“Any untoward incident in the only available and strategic plant will lead to a complete collapse of ammunition production and supply of vital defence stores which may jeopardize national security,” ruefully complains a worried senior official of the Ordnance Board to the Ministry of Defence. This is in reference to the equipment at the Ordnance Factory at Bhandara (OFB) — India’s largest and most strategic factory that makes over 20 types of ammunition for India’s most strategic defence assets. Bhandara manufactures the 155mm shells for the Bofors,125mm shells for the T-72 and T-90 tanks, the squib cable cutters to name a few.
This recent letter seems to be a reaction to the severe critique of Ordnance Factories levelled by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. The CAG had claimed that the OFB failed to deliver on time mounting to a shortfall in production, which accounts for 64-95% of the types of ammunition in the country. Over and above the CAG report also held the OFB accountable for the lack of supply sometimes up to 17 months.
It points to the fact that for a country that in the past year has faced the threat of imminent war on two borders, the MoD has been looking at short-term fixes rather than giving meaning to self reliance in defense production. As the report says, “While fulfilling the demand of the Single Based Propellant (SBP) for about 20 types of ammunition there is NO capacity left for the manufacture of SBP of the strategic store like 125 mm, ammunition for tank T-90 & T-72 (tanks that won India several wars). As a result, complete requirement has to be fulfilled only by importation, culminating into a severe drain of resources and unpredictability of delivery schedule.” What is surprising is that there was ample reason for OFB to engage in indigenous production to the order to supply the 155mm Bofors Shells from the UAE in May 2017 .
This letter from September report beseeches the government to act and calls for an urgent upgrading of Bhandara’s manufacturing capacity, which has been crippled by poor infrastructure, aged and broken down machinery, a paucity of manpower. What compounds our problem is the desire of a section of the bureaucracy to encourage import rather than build its own.
It’s not just Bhandara, sources claim, which is showing a crying need to re-fit and modernise all 41 of India’s military ordnance factories.
Ordnance Factory Bhandara
The ordnance factory at Bhandara (OFBa) is the largest and only factory in the country that makes Single Base Propellant (SBP), a key ingredient in over 20 types of ammunition. “There are sufficient production load for the SBP to cater to the present and future needs of the Indian Army, Navy, Air Force and MHA. The requirements of SBP, the present significant shortfall due to insufficient availability of the existing plant.” OFB was set up in 1965 and 1968 and has been operational for over 50 years. However, there is a need to build a new plant that will reduce costs, provide a safer operation and build better quality.
The report says that there has been a continued effort to modernise the factory, “By 2000, the plant had already run over more than 30 years. Due to continuous use and and wear and tear of the machinery and equipments, that too in harsh working climate, the capacity and reliability of the plan over a period has depleted significantly. Frequent breakdowns resulting in production hold ups are a persistent phenomenon. It is not possible to meet full requirement of the propellant with this old, low capacity plan with low productivity and consequent higher cost of production due to labour intensive operations.”
Efforts to Modernise
In 2003, the Indian government put forward a Global tender and several companies submitted their proposals to the Indian government. Teams were sent to various parts of the world to assess the technological capabilities of the proposals submitted. Eventually, a leading foreign company was selected as the tender and brought in for price negotiations on September 4, 2014. The price was finalised on November 25, 2014, and the file put forward to the Ministry of Defence.
While the MoD has been raising questions, for three years, there is a growing urgency with which the Ordnance Factory Board has demanded the immediate modernisation. The report says that all the questions and reservations of the government have been met and answered for. “Given the facts stated above, it is abundantly clear that the existing SBP plant the only one of its kind in India is strategic and has already outlived its life. For meeting the sustained requirements of the vital defence stores in an uninterrupted fashion, the positioning of the NEW SBP plant at OFBa is indispensable.”
This is an extremely important point given that the Indian government when confronted with the ammunition shortage, only 10 days of ammunition were in store, during the Doklam stand-off chose to import ammunition. In times of war, importing is an unreliable solution. As a source said, “Ordnance factories shifts can be increased from one shift of 8 hours to a full 24-hour production, where retired workers can be reinstated. Moreover in the short-term, the re-fitting, modernisation will increase jobs in and around the region.”
There is an urgent need to modernise and refurbish the OFBa, which would help India be better prepared for the threats that it faces.
While the report only focuses on OFBa, the plight of all other factories is similar. In the past five years, many of the Ordnance factories have been operating at critical mass with old or defunct technology which has not only reduced production but also put their workers lives in danger. As a CAG report from July brought the plight of India’s Ordnance factories to the fore, little has been done ever since. Instead, in August, the NDA government at the Centre further tightened the purse, which led to job loss and more unsafe working conditions. Fires, explosions and malfunctions have now become a common occurrence at these factories.
In December 2017, the MoD had attempted on paper to initiate an effort to modernise the factories, but nothing happened on the ground. Meanwhile, companies looking to enter the ammunition sector have faced hurdle after hurdle either from the bureaucracy or the rules of the Make in India programme. As a source said, “All of the bureaucracy has vested interests, the government doesn’t listen, if we face a two-front war how many bullets can we import?”