The issue of accountability and product liability in defence production and the resultant consequences impacting the defence preparedness and morale need to be viewed in larger perspective.
The monopoly of DPSU and OFB in defense production has been recently in news for all the wrong reasons. Performance of the Govt. units in Defense Production can well be gauged by going through several reports of parliamentary standing committees report (2018) and the CAG reports of 2007, 2010, 2014, 2015 etc over the last decade. The common thread of all the findings was the DPSU inability to deliver on several fronts, time and cost overruns, defects and quality issues. These resulted in accidents, grounding and un serviceability of platforms for a long period, affecting the operational preparedness. The accidents and adverse observations regarding defective platforms or ammunition and the functioning of the DPSU and OFs is well documented. The recent serious lapses have been providing fresh fuel to the fierce debate over the state-run manufacturers on quality, productivity & innovation and work ethics.
Recently the HAL’s capabilities have come under the glare of public attention because of the death of superbly trained test pilots. Some of the other recent cases relating to fatal accidents with HAL produced platforms are:-
- MiG 27 crashed near Jodhpur's Banad area on September 4, 2018.
- A Sukhoi 30 MKI fighter jet has crashed near Nashik in Maharashtra on June 27, 2018.
- June 8, 2018, Indian Air Force's 'Jaguar' developed a snag while landing and had a minor accident.
- June 5, 2018, Air Commodore Sanjay Chauhan passed away after his Jaguar fighter plane went down in the Mundra taluk of the Kutch region in northwestern Gujarat.
- An IAF Cheetah helicopter crash landed at Natha Top in Jammu and Kashmir.
- An Advanced Hawk Jet (AJT) trainer, crashed on the Subarnarekha River bed.
The above series of accidents shows the military has for decades flown poor quality HAL machines and often paid with young lives. Recently an OEM refused to take responsibility for product made by HAL as the OEM “could not risk its global reputation. Such incidents are grim reminder to fix accountability for Product Liability.
In other similar development Army has raised concerns over the high number of accidents due to poor quality of Weapons and Ammunition supplied by Ordnance Factory Board. Ammunition related accidents are occurring with 105 mm Indian Field Guns, 130 mm MA1 medium guns, 40 mm L-70 Air Defence Guns, as well as Tanks T-72, T-90 and Arjun main battle tanks.
The accidents have been causing deaths, injuries and damage to equipment. Moreover, a large quantum of OFB ammunition has also been found defective during their shelf-life due to poor quality control. Some attributable reasons can be manufacturing deficiencies, improper handling and storage in ammo depots, improper maintenance of weapon systems, and improper handling of ammo and weapons during firings.
Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in 2005 had observed that 18 of 47 items of ammunition, weapons and heavy vehicles had quality problems and that between 1999 and 2004 the Army has reported a total 3,210 defects in OFB supplied products. The CAG report tabled in Parliament in 2018, states that 17.5% of ammunition was laying in segregated, repairable or unserviceable condition, with Rs. 3,578 crores worth of ammunition alone lying in a segregated condition. Army is in possession of approx. 15,000 to 20,000 tonnes of segregated ammunition. Such inventory has been causing deaths and injuries, an adverse impact on operational preparedness, and serious safety hazard. The inordinately delay in investigation on supply of defective ammunition and assign responsibility adds to the problem. DGOS has been repeatedly reporting about unserviceable deteriorating ammunition posed a potential risk.
This was subsequently proven in the 2016 and 2018 blasts at Pulgaon. In 2016 a devastating explosion at the Central Ammunition Depot (CAD) in Pulgaon, the Army lost Army lost a Lieutenant Colonel, a Major and 17 soldiers and many more soldiers were wounded. The anti-tank mines had been received at the depot six years earlier and were almost immediately classified as having a “serious manufacturing defect”. The Army has been waiting a decision for repair or demolition of these anti-tank mines since 2010 since many of the mines had been exuding TNT from their plastic bodies. In 2018 another blast involving defective 23 mm Shilka anti-aircraft ammunition occurred in CAD Pulgaon again. Six persons comprising a soldier, an OF employee and four labourers were killed, while between 10 and 18 persons were reportedly injured.
A report prepared by the Army giving details of past accidents with a range of artillery and tank ammunition comprising the manufactured by the OFs. Army has been reporting about 70-80 accidents every year with defective Arms and Ammunition. The defects can be attributed to manufacturing and quality deficiencies, poor metallurgy and packaging, improper maintenance of weapon systems and improper handling of ammunition and weapons during firing. Army is in possession of between 15,000 to 20,000 tonnes of segregated ammunition. This results in shortage of serviceable ammunition and has adverse impact on operational preparedness, a major monetary loss to the state, resulted in delays in replacement and occupying large amounts of storage space, while imposing a serious safety hazard.
The beauty of arms production in India has been its intertwined complications at technological, economic, structural, political and perceptional levels. The working of sole monopoly of DPSU needs to be scrutinized with on fundamental issues on technology, cost and delivery. The impact of controversy will be more nuanced perspective on the changing military industrial dynamics in India. DPSU current situation is a cumulative effect of failed political leadership. There is no doubt that HAL and all DPSU needs some major restructuring and introduction of accountability through life cycle of products, if they have to play a more meaningful role in India’s quest for self-reliance.
Who is Liable?
Soldiers are not hired guns. They entrust their lives to the weapons and ammunition they handle to survive and win wars. The Constitution of India guarantees the fundamental right to ‘safe working environment life. The members of the Armed Forces willingly and unquestioningly accept the risks inherent in their profession but not to subject themselves to risks of handling and usage of poor quality defective arms and ammunition. The responsibility to protect the command and prevent unacceptable harm to men due to someone’s incompetence and dereliction of duty ultimately rests with the Govt and military commanders. It is the responsibility of the MoD to provide reliable ammunition and weapon systems to be exploited in field conditions. Arms and Ammunition cannot be kept and used in laboratory condition. It is supposed to be robust that could sustain handling and storage in war like situation.
This tragic and completely avoidable accident are prime example of how various organs of the state pass on the buck. Unless decision makers are held accountable for such losses, repeated occurrences are bound to recur. The safety of the User being paramount, manufacturing and quality standards should be meticulously followed and adhered to lest, To sum up Sh N.N. Vohra, a renowned public servant with wide exposure had mentioned “The defence ministry must enforce strict measures to ensure that ordnance factories, Defence PSUs (public sector undertakings), DRDO establishments and other agencies concerned with functions to efficiently to deliver supplies and services as per the envisaged time and cost schedules; prolonged delays cause serious difficulties for the armed forces and large economic losses, as the lack of certainty about supplies from indigenous sources compels expensive imports whenever any emergency arises.” It is incumbent upon the State to take all reasonable steps to ensure that the equipment manufactured by one department of the State is in conformity with the quality standards laid down by another department of the State.
Defective Military equipment jeopardizes national security and defence preparedness and also shakes the confidence of the Soldiers. Hence it is an obligation upon the State to take all reasonable steps and prevent serious lapses in manufacturing and inspection of arm and ammunition and other defense equipment.