A different India but an unchanged ministry of defence

 Deepka Sinha, Jaitley, Doklam, Bhutan, Defence

Hon'ble Finance and Defence Minister Jaitley addressing a press conference

Now that the Indian Army is involved in a tense face- off against the Chinese PLA on the Doklam Plateau in the Tri- Junction area, where the borders of India -Bhutan and China intersect, media focus and public attention has once again shifted to our Armed Forces, especially given the potential for escalation. As was to be expected our part- time Defence Minister has in his usual eloquent fashion responded to the Chinese jibe on the course of the 1962 Conflict by stating “If they are trying to remind us, the situation in 1962 was different, the India of today is different.”

Undeniably, Mr. Jaitley is more or less correct in what he says, proved by the robust response with which the Indian Army has reacted to the PLA’s attempt to illegally alter the status quo. In another day and age, not too far back, they would have had their way as our Government would have feigned ignorance and hoped the problem would go away. This Government’s alacrity and dynamism in countering an impending threat must be appreciated.

Notwithstanding this, Mr. Jaitley is completely wrong about one thing….despite all attempts the Ministry of Defence remains a moribund and chronically dysfunctional institution that is remained firmly wedded to mid twentieth century mores and mind sets.

Ironically, despite its’ name, the only thing that this Ministry defends is the status quo and control on the powers that it wields: authority sans responsibility or accountability. Along with their untrammelled powers the bureaucracy, including even the clerical cadre, has only unbridled contempt, verging on visceral hatred, for the uniformed servicemen. Only this can explain the manner in which the Armed Forces have been systematically disemboweled and reduced to a petty militia over the years, all in the name of civilian control in a democracy. Examples of this retrograde mindset are too numerous to enumerate, the 7th CPC recommendations that have been accepted and the treatment of veterans over OROP being the latest. It also explains the general feeling within the uniformed community that whatever our Armed Forces have achieved over the years has been done despite the existence of the MOD. Two examples of its dysfunctional mindset and lack of empathy towards Servicemen, unambiguously documented, should suffice to show the extent of the problem.

Firstly, take the case of the MiG 21 aircraft that India has been flying since 1970 and will continue to do till the middle of the next decade. Till date more than 170 IAF pilots have paid with their lives while flying this aircraft, though the numbers that have crashed are much higher. While some of these crashes have been due to pilot error, other crashes have been attributed to equipment failure, like the one being flown by Wing Commander Sanjit Singh Kalia on 4th January 2005. His aircraft caught fire immediately after take-off and he was forced to eject once he realized he would not be able to land it. He delayed his ejection to ensure that his aircraft was not headed for any population centre and as a result suffered serious spinal injury that put paid to his career as a fighter pilot.

The Court of Inquiry conducted jointly by the Air Force and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) concluded that the cause for the accident was poor workmanship and manufacturing defects on the part of HAL. It further confirmed that no part in the ill- fated mishap was attributable to pilot error. With that four and a half Crores of tax-payers money went down the drain, excluding the money spent on training the pilot and other administrative costs.

Any reasonable person would have expected the Air Force and the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to have commended the officer for his presence of mind, compensated him for his injuries and taken appropriate action against all those in HAL responsible for the defect that caused the crash. But that’s not the way the Indian bureaucracy or DPSU’s work and in May 2013, the officer was compelled to approach the Delhi High Court and sue the Government and HAL for violation of his right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution, more specifically, his right to work in a safe environment. Shamefully, the MOD and HAL attempted to defend their inaction by casting aspersions against his character, motives and professional abilities. It went so far as to allege that he had lodged the case to somehow mask his own ‘fault’ and ‘negligence’ and that injuries received while ejecting were consistent with his age, something no chair bound babu can possibly have ever experienced. However, in May of this year a two judge bench of The Delhi High Court accepted the officer’s plea of poor workmanship and manufacturing defects as cause for the crash and awarded him Rs 55 Lakhs as compensation to be paid within four weeks. It will be interesting to see the manner in which the MOD now reacts.

The second example pertains to a fire accident that occurred in the early hours of 31 May 2016 at the Army’s Central Ammunition Depot, Pulgaon, an installation located about 120 Kms from Nagpur. This 7000 acre Depot holds 75,000 tons of assorted ammunition and explosives and is probably one of the largest in the World. Given its critical importance and the overwhelming need to ensure safety, Lt. Gen Gautam Moorthy (Retd) writes in his incisive and detailed paper on the incident that “all the infrastructure at the depot is as per the specifications defined by the Storage and Transportation of Explosives Committee (STEC) published by the Centre for Fire, Explosive and Environment Safety (CFEES)” . Within minutes of smoke being noticed at Explosive Store House (ESH) 192, the Quick Reaction Team with four fire tenders were in action drenching the ESH with water. He further goes on to say “Unmindful of their personal safety, the firefighters not only inundated the shed with water, but also flooded the ground surrounding the shed as per the standard operating procedure. Alas, despite their brave efforts, the ESH blew up without any warning. Nineteen brave hearts were dismembered, perishing instantaneously, and scores others were injured, 17 seriously. The explosion caused a fire in an area of more than 800 acres….. they managed to stop the spread of the fire and finally doused the flames by 6 a.m.”

The cause of the fire, it emerged was that the ammunition stored in ESH 192 suffered from manufacturing defects and was extremely prone to accidents. Despite the hazard to life and property being pointed out to the Ordinance Factory Board (OFB) in 2010 (the year of manufacture) they had taken no action for six years to arrange for its disposal, probably because of the huge financial losses involved. There is little doubt that the OFB was clearly responsible for the loss to life and property and it is probably sheer ignorance and lack of money that the MOD and OFB have not yet been sued for criminal negligence by those injured or the next of kin of those who died. What is truly frightening is that over 25000 tons of defective ammunition and explosives continues to be held in various ammunition depots posing serious threat to those responsible for its upkeep and the community at large.

This is a clear indictment of the manner in which the MOD and the PSU’s it controls function. Clearly neither administrative nor financial accountability are a priority for those responsible. Their utter lack of empathy for the Serviceman, who suffers most due to their gross negligence, is there for all to see. The magnitude of the problem can be gauged from the written reply in 2007 by the Minister of State for Defence Production to a Lok Sabha Question that “Between 1999 and 2004, the army reported a total of 3,210 defects in OFB supplied products, of which more than 1,500 were related to weapons, ammunitions and armoured vehicles.” The situation is unlikely to be any better now. Would a private sector company survive with such a dismal record?

To expect our Armed Forces to continue to perform without providing them adequate wherewithal and support is morally reprehensible and grossly unfair. It is time Mr. Modi appointed a full time Defence Minister with the express responsibility of reforming the MOD and the DPSU’s and pulling the Military out of the dark ages. Bragging and verbal jousts are all very well, but they don’t win wars and the quicker Mr. Modi understands this, the better for all of us.

This commentary originally appeared in Times Of India.

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