Army flagged unstable ammo from factory before blast at Wardha which killed 6
At least six people were killed and 18 injured in a massive explosion at Pulgaon-based Central Ammunition Depot in Maharashtra’s Wardha district, around 110km from Nagpur, on Tuesday morning when they were disposing of unused ammunition made at the Khamaria Ordnance Factory Board (OFB).
The factory is infamous in Indian defence circles for producing substandard ammunition and effectively forcing the military to stop using one of its main anti-aircraft guns, the L/70.
The explosion took place when employees and contract workers from the Khamaria Ordnance Factory were destroying unused 23mm anti-aircraft ammunition rounds.
The operation was taking place under the technical supervision of the depot staff, said BB Pande, the defence public relations officer.
“Today morning at 7.10am, while carrying out the demolition of old explosives by the staff of ordnance factory, Khamaria, in Jabalpur, there was an accident. The demolition was being carried out in the demolition land under the jurisdiction of central arms depot, Pulgaon,” said Pande.
“Officials of ordnance factory Khamaria, Jabalpur and of ordnance factory Chandrapur rushed to the spot,” he added.
As recently as last year, the then Vice Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Sarath Chand, wrote to the Union ministry of defence that “firing of L/70 guns was suspended due to increased frequency of ammunition accidents.”
He added that there were 27 incidents involving this ammunition between 1998 and 2016. “Three serious incidents have occurred in the past two years,” Lieutenant General Chand wrote to secretary, defence production, Ashok Kumar. The biggest setback was the “loss of confidence in the ammunition produced by OFB”, he added. Hindustan Times has seen a copy of his letter.
The restrictions on the use of L/70 are still there, an army officer confirmed on condition of anonymity. HT learns that there are similar restrictions on the use of the Zu-23, a Russia-made towed anti-aircraft gun whose ammunition is also made at Khamaria. The Indian army has stopped using Zu-23 ammunition from Khamaria, and uses imported ammunition, according to a senior army officer familiar with the matter who asked not to be named.
The spokesperson of the ministry of defence declined to comment.
Officials said the ammunition involved in the accident was taken to Pulgaon because the depot has the space and the expertise to carry out the operation, which was executed by the staff of ordnance factory, Khamaria, with the help of staff supplied by an authorised contractor. The contract workers dug a pit and placed a sandbag over the explosives.
Among the victims was an army staffer, an employee of the ordnance factory in Khamaria and four contract workers. They were identified as Narayan Shamrao (55), Vilas Lakshman (40), Uday Virasingh (37), Pravin Prakash Munjewar (25), Rajkumar Bhovate (23) and Prabhakar Ramdas Wankhede (40).
All the injured were taken to the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College and Hospital at Sawangi in Wardha district, where the condition of three of them was reported to be critical.
This is the second major blast in the depot in two years. In May 2016, 18 people were killed in a fire in the depot while disposing of explosives.
The depot stocks assorted weaponry, including bombs, grenades, shells, and rifles. All the ordnance produced in different factories arrives at this facility before it is sent out to various forward bases.
In his letter, lieutenant general Chand wrote “OFB and Directorate General of Quality Assurance ie yet to fix responsibility and traceability for the lapses that have led to the accidents thus far.”
Experts called for quick action in light of the incident. “ Some drastic action is needed, accountability has to be fixed; besides infusion of new technology to change the production process is urgently needed. Otherwise, these accidents will keep repeating,” said lieutenant general A K Saghal (retd.), a former director general of air defence.