The latest accident on board the Indian Navy’s frontline destroyer, INS Ranvir, that left three sailors dead has added yet another tragic chapter to the series of similar accidents at the Mumbai naval dockyard in the past decade. The worst of the lot was the sinking of a submarine, INS Sindhurakshak, in 2013 when 18 officers and other personnel died as a result of several explosions in the torpedo compartment of the vessel. A fire on another submarine, INS Sindhuratna, killed two Navy personnel in 2014, prompting the then chief, Admiral D K Joshi, to resign, the first in the Navy’s history.
Then in 2016, two personnel lost their lives when INS Betwa, a guided missile frigate, toppled on one side in a dry dock in Mumbai. As per the standard procedure after each such incident, a board of inquiry was instituted but like so many issues regarding the defence forces, the probe reports are not in the public domain. Although responsibility and blame must have been fixed and punitive action must have been taken, because the defence services operate in an extremely opaque manner it is difficult to say conclusively if the accidents were caused by human error or systemic deficiencies.
It was only through a 2017 Comptroller and Auditor General report, citing the Navy’s probe, that the public got a peek into the exact cause of the two accidents involving the submarines. The CAG found several lapses by the Navy in both the incidents and pointed out that safety drills were ad hoc in nature. While the causes behind the accidents became public, whether the Navy has implemented corrective measures is a matter of speculation. The latest accident involving INS Ranvir gives the impression that the Navy has learnt little and taken hardly any steps to minimise, if not rule out, the mistakes of the past.
But it would be wholly unfair to blame the Navy only for the repeated accidents. An insensitive and obstructionist bureaucracy, depleting budgetary allocation for defence and a growing external threat from inimical neighbours have contributed to this parlous state. With outdated machinery, equipment and weapon systems the country can hardly boast of possessing a blue-water Navy.