Questions raised about weather forecasting company ONGC hired.
New Delhi: A Parliamentary Panel on Petroleum and Natural Gas examining the mishap that took place in 2021 during Cyclone Tautkae off the Mumbai coast, sinking Barge P-305 and killing 86 of the 261 people on board, has raised serious questions about ONGC’s (Oil and Natural Gas Corporation’s) decision to engage a private weather forecasting company, ditching the Indian national weather prediction services, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD).
During the Parliamentary Panel’s examination of the incident, it has come to light that the private company, M/S Skymet weather services engaged by ONGC could not accurately predict the path, wind speed and the wave height in a timely manner and that ONGC had been relying only on the prediction of Skymet while overlooking the three hourly bulletins that were being issued by IMD during the same time.
In its submission before the Parliamentary Panel, a representative from IMD had told the Panel that they had been issuing bulletins from 11 May 2021 regarding the cyclone and its wind speed but the ONGC was getting its information from somewhere else, which was not correct.
“ONGC was not using our information directly and they were using information that we were putting on our website. They were not getting the location specific information from us. We had predicted a wind speed of 130-140 km/hr and that is exactly what the wind speed was when it hit the ONGC offshore area,” the IMD representative said before the panel.
According to the IMD, any wind speed above 60 km/hr is not favourable for ships. This brings to the pertinent point that had ONGC been using the services of the state-owned weather forecasting agency, the IMD, this mishap could have been averted. The Parliamentary panel has taken strong objection to the fact that ONGC had hired a private agency to predict weather, and had disengaged the services of the state-owned IMD.
In its observation, the Panel said, “The Committee members are not convinced about the arguments put forth by ONGC in engaging Skymet for its weather forecasting system and field specific locations forecast or bulletins and are unclear for the reasons behind ONGC’s decision to go for global tendering process to select the service provider which eliminated IMD from participation being a government agency. The Committee also been informed that globally, national agencies have a major role in weather forecasting as it has larger impact on the population of the country.”
“It is very unfortunate that while IMD has claimed that its forecast about Cyclone Tautkae was very much as per the path of cyclone whereas ONGC had claimed that the final direction and wind speeds/wave heights experienced advisories received by from M/s Skymet were not as per the prediction. The Committee concludes that the decision of ONGC to engage a private company for weather prediction since 2010 was a poor decision and recommends that the Ministry should inquire into the reasons behind selecting Skymet for its weather forecasting services,” the Committee further said.
ONGC had engaged Skymet, an Indian private weather forecasting services, for offshore weather forecasting services, since 2016 and had renewed the contract with the same company in 2019 with a total bid value of Rs 8,434,404. Before engaging Skymet, ONGC was using the services of Dubai-based weather predicting company Geostorm between 2013 to 2016.
The Sunday Guardian reached out to Skymet Weather services requesting for a response, however, did not receive any response till the time of going to the press. Skymet, founded in 2004, is owned by Jatin Singh, who is also one of the directors of the company. The company is registered in Delhi, with its registration number as (CIN) U74140DL2004PTC126574 and its registered address as 109 Kusal Bazar 32-33 Nehru Place, New Delhi–110019.
Skymet brought in Erik Jacques Pierre Levy and Thibaud Ponchon as Nominee Directors in 2017 after it raised series C funding in 2017. Thibaud Ponchon is also an equity fund investor with Blue Orchid from where Skymet had raised their funding in 2017. Interestingly Ponchon is also the non-executive director of Pakistan-based Asia Insurance Company Ltd.
WHAT PARLIAMENTARY PANEL SAID
A Parliamentary Panel on Petroleum and Natural gases has held the public sector undertaking ONGC (Oil and Natural Gas Company) responsible for the failure to prepare and manage Cyclone Tauktae that hit the Arabian sea coast in May last year and killed at least 86 persons on board a barge anchored at the ONGC exploration site off the Mumbai coast.
In its observation submitted to the Parliament in April this year, the Parliamentary Panel noted, “The Committee is not convinced with the reply of the ONGC and its failure to manage and its preparedness to face Cyclone Tauktae and its aftermath. The Committee notes that ONGC had information about the cyclone as early as 12th of May and the actual cyclone had hit on 16th night or 17th morning. The Committee is of the opinion that having been present in the western offshore for last several decades, ONGC had the experience of handling several cyclones in the past and the argument that cyclone has changed its direction does not hold much ground as ONGC should have factored that change of direction in the path of cyclone and should have prepared a contingency plan to handle it. This clearly exposes the serious lack of systems, processes and response management system of ONGC.”
The Committee in its further observation held ONGC guilty for none of their senior officials taking charge of the situation and guiding the teams at the Western offshore. “The Committee views this seriously as accountability goes on with authority and would like to recommend to the Ministry (Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas) that it should conduct thorough investigation about the responsibility of ONGC officials at various levels in this incident and take strict action against all those who are found negligent of duty,” the Committee recommended.
On the fateful night of 16 and 17 May 2021 a severe cyclone Tauktae had hit the western coast, including the offshore oil exploration site in Mumbai where a Barge P-305, engaged by an infrastructure company, Afcons, stationed on behalf of ONGC, sank as it was not towed to a safe location despite repeated warnings provided by the weather department, ultimately killing 86 of the 261 people on board.
During the enquiry by a High-Level Committee constituted by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas to investigate the reasons for the mishap, it was brought to notice that none of the 36 life rafts provided on the barge P-305 could be used, either due to the manufacturing quality or with respect to the age or the servicing of life rafts or both these aspects together. The high-level committee also found that no immersion suits were provided on the barge, which could have saved many lives.
The Parliamentary committee said, “The lifesaving safety equipment could have avoided such a large number of victims in cyclone Tauktae. Even though the larger responsibility for ensuring such compliance lies with the LSTK contractor, (in this case Afcons), ONGC which had engaged third party inspection agency for carrying out such activities cannot absolve completely.”
The Committee has also recommended the Ministry of Shipping and ONGC to take strict action against third-party inspection and certification agencies who certified the life-rafts of the barge P-305.
The Sunday Guardian contacted Afcons Infrastructure which had engaged Barge P-305 at the site, for a response to this report. Afcons in its written reply to The Sunday Guardian said that they were not in possession of the Parliamentary Panel’s report yet and that any comment on the said report would lead to the company reacting on speculation.
However, a company spokesperson further told this newspaper, “We have also not received any intimation from the authorities on this matter. We have documentary evidence that was presented to a High-Level Committee and various investigating authorities that establish the fact that Afcons had asked all its barges to leave their respective locations and return to Mumbai anchorage well before time. The barge master is the final authority to take calls on vessel and personnel safety.”
Similar findings were also reported to the Parliamentary Committee by ONGC that the barge master who heads a barge was responsible for not taking the decision to move the barge to the Mumbai anchorage. ONGC further informed the Parliamentary panel that “It is pertinent to mention that the decision to position the vessel keeping in view the safety of ship and personnel on board lies with the Barge Master as per Clause 3.5.4 and 11.2 of ONGC’s Marine Operations Manual and also as per Regulation 34—1 of Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) international convention based on IMO (International Maritime Organization) guidelines.”
In a report published in The Sunday Guardian following the incident on 22 May 2021, titled “Companies blame ‘missing’ captain for barge mishap”, many of the fellow seafarers had even then expressed concern on how the ONGC and the High-Level Committee would pass the blame on the barge master who died in the incident.
A technician working for ONGC at Bombay High had then told this newspaper, “Big companies are involved in this mishap whose reach extends to officials in the petroleum and shipping ministry. In a week or two, everything will be forgotten. They are trying to pin the blame on one individual so that their own mistakes don’t come out in the open.”
The Parliamentary Committee during its deliberation also found that out of the 261 persons stranded in the high seas, at least 80 did not have a genuine “Survival Training Certificate”. However, Afcons informed this newspaper that the company has made ex-gratia payment over and above insurance payout to Afcons employees and its subcontractors. “All survivors of P-305 have been paid an amount of Rs 1 lakh each by Afcons. 79% (52 families out of 66) have already received ex-gratia payments as announced. A total corpus of Rs 12 crore has been disbursed so far. Sadly, disputes over legal beneficiary have delayed payouts in balance cases. We are mediating to assist the families to resolve differences and disputes and speed up the payouts. A scheme for education assistance up to graduation level has been announced. 77 children of various age groups have benefitted from the programme,” Afcons told The Sunday Guardian.
The Committee was also unhappy to note that the Safety Council of the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas that meets once every year did not extensively deliberate on the mishap of Barge P-305. “The Committee views this as an unacceptable approach and would recommend that the Safety Council may be revamped and broad based by including more outside industry experts, academia, etc. and take steps to improve the levels of safety preparedness of the Petroleum Sector,” the committee noted.
The Sunday Guardian also reached out to ONGC to seek a response on the observations made by the Parliamentary panel; however, did not receive any response from ONGC till the time of going to press. The Parliamentary panel was headed by BJP MP from Delhi, Ramesh Bidhuri, and has 20 members from the Lok Sabha and 10 members from the Rajya Sabha.