels that remained stranded at sea as the cyclone raged past Mumbai on May 17. Both vessels capsized, killing 86 men in all: 75 out of the 261 people on board P-305, and 11 out of 13 people on Varapradha.

Most of the dead were fished out from the sea by the Indian Navy and Coast Guard, while some bodies washed up on coasts of Maharashtra and Gujarat days later. After bloating in salty sea water, many of the bodies were beyond recognition, forcing the Mumbai Police to take DNA samples from victims’ relatives to find matches.

“They took my DNA sample on May 21, and told me I would get the report within 72 hours,” said Baburam Kumar.

But the DNA report has still not come.

In fact, more than a month after the death of 86 people at the ONGC site, 12 bodies remain unidentified and the process of DNA-matching is not yet complete.

For the victims’ loved ones, this delay is incomprehensible and agonising.

“Why are they taking so long? It has been a month and I have not even been able to do my son’s antim sanskar,” said Baburam Kumar, referring to funeral rites. “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.”

Vijay Kumar was among the 13 seafarers aboard tugboat Varapradha. Photo: Prashant Kumar

‘Process is still going on’

Both ONGC and the Mumbai Police maintain there are no missing persons from the May 17 incident – between survivors and the bodies found, everyone on board P-305 and Varapradha had been accounted for.

“We currently have nine unidentified bodies in Mumbai and three in Valsad in Gujarat,” said Ganesh Shinde, the deputy commissioner of police of Mumbai’s port zone. “There are no missing bodies. If any relative’s DNA has not matched with a body so far, some match will emerge eventually.”

Shinde described DNA testing and matching as a “technical process” that “takes time”. His team had coordinated two rounds of testing so far. In the first round right after the incident, DNA samples were collected from one close relative of each of the unidentified bodies – either a parent, sibling or child.

“Most of the bodies were identified after samples matched in the first round,” said Shinde. “Then we conducted a second round around one week later, where we took samples from a different relative of each person who had not been identified.”

As recently as a week ago, says Shinde, three bodies in Mumbai were successfully matched and identified based on DNA samples taken during the second round. “The process is still going on,” he said. “We are working very hard.”

Mother’s DNA

In Kanpur, however, Baburam Kumar claims he had no idea about any second round of DNA sampling.

“I stayed in Mumbai for 17 days and went daily to the hospital, but got no information,” said Baburam. “I finally returned to Kanpur because my wife had been crying continuously and needed my support.”

When asked why a DNA sample had not been sought from Baburam’s wife (Vijay Kumar’s mother), ONGC spokesperson Harish Awal claimed that was a question for medical professionals to answer. “Our role is to provide logistical support and other support to the families, so if the doctors tell us that his mother’s DNA sample is required, we will arrange for her travel from Kanpur to Mumbai,” said Awal.

Ganesh Shinde, the deputy commissioner of police, claimed that the police, too, would facilitate DNA testing for any relative if required. “In this case, we can go and collect a sample in Kanpur itself, it is not a big deal for us,” he said. But Shinde, too, said he could not answer questions about why, in the case of Vijay Kumar, his mother’s DNA sample has not been requested. “I am not a technical or medical expert.”

Officials at Mumbai’s Directorate of Forensic Science Laboratories, where DNA samples of the ONGC tragedy victims are being matched, were not available for comment.

At JJ Hospital’s postmortem centre, which collected DNA samples from victims’ bodies and sent them to the forensics laboratory, a doctor claimed two rounds of DNA testing are not even necessary.

“DNA from any one blood relative, like a parent or a sibling or a child, is enough to determine whether there is a match or not,” said Dr Digambar Biradar, a doctor from JJ’s postmortem centre.

A diamond ring

The Jain family from Bhopal has provided DNA samples during both rounds of testing. Both times, they have been unlucky. The body of Saurav Jain, a 39-year-old mechanical engineer on board Barge P-305, is yet to be identified.

Saurav was an employee of Certification Engineers International Limited, contracted by ONGC to certify and conduct safety audits of the oil field facilities, among other things. He is survived by his parents, brother, wife and a seven-year-old daughter.

“First they took my older son’s DNA sample, and then they took mine,” said Asha Jain, Saurav’s mother. “But our samples have not matched with any of the bodies so far.”

In the past month, Asha Jain has seen all the unidentified bodies lying in Mumbai and Gujarat, and is confident that Saurav is not among any of them. “My son had a diamond ring on his left hand that he had been wearing for 20 years. It had always been tight, so it could not have come off his finger,” She said. “The bodies I saw have other kinds of rings on them, but not the diamond ring Saurav was wearing.”

This experience has convinced Asha Jain and her family that Saurav’s body is still missing at sea, despite ONGC’s claim that all bodies have been found.

“ONGC and the Coast Guard have stopped the search for bodies, but we are just praying that he is found,” said Asha Jain, her voice choking with tears.

“Saurav was the laadla (darling) of the family and he loved his wife and daughter so much,” she added. Then, echoing Baburam Kumar’s desperate words, she said, “We just want to be able to do his antim sanskar.”

Saurav Jain. Photo: Facebook/Saurav Jain