In an unprecedented accident, two sailors lost their lives when the navy’s missile frigate, INS Betwa, toppled over while undocking at a Mumbai dockyard on Monday. The ship, only one of the three of its kind in the navy’s fleet, was undergoing a medium refit at the dockyard run by the navy. The navy chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba, immediately visited the accident site and briefed the defence minister, Manohar Parrikar, on Tuesday. A board of inquiry under a rear admiral has been ordered to fix responsibility for the accident, while professional salvers — from foreign countries —have been called to assess the extent of damage and salvage the Rs 600 crore ship.
Even though the navy has officially not released any data on the extent of damage, nearly one-fourth of the toppled-over ship was underwater and its main mast damaged. Navy officials expect 90 per cent of equipment on the ship to be stored locally on-shore as the medium-refit would have gotten over in April 2018. But this is only a silver lining in the dark cloud of the severe embarrassment over the accident caused by the failure of the dock-blocks mechanism. No professional navy in the world has had to face the ignominy of a ship falling off while docking and Indian shipyards have done this process multiple times with much heavier ships. Navy sources refuse to blame the accident on poor infrastructure, equipment or processes. This leaves the people responsible for managing the operations, who are likely to face the wrath of the organisation once the inquiry report comes in. Accountability is an essential feature of any responsive organisation, and it becomes even more critical in the case of the military. But this exercise in accountability must not be done to find scapegoats under public pressure; it should result in meaningful change to avoid any catastrophes in the future.
The navy has gone on record that the INS Betwa, which was commissioned into service in 2004, will be salvaged and made battle-ready in the stipulated time-frame of the medium refit. The navy’s indigenous production capacity is the source of its confidence in making that bold claim, and it holds a big lesson for the other services. Among the three defence services, the navy is the only one which has made substantial progress on indigenous production of naval platforms. Other services must follow suit, and the defence ministry must provide the necessary impetus to ensure that “Make in India” in defence moves from billboards to tangible programmes on the factory floors.