Three senior officials at India’s state-owned Oil & Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) have been suspended amid the investigation into the vessels sinking at its Mumbai High field offshore India’s west coast which cost the lives of 86 personnel.

The three ONGC executive directors, which are respectively in charge of drilling, safety and exploration, according to local media, have been suspended as the Ministry of Petroleum & Natural Gas probes the fatal incidents during Cyclone Tauktee.

Afcons’ barge Papaa 305, which had 261 workers onboard when the cyclone hit, capsized and sank with the loss of 75 lives. Another 11 crew members from the tugboat Varapradha also perished when it too sank after the cyclone last month barrelled through ONGC’s Mumbai High fields.

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The high-level ministerial enquiry is studying evidence including email correspondence from an officer on the P 305 noting private weather forecaster Storm Geo was warning of a cyclone in the “west coast/Mumbai high region”. This correspondence was shared with officials at ONGC, which has key producing and exploration assets at Mumbai High, reported The Indian Express.

However, the P 305 and two other Afcons’ barges supporting a platform refurbishment programme at Mumbai High were not moved far out of the path of the deadly cyclone.

Some ONGC officers have spoken out against the suspension of their colleagues given the government’s official enquiry has yet to reach any conclusions.

The Association of Scientific & Technical Officers (ASTO), which has around 20,000 ONGC officers and engineers as members, called for the disciplinary action against the three ONGC officials to be dropped.

In a strongly worded letter to the oil company’s chairman and managing director, ASTO wrote: “The fact is that there were 22 barges working for ONGC… 19 of them adhered to the ONGC weather advisory but the three barges belonging to Afcons did not.

“It is not a coincidence that all three barges belong to Afcons because this company time and again has violated safety and human rights norms and has scant respect for ONGC’s safe practices…”

Unsubstantiated allegations

Regarding the allegations, an Afcons spokesperson said: “The letter makes several unsubstantiated and factually incorrect allegations against Afcons, all of which are belied by the voluminous documentary evidence on record that Afcons has already submitted to the high-powered committee that is investigating this incident.

“The letter is replete with misinformed allegations, including that the barges chartered by Afcons did not leave the operational area in time. It is well known and documented that all barges charted by Afcons were instructed to demobilise from the work area and did so by 14-15 May, well before the onset of the full fury of Cyclone Tauktae,” reported The Indian Express.

The P 305 was slammed by winds of up to 180 kilometres an hour and waves between six and eight metres high, which saw the barge lose all its anchors. The vessel drifted from location and then hit one of ONGC's unmanned platforms, resulting in water ingress, before the P 305 capsized and subsequently sank.

Exemplary courage

"During this fight against ferocity of nature, employees on board displayed exemplary courage and continued their efforts to steer barges and [the] rig to safety with beaten down functionality," ONGC earlier said.

The known survivors from the ill-fated P 305 included engineers, riggers, welders and firemen employed by contractors Afcons, Fugro, Sinai Maritime, IRS, Papaa Shipping and Matthews; and a medic from Iindoworld.

All the 101 personnel on board ONGC’s drillship Sagar Bhushan and the 339 workers from Afcons’ chartered barges Support Station-3 and GAL Constructor were safely rescued after Cyclone Tauktae hit.