February 16, 2020
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What The Blazes?

Our ammunition is increasing. But will defence budgets allow for modern ordnance storage?

What The Blazes?

We are a poor country trying to fight a big battle," proclaims a former general. And it can’t hold truer for the great ammunition blaze that erupted last week at the Bharatpur ordnance depot in Rajasthan and another one at Dehu Road near Pune just four days later. India may have the fourth-largest standing army in the world, but as these massive blasts indicate, it may not have yet evolved a safe way to store its immense firepower. It only takes accidents of magnitudes such as these to bring home the truths that policymakers pretend don’t exist.

April 28 seemed like any other working day at the Bharatpur ordnance depot. The time was 3.30 pm, the ordnance staff were at work. So when the fire and explosion took place, it threw the entire defence establishment out of gear. By the time fire tenders got into the act and ordnance sappers and miners began the extremely hazardous and backbreaking task of locating fissile material strewn around a radius of nearly four-kilometres in nearby villages, the damage had already assumed severe proportions. Defence minister George Fernandes, calculating the losses incurred, told Parliament that in all 12,000 tonnes of ammunition estimated to cost Rs 376 crore-Rs 200 crore worth of ammunition had been lost in the entire Kargil war-in addition to an infrastructural damage of Rs 13 crore, had literally been bombed out of existence.

What went wrong? Defence analysts say that while stockpiling of arms has been rapidly on the increase, storage facilities have failed to keep up pace. And in what appears now to be a routine army-civil bureaucracy faceoff-mired in choking red tape- complaints and demands for bringing about drastic changes in the ordnance structure itself have been received with a grain of salt by the defence and finance ministry establishments. Which is nothing new, if a long chain of director-generals of ordnance services, both former and serving, are to be believed. According to them, over the years several requests for improvements have been dealt with in a routine matter-read ignored. Underlining this fact, Lt Gen (rtd) R. Sarin, a former director-general of ordnance services, says: "I remember recording my notings on the file. Several DGs before me and undoubtedly after me as well, have done the same, without much effect obviously."

It’s no doubt a case of penny wise, pound foolish. For instance, this year alone the total allocation meant for modernising ordnance depots stands at a measly Rs 200 crore. Coincidentally, a standing committee of Parliament had just recently highlighted that a decade-long delay has dogged the modernisation of at least seven principal central ordnance depots around the country. The panel took note of the fact that despite reminders over the years, indeed decades, objections first from the defence and later the finance ministries have stalled all modernisation plans under the catchall ‘have no money, cannot allocate’ excuse. The results are there for all to see.

The blast has also raised several questions over the maintenance of depots. Depots are a huge affair-the one at Bharatpur could be the size of a small town while the largest arms depot in India-at Pulgaon-is bigger in size than the average town. And most of them belong to a period long gone by. The Bharatpur depot, according to Maj Gen (RTD) K.C. Mehra, in his comprehensive book A History of the Army Ordnance Corps, was established in February 1957 but became functional by 1965, rendering yeoman service for troops in the Rajasthan sector in 1971. "Within a period of 12 days, the depot issued 9,000 tonnes of ammunition despatching four special trains. The depot basically comes under the southern command...but by virtue of its location also feeds many stations of central and western commands," writes Mehra in the book.

So, were the routine precautionary steps essential in its maintenance followed? Ordnance officers say that ammunition is stored mainly in three ways: in magazine formation, in covered warehouses and in open plinths. The open plinth storage appears to be the most common where arms stored are surrounded by traverses or huge mounds of earth that are built with a specific purpose: that in the eventuality of an explosion, the effect be vertical and not horizontal. The storage at Bharatpur was an open plinth one, but the projectiles and other arms flew in all directions, horizontally. Which begs the questions: Were the traverses in place at all? Or was there more than one explosion that took place?

Then there’s the vexed question of elephant grass whose inflammable qualities are legendary. According to army sources, the fire "emanated from dry grass outside the perimeter where a guard tried to douse the fire but it touched the first exposed ammunition dump." Army officials maintain that "the ammunition is kept in open plinths during summers and distance is maintained between shells as per acceptable norms and small arms and ammunition kept in the open". So why was the dry grass allowed to grow, literally under the armymen’s feet? Such was the speed with which the fire spread that the computerised fire alarm system caught fire even before it could raise an alarm. Officials say that once the fire spreads, there is little that can be done. Shells begin to fly, as do rockets over several kilometres, making the task of containment very difficult. Prevention is, seemingly, the only way out.

Do we then learn from experience? While the defence minister and national security advisor Brajesh Mishra ruled out sabotage even before investigations into the fire began, a high-powered court of inquiry headed by Maj Gen C.B. Suku is already under way. The point is, Suku’s recommendations will not be something that the top brass is not already familiar with. Similar accidents in the past have been probed, had their recommendations been heeded, Bharatpur wouldn’t have happened. A fire at Pulgaon, India’s largest depot, in May 1989 was similarly probed by a senior general who made certain recommendations, which included not letting elephant grass grow in the vicinity of depots, installing fire alarm systems and other related measures. A similar fire at the Jabalpur depot in 1988 raged on for three days and the depot had to be shut down due to flying splinters. The court of inquiry probing that incident held that all ammunition be stored under a covered roof. The other recommendations were similar to those proposed after the Pulgaon fire.

Army ordnance sources say that in reality close to 60 per cent of Indian army ammunition lacks proper storage and continues to lie in the open. According to Lt Gen Sarin, in Europe and the West, a lot of ammunition is stored underground, but in India due to gigantic expenses involved, coupled with periodic protests against the rising defence expenditure and regulation financial bottlenecks, the process has been given a go-by. The top army brass, however, remains alive to the issue. In the mid-’80s, for instance, a team of military experts was sent to Europe to look at British and German models. The team, led by Maj Gen D.V. Kalra, recommended among other things, a good look at the NATO models. Ammunition in NATO countries is stored in box-like structures called igloos; not a blade of grass is allowed to grow in the vicinity, fire-fighting equipment is state-of-the-art, and the shelters are both cost-effective and practical to implement.

Depots, according to Mehra’s book, require what’s called an ‘outside safety distance’ or OSD, an outer periphery which keeps it insulated from general civilian life. But generals say a rising population graph makes it a difficult proposition to maintain. How safe was the outer periphery in Bharatpur from civilian influences? Could it be possible that unwanted elements could reach as far as the depot’s outer areas? Army sources also say that contract labour from the mes was employed there and despite all the precautions like frisk, search and scrutiny of antecedents, it is difficult to prevent a lone, motivated intruder with a specific purpose from slipping in.

What happens now? According to Maj Gen I.R.K. David, a former ordnance man who was among the founder-members of the Gurgaon depot before it was moved to Bharatpur, the big challenge is to remove all the live, unused projectiles and other missiles and arms that have been blown out to 14 villages around Bharatpur. "Normally, I would say the area is unsafe for a period of at least three months," he says. It calls for hard labour and meticulousness of a high order to remove each and every single object in the vicinity. "It has to be done with hands and by officers, who in any case are not insured," David points out.

The government is already under some pressure with Parliament in session. Congress leader Madhavrao Scindia, quoting a parliamentary panel, said that the security measures and storage methods at these depots had not changed since 1761 and stressed the need to relocate these depots which were far too close to human habitations. That, however, is easier said than done. Despite the details that have emerged now, the ordnance depot scenario remains quite complex. "There are various categories. There is X which indicates small arms; Y which means inflammable; Z is explosive while ZZ is highly explosive," explains an army official. Clearly, the real challenge before the court of inquiry would be to investigate which was the stack that actually caused the fire.

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