NHRC takes suo motu cognizance of barge tragedy, raises concerns on rights of seafarers

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Representative Image
Representative Image

New Delhi [India], May 23 (ANI): The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on Sunday took suo motu cognizance of a news article, published on May 22, raising serious concerns on the rights of various seafarers in India after the cyclone Tauktae caused barge P305 to sink in the Arabian Sea.

According to an official press release, the issue of seafarers rights resurfaced in the wake of the reported worst offshore disaster in the country leading to the death of 49 workers when their barge, P-305, sank in the Arabian sea on May 17 even as searches were on for others. Allegedly, the loss of precious lives could have been avoided, if all the involved agencies had followed standard safety regulations and protocols, both before and during the build-up of the cyclone.

"The Commission has observed that it appears that the Director-General, Shipping, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) authorities and the Coast Guard were aware that in the wake of cyclone Tauktae, there was a potential danger to the lives of the workers on-board a dumb Barge but it seems that no effective steps were taken to bring the victims to safer places and they were left helpless. This is a serious case of violation of Right to Life of the victims," stated the release.

Accordingly, NHRC issued notices to the (i) the Secretary, Union Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, (ii) the Chairman, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (iii) the Director-General, Indian Coast Guard and (iv) Director General of Shipping, Mumbai calling for a detailed report in the matter within six weeks.

The reports must include accurate data regarding persons on-board at the time of the incident, steps taken after receiving an alert regarding the cyclone, persons missing, persons rescued till date with their health status as well as the status of the rescue operation as on date.

The Commission would also like to know about the status of the inquiry, reportedly ordered in the matter, the action taken against the responsible public servants and the relief granted to the next of kin of the deceased and to the injured workers.

The Commission is of the opinion that the safety of every seafarer must be valued and the institutional distortions and procedural dissonances, if any, and as mentioned in the news article, must be set right to avoid such tragedies in future.

According to the analytical write up by C Uday Bhaskar, a Security Expert, who has also served with the Indian Navy, a total of 261 workers, who were on an assignment with ONGC, were reportedly on board the Barge (also referred to as Papa-305) when the incident occurred. A total 49 victims are feared killed while 186 of those on the ill-fated Barge have been rescued by the Navy in very adverse weather conditions. It is also stated that many workers are yet to be accounted for and a massive rescue operation is underway.

Allegedly, the Contract Workers are always put at the lower end of the ladder and very few safety norms and regulations are put in place. The Writer has categorically mentioned that the ONGC and its major contractors are well aware of this grim ground reality. The vast number of seafarers especially, the Contract Workers who have little or no voice as a collective must not be taken for granted.

The Accommodation Work Barges (AWB) are reportedly the equivalent of rudimentary dormitories at sea for contract workers and their living conditions are spartan in a flat-bottom, floating structures called barge with cramped built-up accommodation. When these have no self-propulsion, these are deemed to be "dumb" as was the case with the ill-fated barge.

It is stated that given the high operational costs in maintaining a workforce on an oil rig or platform at sea, cost-cutting and penny-pinching is endemic to the off-shore hydrocarbon sector and this particular installation is also not an exception in this regard.

"The Writer has raised a crucial issue stating that India has an anomalous Maritime Sector Management pattern, wherein domain competence is ignored and the Civil Servants are preferred for the top job. The DG Shipping is reportedly a position often tenanted by a Civil Servant with little or no maritime experience or knowledge. Demanding he goes on asking why a dumb Barge, with 261 people on board, was allowed to remain at sea even though the cyclone warning was received a week prior to its sinking?" said the release. (ANI)

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