- A massive fire at the country’s biggest arms depot, Central Armament Depot in Pulgaon near Nagpur in Maharashtra killed 16 personnel, including two army officers and injured 19 others.
- The fire, which broke out around midnight in one of the sheds at the country’s biggest arms depot, spread rapidly.
- This is not the first time that Pulgaon arms depot has witnessed a tragedy like this. In 2005, there was a major fire at the arms base. Infact, in the last 16 years there have been at least 8 major ammunition depot fires in different parts of the country.
- The incident calls for not merely an inquiry, which has already been ordered by the Army, but also a thorough appraisal of the standard operating procedures for storage and inventory.
- The cause of the Pulgaon explosion is still being ascertained, but of the three plausible reasons — accident, neglect or sabotage.
- It is believed that the shed in question housed ammunition that had completed its shelf life. As the shelf life of the ammunition increases, it is more prone to accidents. such stockpile is considered to be relatively unstable.
- The Army Ordnance Corps (AOC) is responsible for providing logistics support to the Indian Army and thus constitutes the backbone that sustains the nation’s war-fighting capabilities.
History of AOC:
- The history of AOC can be traced back to the formation of the three Presidencies of the East India Company – Bengal, Madras and Bombay – in the 15th century. The formal recognition of AOC was with the establishment of ‘Board of Ordnance’ on April 8, 1775. Incidentally, the first Ordnance Depot in India was set up in Fort William, Calcutta which was built in 1773.
Functions of the AOC:
- The logistics function of AOC involves the mechanics of provisioning and procuring of all stores required to raise and maintain an efficient and effective fighting army.
- They make available all kinds of stores to all units of the army at the right time, in right quantity, at the right place and at right costs.
- It is said that an AOC man can provide everything from a soldier’s clothing to his weapons, from a needle to a tank, from a pistol bullet to strategic missiles and all munitions except fuel, fodder and medicines.
- The inventory management functions involve provisioning, procurement, receipt, accounting, storage, issue, transportation and disposal of all that are issue.
- Ammunition management basically covers the entire arc from repair and servicing of all munitions and missiles to disposal and demolition of unserviceable/dangerous ammunitions and explosives.
- Ammunition is stored in specifically designed sheds and segregated based on their explosive nature. For instance, mines and regular bombs are stored in covered sheds with requisite spacing between racks. More lethal and sensitive weapons such as missiles are stored in temperature-controlled sheds.
- Former Army Chief General V.P. Malik says that since 2000-01 major modernisation plans had been undertaken vis-à-vis storage of ammunition. “Since then 75-80 per cent of ammunition has been kept in specialised huts. Before that most of it was lying in the open,” he says.
- A senior Army officer explains that various techniques are incorporated into the design of the sheds to minimise damage in case of an accident. For instance, to store high-explosive ammunition, reinforced walls are erected on three sides while one side is kept deliberately weak. So in case of an explosion the impact will be directed to the wall which is weak, minimising damage.
- The Army has currently rolled out a modernisation programme on a trial basis at three ammunition depots to upgrade security and firefighting infrastructure.
- It entails a three-tier security and fire system.
- The first tier is perimeter security, with measures such as powerful lights, night vision devices and electrical fences.
- The second tier consists of an inner wall mounted with additional camera-lined fencing and access-controlled gates.
- The third tier is for high-security areas such as missile shelters with provisions such as sensors and Quick Reaction Teams on standby.
- The plan is to eventually extend this to all 13 Central Ordnance Depots.
- To ensure safety of people residing around the depots, a safety radius of one kilometre is anyway maintained where no construction is allowed, though with increasing pressure on land and availability of automation and better storage technology, these norms are under review.
- Numerous Parliamentary Standing Committee and Comptroller and Auditor General reports over the years have pulled up the government and the Army for shortage of critical ammunition and unusually high quantities of defective ammunition in stockpiles which threaten to severely undermine fighting capabilities in the event of a prolonged war.
- Significantly, the 2015 CAG audit pointed to serious concerns regarding fire safety, transportation and storage.
- In violation of prescribed safety standards, the Army continued to transport explosives in ordinary vehicles,
- Not enough had been done to ensure environmentally friendly and timely disposal of expired explosives, and
- The storage facilities were poor. Even today in Pulgaon there are sheds covered with tarpaulin.
- The CAG also warned that 102,805 anti-tank mines, worth Rs 47.29 crore and rejected due to manufacturing defects, were stored in the 16 ammunition depots across the country.
- The CAG in its report pointed out that the Army itself was procuring ammunition based on ‘Minimum Acceptable Risk Level’ (MARL) requirements, which averaged to WWR for 20 days of intense war. The officially sanctioned requirement is that War Wastage Reserve (WWR) equivalent to 40 days of intense war be held by the Army.
- One of the major weaknesses in our security preparedness at the various installations is the poor quality of sheds housing electronically fragile, highly sensitive ammunition like tactical and strategic missile systems, electronic fuses, warheads, etc.
- These installations possess virtually no forewarning alarms, no CCTVs, poor quality of infrastructure, dismal standards of fire-fighting, rain and weather proofing, etc. Most sheds have dry grass growing unabashedly, with scant means to keep this fire hazard under control.
- More importantly, the legal provision – promulgated for decades – of not allowing any civilian construction closer than 1000 metres of such installations, has been overlooked by many state governments and local administrations.
This tragedy must be a wake-up call, for the government and the military, to improve the safety of ammunition dumps and to accident-proof the transport of ammunition. Even the slightest lapse can have a devastating effect.