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Playing With Fire: A Professional Hazard

The whole nation woke up on the morning of 31st May with the Breaking News of a massive fire at Central Ammunition Depot (CAD) Pulgaon and the resultant loss of human lives and stores. While everyone was debating the actual cause of fire and the safety procedures in our ammunition depots, they did not fully appreciate the sheer act of raw bravery shown by the officers, the Fire Fighting (FF) staff and the DSC personnel who, at the cost of laying down their lives, contained the fire to only one shed, failing which the devastation would have been unprecedented both in terms of ammunition and loss of human life.

The First Response

Central Ammunition Depot (CAD), Pulgaon, located about 115 km from Nagpur, is spread over an area of more than 7,000 acres and stores a variety of ammunition and explosives in a large number of sheds. The fire started in one of the sheds at 1 am and the Quick Reaction Teams and Fire Fighting Teams restricted it to just that one shed. Post midnight, upon receipt of information, Major K Manoj Kumar, CAD's Internal Security Officer (ISO) charged towards the location of the reported fire from his residence along with Lieutenant Colonel RS Pawar and the Deputy Commandant, Colonel Ghaninder Singh. Within ten minutes of commencing their operation, a massive roar erupted, emitting shock waves and releasing mind-numbing amount energy in a relatively smaller region. Major Manoj, Lt Colonel Pawar and seventeen others including four DSC Jawans and 13 Firemen did not survive this blast. Three army gypsies, three fire fighting trucks, a water bowser and a private vehicle were blown away too. The remaining personnel on the ground continued to contain the fire in spite of 17 more personnel getting seriously injured to include one Offr, three Jawans, four  DSC Personnel and eight Fire Fighters.

The credit for containing it within the CAD is certainly due to the inherent planning, well rehearsed drills perfected over the years and the sheer guts of the depot personnel who laid down their lives to avert a national tragedy. The magnitude of the incident was such that a mass evacuation, reaching even the outskirts of Nagpur located 120km away was being contemplated.

The Human Angle

While the causes of blast and the technical issues related to it come under the purview of the inquiry that has been ordered by the Service HQ, the sheer act of bravery by all those who risked their lives requires due recognition and should not be given mere lip service to be conveniently forgotten in a few days post the ‘Breaking News’. The two army officers who led from the front were highly qualified in ammunition handling, knew the fatal consequences of their actions and yet rushed in from the safe confines of their living accommodation to the explosive shed under fire. We should therefore appreciate that this is a totally different situation from being caught in the fire to that of jumping in the fire. The accompanying Fire Fighting staff comprising of civilians, showed commitment and bravery with utter disregard to their safety and isolated the fire from spreading to other sheds. It is therefore imperative such incidents of sheer bravery be treated at par with the highest acts of gallantry and compensated in a similar manner. The terminal and injury benefits should be befitting the status of Heroes.

The Grim Reality

All words of praise are frivolous if words and deeds do not match. The fact remains that personnel working in Ammunition Depots do not have any risk coverage / allowance. The civilian storekeepers and labourers who are involved in day to day handling of ammunition consignments, storage, turnover and receipt and issue activities are always in a high risk category. Similarly the FF staff responsible for preventing, containing and dousing fire, face explosive hazards of a grave scale.

Some points that invariably make a strong case for providing risk coverage and hazard allowance to all personnel in ammunition depots are as under:-

  • Ammunition and explosives covering the entire spectrum of UN Hazard Division 4.1 to 4.4 are stored here at any given point of time. This also includes ammunition identified as defective from time to time and awaiting back loading /burning. This clearly underlines the potential risk of handling ammunition at such a massive scale in these depots.
  • The FF staff in such ammunition installations face greater professional hazard as compared to their counterparts in other departments.
  • Civilian labourers and Storekeepers in these depots are responsible for physical handling of ammunition and explosives during receipt, despatch, turnover and storage. They are integral to all ammunition management functions and thus again exposed to greater hazards than their peers in other departments/organisations.
  • Bravery shown by serving defence personnel including DSC staff needs to be recognised and compensated in terms of pension and disability benefits applicable to gallantry awardees in the face of enemy action.
  • Provision of a suitable risk coverage will enhance the motivation level of all personnel leading to better ammunition management and a wholehearted response in critical situations

Conclusion

Recent years have witnessed several fires at ammunition depots, including Panagarh in 2010, Khundru in 2007 and Bharatpur in 2000. In light of these incidences, modernisation of ammunition depots and review of safety procedures is being earnestly progressed and is an ongoing subject. Notwithstanding the same, management of ammunition and explosives is an extremely complex issue by the very nature of stores which can turn unstable due to various imponderables. It is therefore important that people involved in such hazardous activities be duly recognised and compensated to ensure that we continue to have a well motivated and trained manpower to perform such ominous duties.


The Author is Senior Fellow at CLAWS.Views expressed are personal.

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Vijay Singh
Senior Fellow
Contact at: [email protected]
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