THE presence of defective anti-tank mines at the Central Ammunition Depot (CAD) in Maharashtra’s Pulgaon, which caught fire in May, was first red-flagged by the Army more than six years ago. But then, a blame game that ensued between different defence agencies and the Army meant that these defective mines continued to be stored at the depot. These are the findings of a court of inquiry set up by the Army to investigate the fire on May 31 at CAD’s Shed Number 193, which stored 19,325 defective anti-tank 1A ND mines, leading to the deaths of 16 people, including two Army officers.
The court of inquiry, which submitted its report to the Defence Ministry on June 23, did not blame any specific agency for the fire but pointed to the six-year tussle over the defective mines between the Army, Ordnance Factories Board (OFB), Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), and Director General Quality Assurance (DGQA).
Sources told The Indian Express that the Defence Ministry returned the inquiry report to the Army last week without commenting on the blame game but questioning “the fire-fighting procedure” in place at the CAD.
The ministry said in a note: “The Inquiry Report is silent about the behavior of TNT (that could lead to a fire) and compliance of the fire-fighting procedure… In order to avoid accidents like the fire accident in CAD, Pulgaon on 31.05.2016 in future, these two points should have been addressed.”
A Defence Ministry spokesperson confirmed that several meetings had been held to discuss the enquiry report, but refused to comment on its contents.
Official sources at the ministry said that the destruction of defective mines at CAD Pulgaon has now begun and would be completed soon. The task of identifying defective mines at other depots is also being done by the Army, said sources.
The Army’s inquiry report, examined by The Indian Express, states that “exudation in TNT” in the mines was first noted in February 2010 and the information passed to Ordnance Factory (OF) Chanda, the manufacturer in Maharashtra. In other words, high-explosive TNT was liquefying and leaking from the plastic-cased mines six years ago.
OF Chanda responded by claiming that this exudation was due to poor storage conditions in CAD Pulgaon, the report states.
The report goes on to detail the subsequent chronology of events, which shows how the buck was passed from one agency to another:
October 2010: Controller of Quality Assurance, or CQA (Ammunition), in Khadki, said “the reasons for exudation
could be due to low set point of TNT filled in the mines”. A low set point, in this context, means that the TNT may
have started melting at temperatures lower than what it was supposed to — around 80 degrees C.
July 2011: The Defence Ministry was informed of the issue by the Army, when the defective mines were segregated at CAD Pulgaon.
February 2012: CQA (Ammunition) confirmed after chemical tests of 24 defective mines from 12 different lots that “the exudation of TNT was due to low set point of TNT, and was a serious manufacturing defect”. By then, the Army had identified 1,10,000 defective mines from 55 lots that needed to be replaced by OFB. The Army also found that there were cavities in the filling of mines, which it said was a manufacturing defect. Further tests by CQA (Ammunition) confirmed that “repair of these mines was not feasible because exudation was taking place throughout the filling”.
October 2012: OFB claimed to have identified “a compatible sealant” to repair the defective mines. Four sets of trials were conducted after the repairs, between November 2013 and November 2014, but they failed.
April 2015: All stakeholders agreed during a meeting at the Army HQ that there was no “design defect” in the mines but a “manufacturing defect”. The OFB asked for another chance to repair the mines by trying out a new welding technique with preheated electrodes. The Army gave the OFB a deadline of November 2015 to complete the repairs, failing which all defective mines were to be returned to OF Chanda.
April 2016: It was decided during a meeting at Army HQ that OFB would finalise the new repair methodology by May 10, and the 12,000 mines at OF Chanda would be repaired by August 31. Repair plans for defective mines at other locations were to be finalised by May 20.
May 31: Before any progress could be made, the defective mines stored in Pulgaon caught fire.
Sources present in several meetings held over the last three months at the Defence Ministry on the issue confirmed that each stakeholder continued to pass the buck on the accident.
Finally, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar asked the ministry in July to prepare Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) — in consultation with DRDO, OFB and DGQA — for “hand-holding” of the manufacturing agency by the designer till production stabilises. On Monday, the ministry asked the stakeholders to expedite the SOP, said sources.