While the ministry of petroleum and natural gas is now readying for a new ONGC chief, the fire lit by the unceremonious departure of Subir Raha refuses to die down. For one, due procedure was given the go by while refusing him an extension. Since a PSU chief could have serious differences with his ministry, it was made mandatory by Rajiv Gandhi that whenever an extension/non-extension of any board-level officer came up, there had to be a joint appraisal by the Public Enterprises Selection Board (PESB) and the ministry—which is why the Cabinet Secretary was in favour of a 3-month extension for Raha while this appraisal could be done, but was overruled.
The other issue relating to Raha that is flaring up is ONGC readying its reply to the TNR Rao report on the Bombay High fire on July 27 last year. The report severely castigates ONGC and is believed to be the major reason behind Raha’s departure. In at least three places, the same line is repeated—”except for a single page declaration of safety policy from the current CMD, (there is no evidence) of more senior management personnel getting involved in safety meetings.”
At around 2 in the afternoon the same day, an assistant cook on a Multi Support Vessel Samudra Suraksha cut the top digit of his middle finger and the captain of the MSV wanted to transfer him to the MHN offshore platform, fearing he could get gangrene on the vessel. The Suraksha was transferring the cook to MHN, hit it, and that caused the platform to catch fire and the ship to go down.
Three issues arise. Was the MHN chief responsible or was the master of the Suraksha, which was operated by the Shipping Corporation of India; two, once the accident took place, did the MHN have enough safety systems to contain the fire; three, was ONGC’s response time after this adequate?
While ONGC’s internal committee, headed by former ONGC chief SK Manglik, said the problem lay primarily with the Suraksha’s master, who made a judgemental error, Rao’s report cites several instances to support this, but finally concludes the MHN is equally to blame. It says, for instance, that the master refused to transfer the cook to a drilling rig because the rig offered to let the ship approach only from the weather side (the weather was rough) but when the MHN made the same offer, he readily agreed; the Suraksha had what is called Dynamic Positioning (DP), which allowed it to maintain its position within 2 metres under weather worse than on that day and yet the captain chose to do the transfer in manual mode without the DP; the report also says “it is indeed a strong possibility that wrong thruster combination was used at critical time” when it was realised the Suraksha was about to collide. The report also quotes the Suraksha’s chief engineer as saying that when it was pointed out that the ship’s thrusters were sluggish (this is what ensures the dynamic positioning), he told the captain that he needed to change the filter/valve, but the captain said it could be done after the transfer.
Rao then strangely dismisses all this by saying the MHN chief was “under the impression that the Master of the vessel was fully responsible”. In its defence, ONGC cites universally accepted guidelines of the UK Offshore Operators Association, which state that the final decision on whether to position a vessel on the weather side is that of the Master, and that no one can force him to be there.
Once the Suraksha collided, and the fire spread, did the platform have enough safety features to contain the fire? Rao says no, and says that since the fire lasted for so long, the valves on the unmanned platforms connected to the MHN must not have closed and this allowed fresh oil/gas to feed the fire. ONGC officials argue this is not possible since, once the gas supply to the oilfield got cut off, no fresh oil/gas would have flowed whether the valves closed or not since it was the gas injection that made the oil flow from the well. The fact also remains that the MHN and its associated unmanned platforms had got an OHSAS 18001 certification (the one that deals with safety) in March from the IRQS, a certifying agency which is a subsidiary of the Indian Register of Shipping.
Rao’s report, however, cites various instances of what it claims is shoddy work by the IRQS and concludes “the work of certification appears superficial to the point of being of little use. (The) Government may consider further probe by empowered agencies to rule out any possibility of collusive action between this certifying agency and its client(s).”
Given the enormity of the statement, and that the agency’s client list includes organisations like Tisco, Mazagaon Dock, Naval Dockyard, and so on, the ministry needs to lay this issue to rest, one way or the other. For, if this is true, apart from what it says about the IRQS’ certificates to other major installations, it would suggest many of ONGC’s certifications, even from international QC firms like DNV and TUV, are suspect—of the 11 offshore platform complexes ONGC has, seven have safety certifications from the IRQS! The statement is too serious to be passed unchallenged.
As for the response time and whether ONGC had established protocols to deal with such emergencies, Rao says “no central command (between ONGC and the Navy) was set up till about two and a half hours after the incident”. Manglik’s report compliments ONGC on setting up “on scene” control rooms almost immediately and a base emergency control room within 90 minutes despite the heavy rains and floods that closed down Mumbai that day! Indeed, ONGC’s first (of a total of 16) rescue vessel was on site within 19 minutes, and of the 384 persons on board the MHN and Suraksha, 362 were rescued while 11 died and another 11 were missing. Of course, there were problems in ONGC and the Navy’s coordination as Rao’s report brings out, but surely something must have been working?