Sarthak Patil (name changed), a 21-year-old engineering student, was at his friend’s house on Tuesday night when a deafening explosion rang out in the distance. Sarthak and his friend, residents of the Nachangaon locality in Pulgaon town of Wardha district, Maharashtra, looked out and saw a > towering blaze emanate from beyond the boundary wall that cordons off the Indian Army’s Central Ammunition Depot (CAD) located nearby; one of the sheds inside the compound was on fire. He rushed home — his family and the entire neighbourhood were woken up by the impact of roughly 130 tonnes of ammunition blowing up. “It was like an earthquake. But when we moved out of our houses, we could see large flames from the depot,” says his mother.
Beyond the boundary Residents of Nachangaon, Pulgaon, Agargaon, Nagjhari, Pipari and Loni village — all places in the vicinity of the CAD — think the Army depot was a “big secret” which has been outed to the world with the explosion which claimed at least 19 lives, including two officers, four Defence Security Corps jawans and 13 firefighting staff. “Please do not name us. We may face trouble if our names are quoted in newspaper reports,” Sarthak’s family members request. Some villagers from Agargaon went on to claim that Pakistan might attack this Army installation now because the media has revealed its location. “You media people have defamed Pulgaon. The world did not know what’s here. Because of you, now our lives are at risk. Terrorists will come to Pulgaon now,” villagers led by a local leader, Manish Shahu, shouted at mediapersons the morning after the fatal explosion.
Many houses in Agargaon, Nagjhari and Pipari were damaged from the strong impact of the explosion, and residents vacated the area within an hour. “We were lucky that the fire did not spread to the entire installation. If the whole ammunition of the depot had exploded, Vidarbha region itself would have been blown up,” claims Sarthak’s father. “The Army will not let you go even near the boundary wall of the depot. We heard that more people have been killed in the explosion. But the Army will not tell you that. Strict security measures are in place at the CAD. No information can come out without official permission. This has been the second such incident since we came to live here. The last was in 1989 but there were no casualties. There have been many small accidents but nothing has ever been reported. This explosion has dented our >security cover as well,” he adds.
The fears and sense of awe of local residents, however exaggerated, point to the importance of the Pulgaon CAD in the Indian Army’s scheme of things. The 7,100-acre facility, located about 115 km from Nagpur, is in effect the ‘mother depot’, the central repository of India’s stockpile of munitions, from standard-issue bullets to artillery shells, mines, tank shells and even BrahMos missiles. Under direct aegis of the Army headquarters, virtually all types of ammunition purchased by the Army or manufactured at state-owned ordnance factories are stored at the depot, which are then used to replenish the stocks of ammunition depots and field ammunition depots strewn across the country and onwards to field formations. The CAD also undertakes the task of disposing of ammunition which has completed its life cycle, or is defective. Besides the Pulgaon nerve centre, there are seven Central Ordnance Depots, 13 Regional Ordnance Depots and 12 Forward Ammunition Depots. Most of the depots were set up and have been in use since the days of the British Raj.
Army’s ammunition management The Army Ordnance Corps (AOC), which also traces its origin back to the colonial era when the ‘Board of Ordnance’ was established in April 1775, is responsible for providing logistics support to the Indian Army and thus constitutes the backbone that sustains the nation’s war-fighting capabilities. One of the functions of the AOC involves the mechanics of provisioning and procuring all items required to raise and maintain an efficient and effective fighting Army. It manages an inventory range covering every requirement of a soldier from “clothing to weapons, from a needle to a tank and also all munitions except fuel, fodder and medicines”. Under this also falls the task of ammunition management. “We manage one of the largest and the most complex logistics effort in the world. And having weapon systems from a variety of countries adds to this as it means handling diverse ammunition,” says an ordnance officer.
Ammunition management basically covers the entire arc from repair and servicing of all munitions and missiles to disposal and demolition of unserviceable/dangerous ammunitions and explosives. Ammunition is stored in specifically designed sheds and segregated based on their explosive nature. For instance, mines and regular bombs are stored in covered sheds with requisite spacing between racks. More lethal and sensitive weapons such as missiles are stored in temperature-controlled sheds. Former Army chief General V.P. Malik says that since 2000-01 major modernisation plans had been undertaken vis-à-vis storage of ammunition. “Since then 75-80 per cent of ammunition has been kept in specialised huts. Before that most of it was lying in the open,” he says.
A senior Army officer explains that various techniques are incorporated into the design of the sheds to minimise damage in case of an accident. For instance, to store high-explosive ammunition, reinforced walls are erected on three sides while one side is kept deliberately weak. “So in case of an explosion the impact will be directed to the wall which is weak, minimising damage,” he says.
The Pulgaon pushback The cause of the Pulgaon explosion is still being ascertained, but of the three plausible reasons — accident, neglect or sabotage — the Army brass and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar have virtually ruled out the last since the CAD is well-secured. It is believed that the shed in question housed ammunition that had completed its shelf life; such stockpile is considered to be relatively unstable. As Gen. Malik says, “As the shelf life of the ammunition increases, it is more prone to accidents.” Incidentally, numerous Parliamentary Standing Committee and Comptroller and Auditor General reports over the years have pulled up the government and the Army for shortage of critical ammunition and unusually high quantities of defective ammunition in stockpiles which threaten to severely undermine fighting capabilities in the event of a prolonged war. Significantly, a 2015 CAG audit flagged serious concerns regarding fire safety, transportation and storage, pointing out that the Army continued to ferry explosives in ordinary vehicles, that the storage facilities weren’t satisfactory, and that expired explosives weren’t always disposed of in a timely manner.
The Army has currently rolled out a modernisation programme on a trial basis at three ammunition depots to upgrade security and firefighting infrastructure. It entails a three-tier security and fire system. The first tier is perimeter security, with measures such as powerful lights, night vision devices and electrical fences. The second tier consists of an inner wall mounted with additional camera-lined fencing and access-controlled gates. The third tier is for high-security areas such as missile shelters with provisions such as sensors and Quick Reaction Teams on standby. The plan is to eventually extend this to all 13 Central Ordnance Depots. To ensure safety of people residing around the depots, a safety radius of one kilometre is anyway maintained where no construction is allowed, though with increasing pressure on land and availability of automation and better storage technology, these norms are under review.
While all this sounds good on paper, the fact is that even after the turn-of-the-millennium modernisation revamp of ammunition depots referred to by Gen. Malik, mishaps have recurred: two persons were killed in 12 injured in an explosion at an ammunition depot in Bikaner, Rajasthan, in January 2002; 30 people were injured in an explosion at an ammunition depot in Amritsar in February 2004; three persons were killed and over 40 others injured when the Field Ordnance Depot in Khundru village of Anantnag district, one of the biggest ordnance depots in Kashmir, caught fire in August 2007; a blast at an ammunition depot near Galpadar village in Bhuj, Gujarat, in December 2008 killed two Army personnel and injured six others; and five persons were injured in an explosion at a naval arms depot at Visakhapatnam in December 2015. And now, Pulgaon.