On 25 March 2017, a fire broke out at the Ordnance Factory Khamaria, or OFK, located in Jabalpur. The factory, which operates under the Ordnance Factory Boards (OFB)—the government’s defence manufacturing division—was established in 1942. It manufactures ammunition for the Indian army, air force and navy. News reports stated that a series of over 20 explosions took place at the factory, the first of which was at around 6.30 pm. The fire was put out by around 9.30 pm, three hours after it had first started. Since most of the workers employed with the factory had left by evening, nobody was injured and no lives were lost. However, had the incident taken place even an hour earlier, the situation would have been drastically different.
Nearly a year ago, on 31 May 2016, a similar incident took place at the army’s central ammunition depot in Pulgaon, Maharashtra. (The ammunition that the OFK produces is transported to this depot, which is the second-largest in Asia.) Early in the morning on that day, 130 tonnes of anti-tank mines blew up at the depot, killing 20 people, including two army officers. A subsequent court of inquiry that the army set up found that the accident may have been caused by defective anti-tank mines, which were packed with explosives of poor quality. The low-grade trinitrotoluene, or TNT, used in the mines had reportedly triggered the explosion. The court of inquiry, which submitted its report to the defence ministry on 23 June 2016, pointed out that the presence of these defective mines had first been flagged off in 2010. It stated that the issue was then caught in a six-year tussle between the army, the OFB, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), and the Directorate General of Quality Assurance (DGQA). According to a story in the Indian Express, the army’s inquiry report stated that “‘Exudation in TNT’ in the mines was first noted in February 2010 and the information passed to Ordnance Factory (OF) Chanda, the manufacturer in Maharashtra.” “In other words,” the story went on to state, “high-explosive TNT was liquefying and leaking from the plastic-cased mines six years ago.”
A similarly indifferent approach appears to have led to the fire at the Ordnance Factory Khamaria as well. A serving army officer who is working with the DGQA told me that according to the preliminary internal inquiries that were conducted into the incident, the fire appears to have been caused by old and expired ammunition that was to be disposed. The officer added that the ammunition had been lying there because officials from the factory were waiting for instructions from the defence ministry.
At the heart of these two incidents is also the DGQA, which assesses the quality of arms, ammunitions, equipment, and stores supplied to armed forces. This organisation—which operates under the Department of Defence Production, or the DDP, of the defence ministry— could have been instrumental in averting the accidents in both the OFK and the depot in Pulgaon. But the DGQA has itself been battling a fractured existence, which may have contributed to the fact that it could not play any such mitigating role. Instead, the organisation has been embroiled in bureaucratic struggles such as the prolonged absence of a permanent head, the delayed promotions of its employees from the military, and the interference of the DDP in its functioning.
Speaking about the fire at the Ordnance Factory Khamaria, the army officer working with the DGQA told me that 60 to 70 percent of the production in ordnance factories such as the OFK inevitably takes place in March as “ordnance factories are under pressure” to meet their production targets before the end of the financial year in April. The ensuing rush, he said, often puts a tremendous amount of work-load on the DGQA, resulting in a situation in which quantity tends to be prioritised over quality. In a story published in the Times of India in November 2016, MK Ravindra Pillai, Leader Staff Side of the Joint Consultative Machinery of the DGQA, voiced similar concerns. He stated that the DDP’s priority was to produce more, because of which it overlooked quality. “Four years ago, about 400-500 rifles from, Ishapore Rifle Factory were defective, and DGQA wanted rectification,” he said. Pillai claimed that instead of supporting the DGQA, the DDP “ensured they were cleared.”