The death of Lt Commander DS Chauhan on board the country’s only aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, raises serious questions regarding safety aspects of the vital military assets. These concerns need to be addressed thoroughly. What led to the accident should be established; whether it was a material failure, an equipment malfunction or just plain breakdown in the standard operating procedures. The mishap has deepened the concerns over India’s ageing fleet and crew training. The 46,000-tonne warship was close to its home base at Karwar on the west coast when the fire broke out. Known in military circles as ‘VKD’, it is the sword arm of the Navy, carries a fleet of MiG 29K fighter jets and long-range missiles on its deck and is equipped with a variety of integral weapons and sensors. It was deployed in northern Arabian Sea in the run-up to the Balakot airstrikes. The aircraft carrier, which is as tall as a 20-storey building, was commissioned in 2013. It has witnessed two mishaps in three years. Earlier in 2016, two people died following leakage of toxic fumes from the sewage plant on board the Russian-made aircraft carrier which was undergoing repairs at Karwar. The armament and the fuel stored in the warships are a cause of major concern whenever fire accidents occur. The fuel, ammunition, torpedoes and missiles are all stored in close confines, making the fire fighting a stupendous challenge.
In 2014, former Navy chief Admiral DK Joshi had resigned from his post after a string of accidents. INS Sindhurakshak, the Russian-built submarine, sank after an explosion killing 18 sailors in August 2013 and two officers were killed in a fire on INS Sindhuratna the following year. A report of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) revealed shocking lapses that led to the twin disasters. Serious questions were raised over the operational deployment of INS Sindhurakshak. It emerged that the submarine authorities did not properly assess the crew fatigue and the submarine was holding ammunition nearing life expiry. The CAG, in a report last year, pointed out that 38 warships were involved in mishaps during 2007-2016, adversely affecting the operational preparedness of the force, and the Navy had no framework to deal with safety issues. The accidents are primarily attributable to fire, explosion and flooding but the Navy had no institutionalised framework to deal with safety since its inception. It was pointed out that the inventory control mechanism in the Navy was deficient and that the laid down timeline for processing of indents was not adhered to leading to a cascading effect in the procurement of stores. Another glaring lapse was the ad hoc nature of the Indian Navy Safety Organisation, which was constituted without approval from the competent authority.