The Blasts at the Pulgaon Ammunition Depot in India

Arvind Ghosh

Summary: A fact-finding team from Nagpur comprising of Prakash Raut, Prakash Sahare, Ranjit Singh and Arvind Ghosh (all social activists) visited Pulgaon in Wardha District, Maharashtra on December 5, 2018 to inquire about the blast at Pulgaon Ammunition Depot on November 20, in which five contract workers and one permanent worker from Jabalpur Ordnance factory were killed and ten injured (of which two are reported to be in critical condition). This report is based on the statements of villagers and workers whom the fact-finding team met with at Sonegaon village at Pulgaon. Their names have been kept anonymous — Editors

The Pulgaon Ammunition Depot is around 110 km from Nagpur. It is one of the biggest ammunition depots in India as well as in Asia. The army calls the Central Ammunition Depot (CAD) the “Mecca of Ammunition” since it is the largest storage area for ordnance in the country; it was built during the Second World War. Spread over 1,200 acres, the CAD is where outdated and expired ammunition from ordnance factories from all over India is brought to be destroyed. It is also a storehouse of live bombs brought from all over India

An explosion occurred there on November 20, 2018 between 7:10 and 7:15 am. The Chandak Construction company overseas the work of destroying bombs. Mr. Shankar Chandak is the authorized contractor of the Ordnance Factory, Khamaria, Jabalpur. Workers allege that the company does not pay wages to the contract workers employed by Mr. Chandak, who pick up the ammunition waste. They are instead paid out of the proceeds of the 25% of the ammunition waste after the blast. The rest of the waste (i.e., 75%) is appropriated by the contractor.

Mr Chandak was assigned the job a few years ago. “Before that the army used to load and unload the ammunition on its own and the villagers used to collect the remains of the waste material. However for the last few years, laborers working under the contractor do the loading and the unloading work and the collection of the remains of ammunition.” A spokeperson by the defense industry says, “The contractors services were used for digging the pit and placing sandbags over the explosives.” The workers are basically engaged here in destroying the 23 mm Shilka anti-aircraft ammunition made by Russia, production of which has been stopped since 2000 due to technical issues. Since then the ammunition have been lying at the ordnance factory at Jabalpur, where the ammunition is made.

A casual worker we met told us that around 100 to 200 casual workers reach the demolition ground at 4 am every day. “We stay around 50 to 60 meters from the blast pit (called khadda ground locally), which is around six feet deep. After the ammunition blasts, we collect steel, copper and other metal remains. We earn around Rs 200 to Rs 300 daily and the work is undertaken Monday to Saturday here. We start early in the morning and the exercise continues till 10 am.” He stated further: “Although small blasts occur routinely, yesterday’s incident has made us re-think about working and staying here. It is a very dangerous exercise.”

On that fateful morning of November 20 at 7:10 am, as CAD staff and contract workers were engaged in the destruction of bombs, there was a huge blast when 100 bombs loaded in a box slipped from the hands of a worker and exploded. Five workers died on the spot and one at a hospital, including one from the Jabalpur Ordnance factory who came along with other workers from Jabalpur.

The Fact Finding Committee asked the locals why they continued to work willingly at the CAD site for destruction of bombs despite the dangers and having experienced many accidents on the same place in the past. They replied that they manage to earn more here than they would get as farm laborers, since this work continues through the major part of the year while farm work is seasonal.

However many of the workers present told the fact finding committee that there is no system of payment of direct wages, either in cash or through bank accounts, by the contractor. Instead they are made to collect the pieces of blown up metal that is sold to the scrap dealers present at the spot or nearby. Thus the bits and pieces of ammunition collected after the blast makes up for their wages at the end of the day. The locals allege that the entire operation is illegal but it happens through a “setting” (nexus) between the officials and the contractors.

Talking with locals the fact finding committee showed that not only the workers employed at CAD are in panic, even the villagers around CAD are now afraid of staying around it. One of the villagers staying nearby said: “The trucks carrying outdated ammunition pass through roads alongside our homes. Due to ammunition blasts, the walls of our homes have developed cracks. The utensils kept in the houses and the roofs start rattling due to the tremors created by the blasts.” According to him about ten blasts are carried out each day. Some days when there is more ammunition to be disposed of, the number of explosions also goes up. A few years ago when the same work was done directly by the army, army officers would get inside the pit and lay the explosives. Now the contractor gets the work done through inexperienced workers flouting all safety norms. According to the local police “the crisis was managed well; else the incident would have been much bigger. An entire truck having explosive boxes was parked at the site.”

The names of the workers who died as a result of the blast are:

  1. Narayan Shyamrao Pachare aged 55 resident of Sonegaon, Deoli
  2. Vilas Laxmanrao Pachare aged 36, Sonegaon, Deoli
  3. Pravin Prakash Munjewar aged 28, Kelapur
  4. Rajkumar Rahul Bhovale aged 23, Kelapur
  5. Prabhakar Ramdas Wankhede, 32 Sonegaon
  6. Uday Vir Singh aged 27, Ordnance factory, Khamariya, Jabalpur, M.P

Out of these workers died on the spot and one worker named Rajkumar Rahul Bhovate died at the hospital. Out of the dead two bodies were charred beyond recognition.

The names of the injured workers admitted to Sawangi Meghe hospital are as follows. Four of these underwent surgeries and two of them are in serious condition:

  1. Mohammed Israel
  2. Manoj Sayam
  3. Ruprao Naitam
  4. Sandeep Pachare
  5. Vikas Belsare
  6. Dilip Nimgade
  7. Prashant Munjewar
  8. Pravin Srirame
  9. Manoj More
  10. Prashant Madavi

A day after the blast seven more injured workers turned up at the hospital who were initially sent back after receiving first aid. One of the injured workers said: “When I went to the hospital after the incident I did not feel any pain. Later there was a swelling on my right leg.” A senior doctor at the hospital said: “The pellets remained lodged in their bodies but the workers did not realize it immediately.” The names of the seven injured workers who turned up at the hospital next day are: Vaibhav Kene, Lahu Zele, Nilesh Moon,Vikram Thakre, Amit Bhovate, Pradip Kakde and Hanumant Sarate.

No help to the injured by the authorities

It should be noted that the survivors who were injured were not provided with any immediate help by the authorities. They helped each other to get into vehicles parked at the site to reach the hospital at Sawangi, which is 20km from the site. One of the injured workers said: “There was no help coming from the army personnel who are stationed at the CAD.” Another worker said: “In 2016 when the army personnel were killed in the blast, the entire machinery of the CAD had swung into action. This shows the callous attitude of the authorities towards the contract workers who are just used and thrown away.”

Previous to this, an accident had occurred in June 2016. In this incident 18 persons, including two army officers, were killed in a much bigger blast at the same CAD, when a warehouse storing anti-tank mines had gone off. The mines were defective and were due to be destroyed or needed urgent repairs. CAD had reported that the TNT (explosive material) was leaking out of the mines. It is said that faulty mines were responsible for the mishap with the biggest casualty so far.

Compensation to victims by the contractor and the state government

The contractor Mr. Chandak remained missing for a few days, but was arrested finally and has been interned. Under the pressure of local people and political leaders he has agreed to pay a compensation of Rs 5 lakhs to the families of the five contract workers killed in the accident. This is for the first time any compensation has been paid to the victims of accidents in the CAD, although several accidents had occurred in the past. An amount of Rs 15,000 for the funeral of the dead workers was paid by the Jabalpur Ordnance Factory.

Compensation has also been declared by the state government, for the kin of the deceased (Rs 5 lakhs), those seriously injured (Rs 2 lakhs), and those with minor injuries (Rs 50,000).

The concluding observations of the Fact Finding Team shows:

  1. The accident at the Central Ammunition Depot is not an accident (in the usual sense of the term) or a “Stroke of bad luck” as some of the officers at the CAD termed it. There have been a series of such “accidents” at the Pulgaon Ammunition depot, which has claimed no less than 50 lives so far. In fact “accidents” are integral part of the production of ammunitions as well as disposal of defective ammunitions. It is based on the bourgeois conception that production (disposal of defective ammunition is part of it) is supreme (even for its own sake) at the altar of which a few human lives can be sacrificed, particularly if these human beings happen to be mere workers forced to do the dirty job for the sake of survival.
  2. As some workers have pointed out, such mishaps are the end result of a nexus between the higher officials at the Ordnance Factory and the businessmen (in this case the contractor). The higher officials overlooked the legal procedures that ought to have been followed. The contractor gets the lion’s share of the deal with which he keeps the officials happy. Legally, the contractor ought to open bank accounts of casual workers under him and deposit their salaries in their accounts. However workers, with whom the fact-finding committee met, have said that no such bank accounts were opened and no salaries were paid to them. They were paid out of the proceeds of 25% of the scraps remaining after the blast. No safety measures were followed either. The workers were not provided even with the basic amenities like masks or gloves to protect themselves in case of mishaps.
  3. The production of arms and ammunitions has not only killed millions of people on the battlefields worldwide but has also been the cause of death of thousands of workers at places of production as well as storage, stockpile and destruction of defective ammunition. In fact the very production of arms and ammunition is aimed against the oppressed and exploited masses and is used to maintain the domination of the ruling classes. Ironically the legitimacy of arms production is perpetuated by the states in the name of Security and Defense. The question is: for whose security and for whose defense?

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