The Absence of a Military Head of the DGQA May Have Compromised India's Ammunition-Inspection Process

On 31 May 2016,130 tonnes of anti-tank mines blew up at the army’s central ammunition depot in Pulgaon,Maharashtra, 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. STR/AFP/Getty Images
29 April, 2017

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.”

The DGQA has also been functioning without a permanent head, a situation that was addressed after two years in April 2017. The post of the head of the DGQA (referred to as the Director General Quality Assurance) is usually reserved for two-star or three-star military officers. In the army, these are those officers who hold the rank of a major-general or lieutenant-general, respectively. The organisation consists, primarily, of officers from the Indian army, since both the air force and navy have separate departments for the function of quality checking, which fall under the respective service chiefs. Until March 2015, Lieutenant General JPS Dalal served as the DGQA’s head. Soon after, Anil Garg—an engineer who had been working with the DGQA—took over as the officiating head when he was appointed the special Director General Quality Assurance. Once Garg left the organisation in 2016, J Janardhan—also an engineer—took over the position, becoming the organisation’s second temporary head. According to the serving army officer, this spell finally came to an end on the evening of 17 April 2017, when the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet—which decides on the appointments for several top posts under the government of India and comprises the prime minister and home minister of the country—selected the army’s Major General Shamsher Singh, a two-star military officer, as the Director General Quality Assurance. The army officer added that the DDP is yet to take initiate any proceedings regarding Singh’s appointment.

The DGQA, the origins of which can be traced back to 1869, consists of both officers from the military and civilians who are inducted through the Defence Quality Assurance Services cadre—which also functions under the DDP. The department has approximately 200 military officers and around the same number of civilian engineers employed with it. It runs parallel to the army and absorbs officers who are high in merit, but could not make it to the rank of a full colonel. These officers come to the DGQA for a tenure of three years. After spending two years in the organisation, they are considered for the rank of a full colonel and are thereby absorbed in the DGQA itself. This procedure is called the “Permanent Secondment of Service Officers in the rank of Lt Col (Substantive) in DGQA Organisation.” The policy of the Military Secretary’s Branch, or MS Branch, which deals with the postings and promotions of officers, states that only officers inducted into the DGQA under the R1 aspect—referring to high merit non-empanelled officers who have missed their promotion to the rank of a colonel in the army once—are supposed to be permanently seconded. It also states that the consideration for this is to be done through a Quality Assurance Selection Board (QASB), two years after date of the induction of these officers into the DGQA.

But this procedure of considering officers for the rank of a full colonel and their absorption in the DGQA has been delayed and is long overdue. According to the army officer, “So far, approximately 30 officers have been Permanently Seconded under this policy in the last three years. The last Permanent Secondment Board was conducted in January-February 2016, as against the schedule of December 2015, and the letter informing officers about their secondment was issued in March-April 2016.”

The Permanent Secondment Board for around 15 officers—to decide on the promotion of these officers—was due to be held on 1 June 2016. However, it has not been held so far and the batch of officers have instead been sent for tenure postings of two years to various military stations. According to the army officer, the file of those affected, duly recommended for a promotion by the DGQA headquarters, has been repeatedly returned by the ministry of defence and the DDP citing some reason or the other. Since the officers from this batch have not been considered for their rank yet, the fate of those who belong to the next batch—whose promotions should have been considered in June 2017—has been hanging in the balance as well.

The DDP, under which the DGQA falls, is currently headed by the Defence Production Secretary, Ashok Kumar Gupta. He had presided over the stop-gap arrangement of appointing Janardhan, the acting DGQA. I made repeated attempts to get in touch with Gupta regarding the issues that the DGQA is facing—both through e-mail and over the phone—but did not receive any response. Since Gupta would be the senior-most officer after G Mohan Kumar—the present defence secretary, whose tenure is due to get over by the end of May 2017—he may be in line to become the next defence secretary.

The DGQA may have a new head, but the delay in granting the officers the ranks that are due to them remains. The army officer told me that in early April, the defence ministry returned the file concerning the promotion of these officers once again. This is not just hampering the functioning of the organisation, but also adversely affecting the career progression of the officers. According to the serving army officer, as on date, there are about 10-14 posts for the rank of a colonel lying vacant in the armament stream of the army alone. The MS Branch’s policy of conducting two secondment boards in the DGQA once a year is not being adhered to, even though these officers legally meet all the requirements for the secondment.

Meanwhile, the organisation continues to be plagued by the problem of its diluted authority. The army officer said, “Earlier the officers had more powers and were involved in quality checks right from the inception stage and could inspect raw material being bought and used in the manufacture. But later, they were asked to only certify after the product was ready and not to get involved with raw material.”