A month after 86 people died during Cyclone Tauktae, when barge P-305 and tugboat Varapradha sank in the Arabian Sea, Mumbai’s Yellow Gate Police booked the owners of Varapradha for culpable homicide.

The First Information Report was filed on June 24 against Mumbai-based Glory Ship Management, which owns Varapradha, and its managing director Rajesh Shahi. The complainant, Varapradha’s second engineer Francis Simon, has alleged that the tug boat was in a poor condition and sank because Glory Ship Management did not follow the safety standards required by law for ships registered in India.

Simon is one of the two crew members of the tugboat to survive the accident on May 17. The remaining 11 crew members of Varapradha died at sea after the boat capsized.

Both Varapradha and barge P-305 had been chartered by Afcons Infrastructure Limited to facilitate maintenance work at the Mumbai High, an oil field located 176 km off the coast of Mumbai and owned by the government-run Oil and Natural Gas Corporation. P-305 is owned by Durmast Enterprises, a company registered in Seychelles but managed by Indian owners.

A high-level inquiry committee instituted by the Union government is investigating who was responsible for the vessels being stranded at sea despite advance warnings about the cyclone. Meanwhile, Simon’s FIR, of which Scroll.in has a copy, focuses on Glory Ship Management’s alleged negligence towards safety and vessel maintenance.

According to the FIR, Varapradha did not have a chief engineer officer when it was deployed at the Mumbai High oil fields in January, which is against the safe manning requirements laid down by the Director General of Shipping.

In the absence of a chief engineer, Simon claimed that he was made to take up that role. A chief engineer was allegedly briefly appointed on April 15 during a Flag State Inspection and the boat’s five-year renewal survey, but Simon claimed that he was relieved from duty after 15 days.

The FIR also claimed that Varapradha was 34 years old and its hull was in a deteriorating condition. The vessel’s weather decks, hatches (openings leading to the cargo hold) and coamings (frames around a hatch) were either corroded, rusted, thinned down or filled with holes. This compromised the tugboat’s ability to stay watertight during the cyclone, he said.

In the FIR, Simon also alleged that Varapradha’s master (captain) had informed Glory Ship Management about these problems several times, but the owners did not rectify them.

Glory Ship Management’s Managing Director Rajesh Shahi dismissed Simon’s allegations as baseless. “These are totally false statements,” Shahi told Scroll.in. “The vessel was certified by multiple government agencies such as the Indian Register of Shipping, ONGC’s safety audit, the Mercantile Marine Department and Marine warranty surveyors. After their approval, the vessel was sent to the ONGC field.”

Shahi denied receiving any communication from Simon or the master of the vessel about any of the alleged problems of corrosion and rusting. Shahi also claimed that Varapradha had a chief engineer on board when the vessel was deployed at ONGC in January. “There was a chief engineer, but he had to sign off on May 3 due to a medical requirement at his end,” said Shahi.

The incident

The death of 86 men from Varapradha and barge P-305 took place on May 17, days after the India Meteorological Department began issuing warnings about Cyclone Tauktae moving northwards along the western coast of India.

Most of the vessels working for ONGC at Mumbai High moved towards the safety of the shore in response to the cyclone warnings, but some, including accommodation barges P-305 and Gal Constructor, and tugboat Varapradha, did not move into a port.

P-305 stayed within Mumbai High, anchoring itself 200 m away from the oil rig platform. During the cyclone, the barge’s anchors broke off, the vessel hit a portion of the oil rig and eventually capsized, killing 75 out of 261 people.

Varapradha was hired to tow the barge Gal Constructor, which did not have an engine or propulsion of its own. On May 16, the tugboat towed the barge towards the Mumbai coast, and both vessels anchored around 10 kilometres away from the shore. During the cyclone, after Gal Constructor’s anchors snapped, the 137 people on board were safely rescued by the Indian Navy. Varapradha capsized after one of its anchors was stuck and the tugboat began to fill up with water. Eleven out of 13 people on board lost their lives.