The INS Sindhurakshak tragedy is a wake-up call for the defence establishment to relocate bases away from bustling cities and economic hubs

November 3, 1961, was a landmark for the Indian Navy. India’s maiden aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant (formerly HMS Hercules), with its full load of ammunition, Sea Hawks and Alize aircraft (and a crew of 1,100), was ceremoniously received by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru at the Ballard Pier of Bombay. J.R.D. Tata was one of the invited guests. Panditji was taken around the ship by Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS) Vice Admiral R.D. Katari, (Flag Officer Commanding Indian Fleet – FOCIF) Rear Admiral B.S. Soman, and the ship’s captain, Peter [Pritam Singh] Mahindroo.

Rear Admiral Sadashiv Karmarkar, the first Indian to command British officers on RINS Cauvery, was the Flag Officer Bombay (FOB). The Navy had to berth the 20,000 ton Vikrant at Ballard Pier, the only berth where the carrier could have been accommodated with full load. No berth in the naval dockyard could accommodate the fully loaded Vikrant and she needed to lighten to 17,000 tons. A similar situation is prevalent for the 47,500 ton INS Vikramaditya at Mumbai, and which is set to arrive. She will be berthed ingeniously at the outer naval dockyard berth with special pontoons manufactured by Goa Shipyard Ltd., till permanent facilities at INS Kadamaba at Karwar are set up as part of “Project Seabird.”

The Great Bombay explosion

J.R.D. Tata and Karmarkar were witnesses to the famous “Bombay Victoria Docks Explosion” that took place on April 14, 1944. SS Fort Stikine carrying a cargo of cotton bales, gold and ammunition including 1,400 tons of explosives, caught fire and exploded and broke into two. In the impact, windows 12 km away in Bombay were shattered. The seismographs at Shimla recorded tremors. Many parts of Bombay were wiped out because of the blasts and fires that raged for two days. Showers of burning material set fire to Bombay’s slums. Eleven vessels berthed close by were sunk or damaged and 800 deaths reported. The memory stayed.

In 1963, J.R.D. Tata, a visionary, heard of the Navy’s needs and learnt it was going to reclaim land towards the Taj Mahal hotel, a site he treasured, to expand the vintage naval dockyard. Learning of the cost of new berths and dredging the approaches to the naval dockyard were worth hundreds of crores, the Tatas initiated a business study and offered to develop a deep water naval base and a port in Gujarat near Jamnagar, superior to Kandla, to berth Vikrant and other warships to decongest Bombay.

Karmarkar (also a visionary), due to differences with CNS Soman, was abruptly retired in 1964. The Tatas were keen to enter the shipping and port businesses, and J.R.D. knew Karmarkar, had a close working relationship with Defence Minister Y.B. Chavan, who had been appraised of, and was in support of the proposal to decongest Bombay. J.R.D. suggested to Karmarkar to join and pursue the project from Bombay House.

At this juncture, the wealthy Chowgules, who hailed from Goa, and with their shipping and mercantile experience, bought sea frontage at Nhava Sheva. They applied to the government to set up a ship repair and building yard with berthing facilities opposite Mumbai, and made the offer to the Navy to relocate across the harbour. They employed Karmarkar for the venture. The proposal nearly went through with Chavan’s blessings. Unfortunately, the union cabinet ruled that shipbuilding and ports were a strategic industry to be reserved for the public sector. The land at Nhava Sheva was acquired for the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT).

Ticking bomb

The Navy built new berths, a new dry dock, a submarine base, INS Vajrabahu, and expanded the naval dockyard on semi reclaimed land. The berths inside Lion Gate are located next to Ballard Estate, just a stone’s throw from the Gateway of India, and a kilometre from the Stock Exchange and Mumbai’s business district, the hub of India’s economic activity. In the event of a warship or a submarine loaded with weapons accidentally blowing up, the area will be vulnerable to extensive damage, disruption and suffer economic loss in billions.

The 1944 SS Fort Stikine tragedy bears resemblance to the two massive explosions INS Sindhurakshak experienced on August 14, suffering damage to the weapon loaded bows and then sinking. Six bodies have been recovered. The causes are being investigated, and it has tarred the Navy’s good submarine record when compared with other navies. It is speculated that a fire or explosion could have ripped the battery compartment where traces of hydrogen are always present, just under the torpedo and missile tubes in the double-hulled submarine. This could have set the combustible oil tanks and weapon propellants on fire and ignited warheads.

As per standard operating procedures, operational submarines and warships embark missiles and torpedoes, but their warheads are not armed with detonators, and considered relatively safe from sympathetic detonation. But the potency of warheads is increasing. In future, the damage through an accident or material failure or sabotage would be unimaginable, and which cannot be ruled out in this age of terror. Limpet mines can be used, as the LTTE employed.

Naval divers entered the mangled hull of Sindhurakshak and recovered charred bodies. Another Kilo submarine, Sindhuratna, double berthed alongside, suffered a fire — it was possibly her anechoic rubber tiles covering the hull that caught fire. She was towed to safety. The episode is a stark warning — no more can warships and submarines “readied for operational duties” be berthed near big metropolises, as they carry lethal missiles, torpedoes, mines and rockets with tons of explosive laden warheads and propellants, and are also fitted with volatile batteries, that can spark. However failsafe they may be considered to be, the chance of a fire breaking out and sympathetic detonation can never be ruled out.

At Visakhapatnam

Naval berths of the expanding Indian Navy are located in the hubs of Mumbai and Visakhapatnam. They need relocating for safety reasons. The Navy is on the threshold of a large expansion, of 47 ships, as stated by CNS Admiral D.K. Joshi. Hence, it needs to speedily complete phase two of the “Seabird” project at INS Kadamba to relocate Western Command operational ships, and consider setting up another new base on the west coast for India’s maritime expansion. A worse situation prevails in Visakhapatnam where nuclear submarines are berthed. The naval base is juxtaposed with a refinery, a fertilizer berth and the rain calcining plant next to one of India’s busiest harbours. The Navy shares a wall with the sprawling Hindustan Shipyard Ltd. The port has a very narrow entrance that can be blocked by sinking a trawler. This could bottle up the Eastern Fleet and its nuclear submarines. Here again, the Navy expanded from 1969 and built, with Soviet support, the largest naval dockyard in the East.

Case for greenfield bases

Both Admirals Daya Shankar and Gorshkov in the 1970s had suggested that a new greenfield naval base and dockyard be built at Bheemunipatam or Kakinada as a futuristic option, but it was turned down. Mrs Gandhi feared the Soviets would ask to use it as a base. In the 1990s, the Defence Research and Development Organisation took a section of the naval dockyard and built the impressive and expensive nuclear submarine building centre in the heart of Visakhapatnam to construct India’s own nuclear submarines like the INS Arihant, whose reactor recently went critical. (This in contrast to the original plan for a Mazagon Dock Ltd. subsidiary to build nuclear submarines near its Mangalore yard.) Meanwhile, a new naval forward operating base is being built south of Visakhapatnam.

Can naval operating facilities be relocated? If so, how? In economic terms, the rule of A.P. Giannini of Bank of America needs to be applied. He was the first to challenge the unwritten rule early in 1908 that banks should only lend money to people who don’t need it. The Ministry of Defence does not need funds. Instead, it can forward-sell valuable naval land in metros to developers in auctions with fixed base prices, collect considerable advances, and with that and loans, build modern naval bases and dockyard facilities and relocate naval operating facilities, in this age of privatisation.

Greenfield bases today can be made operational within five to six years (as South Korea, land-starved Singapore, the United States and the United Kingdom did some years ago by decongesting city centres). The Chinese have followed this model for their submarine base in Hainan and even developed a new island off Shanghai. India too needs to relocate naval tinderboxes away from metropolises, with new greenfield bases.

(Cmde (retd.) Ranjit B. Rai, a former director of naval operations and director of naval intelligence, was Flag Lt. to Admiral S.G. Karmarkar.)

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