By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 27th Feb 14
The Indian navy chief, Admiral Devendra Kumar Joshi, resigned today after a fire accident on board a navy submarine, INS Sindhuratna, injured seven sailors and left two officers missing.
“Taking moral responsibility for the accidents and incidents which have taken place during the past few months, the Chief of Naval Staff Admiral DK Joshi today resigned from the post of CNS. The Government has accepted the resignation of Admiral Joshi with immediate effect,” the defence ministry announced today.
Vice Admiral RK Dhowan, the navy’s vice chief and Admiral Joshi’s deputy, has been asked to take over as acting navy chief until a permanent incumbent is announced.
“It is in the best traditions (of the Indian Navy) that he has owned responsibility”, said Admiral Sureesh Mehta, a former navy chief. This is the first time that an Indian military chief has resigned for professional lapses by his service.
The accident on the INS Sindhuratna, about 60 miles off the coast of Mumbai, was the third such incident in the last seven months involving submarines. Yet the navy chief, Admiral DK Joshi, had declared in December the safety record of his fleet was “not all that bad… if you compare with other navies.”
That satisfaction was not shared by Defence Minister AK Antony, who told top navy commanders last year that, "it is the responsibility of the Navy to optimally operate and maintain (warships), as well as train its personnel suitably so that such national resources are optimally utilised and are not frittered away."
The incident took place ironically whilst the navy’s submarine inspection team was on board, checking safety and other procedures. The navy’s Commodore Commander, Submarines, or COMCOR, its top safety inspector was also on board.
“While at sea in the early hours of 26 Feb 2014, smoke was reported in the sailors accommodation, in compartment number three, by the submarine. Smoke was brought under control by the submarine's crew,” stated the navy today, understating the gravity of the incident.
According to the navy, INS Sindhuratna was carrying out “routine training and workup”, which is standard procedure after a major refit (maintenance). For that reason, the submarine did not have any weapons on board.
In the last seven months, India’s submarine fleet has been worryingly depleted from its already low strength of 14 submarines, of which no more than 10 were operationally available at any given time. On August 14, 2013, INS Sindhurakshak, sank in Mumbai harbour after an explosion killed all 18 crew members on board. A second submarine, INS Sindhughosh, which was parked alongside Sindhurakshak, was damaged in the fire; the navy has released no details. Four years earlier, the Sindhughosh had collided with a merchant vessel while surfacing off the off the coast of Mumbai. The INS Sindhuratna itself was involved in a minor accident a few years ago, when a tug that was towing it collided with INS Sindhukesri, damaging the latter’s rudder. Now, with INS Sindhuratna incapacitated, the navy cannot field more than 8-9 submarines in a crisis.
The question marks over the navy’s safety culture extend also to the surface fleet. In January 2011, the 2,700-tonne frigate, INS Vindhyagiri, the former flagship of the western naval fleet, sank in Mumbai after colliding with a merchant vessel. In December, a day after the navy chief dismissed safety concerns, a minesweeper, INS Konkan, was gutted in a major fire whilst in Visakhapatnam harbour. Days later, one of the navy’s most modern frigates, INS Talwar, collided with a fishing trawler off Ratnagiri, sinking the latter. The warship captain was later relieved of command. Several other naval warships have been damaged in incidents over recent years.