When INS Talwar rammed a fishing vessel off Ratnagiri on December 23 last, the frigate was deliberately moving close to the coast in waters which had several fishing vessels. This was part of an exercise to operate in shallow waters.
A senior Navy officer said the lead Talwar-class frigate ran over the fishing boat at night. He said the boats often operated close to the shore while preparing for battle manoeuvres. “During war time, the enemy submarines would normally lie in wait near the shipping lanes, and so often the Navy vessels travel along the shallow waters for 50-100 km before entering the deep waters.”
In the fishing lanes, these heavy vessels often operate within 20-30 feet of the fishing vessels and wooden poles — which either have markers on them or are used to string the nets across. Due to this, the margin of error is minuscule. On December 23, preliminary inquiry revealed that while Captain Gopal Suri was on the bridge, the Officer of the Watch (OOW) and his assistant were adjusting the fixes (coordinates on the maps) when their ship ran over the boat.
Though the crew on the 4,000-tonne frigate rescued the fishermen and dropped them on the shore, this was not enough to escape punishment. The matter got wide media publicity.
The Navy found the incident “unacceptable” and Commanding Officer Gopal Suri was removed after the constitution of the Board of Inquiry.
Some Navy officers insist such “zero tolerance” approach is fraught with danger as it reduces delegation of authority by and increases fatigue among commanding officers. Simultaneously, it makes them averse to taking risk. A comparison is being made of the reduction in the flying hours of MiGs following a spate of accidents.
The removal of Captain Deepak Bisht, Commanding Officer of INS Betwa, a Brahmaputra-class guided missile frigate, which was found to have suffered a fracture on its sonar dome when it returned to Mumbai early this month, has also hit the force morale.
As for the damage, an officer said it took place on the seas and not at the Mumbai harbour.