The truth behind what happened on the Pratibha Cauvery off Chennai lies more in the communications to and from the ship for the past few months than in what happened onboard in the last few hours before grounding. Meanwhile, as the ship breaks free and heads north, the bigger question arising is—was this an attempt to scuttle the ship for insurance?
The Pratibha Cauvery is owned by Pratibha Shipping Company, of Mumbai, which is said to be closely associated with a powerful political family from Maharashtra. The family owns a few other ships, also under the Indian flag, and is closely associated with certain European ship-owning and management companies. The company has a mixed bag as far as track record goes in context with issues like floating staff salary payments. However, fact remains that in these recessionary times, salary delays with even reputed shipping companies are not unknown.
What happened on the Pratibha Cauvery, however, is not easily understood or excused. Not being able to supply even the basics of food and water can not be understood. As seafarers, we are fairly loyal to our ships, and will go that extra mile, but food and water are paramount. The story gets murky here. It is not unknown for ship’s crew to sell off stores or scrap to raise cash for basics. It is not illegal either, all one has to do is to inform the company. Details available publicly state that the crew members on board had not been paid since July 2012, so spending own cash to buy provisions and water from fishermen would not have been feasible. That the ship had been literally loitering around Chennai, but not coming in to inner anchorage, for reasons unknown is another strange point. Were it was waiting for a storm just so that something like this could happen, insurance scams are not unknown, either.
What is not known publicly but is coming through various sources includes this:
# That some time in early October 2012, she suddenly departed from Chennai Outer Anchorage, giving Mumbai as destination, but re-appeared after eight days. Chennai to Mumbai transit time for this ship would have been five to seven days. There is no information on where Pratibha Cauvery went during this period.
# A sister ship, Pratibha Warna, has been under court arrest at Chennai since mid-October with about 8,000 metric tonnes of motor spirit (petrol) a/c Indian Oil Corporation, and there is no further information on this.
# That on the day preceding of the grounding off Elliot Beach, and then after she went aground also, the airwaves were full of communications from Pratibha Cauvery, and that these are available on the Voice Data Recorders of the Port Trust, Harbour Master’s Office, Coast Guard and other ships, and that there appeared to be people other than the Master/Captain in charge of these communications.
# That with no food and drinking water on board, a near mutiny or even a real mutiny situation had prevailed, with other senior officers not heeding the Master’s instructions. It is important to note here that ships now have a “management committee” of the top four officers for many aspects of operational life onboard, including food.
# That there was only about three tonnes of diesel oil left onboard. Here it is pertinent to point out that on ships of this size, three tonnes would be close to unpumpable even under the best of conditions, and totally impossible under bad weather conditions with rolling and pitching. Plus, the residual diesel would typically also have much water content, which would further make things worse.
# It is now learnt that the company had sent funds to the agents in Chennai, but due to some political differences between the owners and local politics in Chennai, the agency and the fuel suppliers simply refused to provide fuel and stores to the ship. If this is true, then a totally new NCP versus DMK kind of dynamic emerges, which eventually caused the death of seven seafarers.
# Most of all, communications between the ship and shore just before the lifeboat was launched indicate that the “Abandon Ship” instructions were not given the way they should have been done, which means by a specific command of the Master. The voice transmissions between the ship and the port indicate that somebody other than the Master was giving instructions.
Every which way, what happens when panic sets in is made worse by the fact that the command structure appears to have totally broken down, and that there was also an episode of loss of confidence in the Master, which along with continuing exhaustion combined with lack of basic food and water, brought about a situation where a mob mentality set in. Barring the Master and other senior officers onboard, nobody will understand or appreciate that a ship grounded on sand is safer than jumping into an ill-equipped lifeboat, even though land appears so close by. Why some of the people jumped into the lifeboat without life-jackets, whether the life-boats were in good shape or not, all this and more will come out in the course of an enquiry.
People behave strangely under stress, and the need of a strong leader is never more important, which simply did not happen. In addition, the noise of the storm, the shaking and vibration of a ship not under control, and the proximity of land will most certainly confuse the best of seafarers. All this will also come out in the investigation.
But what is more important is for the investigation to bring out is the following issues:
# What was such an old ship doing carrying cargo into India? This article, previously published at Moneylife, may help in understanding how the rules were flouted in the case of Pratibha Cauvery—Why are overage ships with improper documents being chartered for Indian ports?.
# What did the DG Shipping Mumbai and MMD-Chennai as well as MMD-Mumbai do about the various representations made to it about conditions onboard? Why did DGS and MMD not press for auction of vessel and cargo, as was done in the case of Satya Kamal? Even now, why not do the same with the dozens of old ships laid up on the Indian coast in similar situations?
# What is the real reason for the arrest of the sister ship Pratibha Warna, and were the rather incorrect actions by the Master of the Pratibha Cauvery on account of any instructions, fearing an arrest of the second ship too?
Any enquiry on Pratibha Cauvery episode needs to go into issues three to six months prior, and not be restricted only to the episode off Chennai. As a simple matter of due diligence, the investigating agencies need to get their hands on all correspondence from anybody with DG Shipping/MMD pertaining to this ship, and only then will we know why half a dozen Indian seafarers died so needlessly in the cruellest way possible, drowning when so close to shore.
In addition, pointing accusatory fingers at the Master/Captain of Pratibha Cauvery, without giving him an option to provide his version, is simply incorrect. At a juncture when he along with the rest of us should be grieving the unnecessary loss of six seafarer lives hardly metres from the shore, the establishment appears to be making all out efforts to try to pin the blame on the Master without going into real facts, which are sure to be documented.
We grieve the loss of these lives.
Read the first of the two-part article here: Pratibha Cauvery’s sorry plight: Who is to blame?
(Veeresh Malik had a long career in the Merchant Navy, which he left in 1983. He has qualifications in ship-broking and chartering, loves to travel, and has been in print and electronic media for over two decades. After starting and selling a couple of companies, is now back to his first love—writing.)
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