Photographs: Kamal Kishore/Reuters Vaihayasi Pande Daniel
'If the navy was part of the ministry of defence then, of course, the defence minister would have been jointly responsible for everything that happened. But that is not so.'
'The defence minister can shrug his shoulders and say, "Look I don't know what is going on in the navy, so let the chief handle it".'
'The politician is free to do what he feels. If his conscience hurts him, he is welcome to quit,' former naval chief Admiral Arun Prakash tells Rediff.com's Vaihayasi Pande Daniel.
In the early hours of Wednesday, February 26, the Indian Navy's Russian-built, kilo-class submarine, the INS Sindhuratna, caught fire in the high seas off Mumbai harbour.
Seven sailors were evacuated to hospital by helicopter. Two other naval officers were killed.
The bodies of Lieutenant Commander Kapish Muwal and Lieutenant Manoranjan Kumar were discovered in a compartment of the vessel when the submarine returned to the harbour.
The disaster comes six months after the massive explosion on the INS Sindhurakshak, another Russian-built and newly-overhauled submarine in Mumbai harbour that led to the death of all its 18 members on aboard that August night. In between there have been other mishaps in the navy, but fortunately there was no loss of lives.
Naval Chief Admiral Devendra Kumar Joshi accepted moral responsibility for the latest accident and resigned February 26.
Former naval chief Admiral Arun Prakash, left, sheds light on why the Indian Navy is facing trouble with its submarines in this interview to Rediff.com's Vaihayasi Pande Daniel.
What do you feel about the latest statement by Defence Minister A K Antony expressing confidence that the navy was correcting any deficiencies it was facing? Should not someone in the political leadership have taken responsibility for this recent accident and resigned instead of the naval chief? Why did Admiral D K Joshi have to resign?
Political responsibility can only be shouldered if the whole system is integrated.
If the navy was part of the ministry of defence then, of course, the defence minister would have been jointly responsible for everything that happened.
But that is not so.
The defence minister can shrug his shoulders and say, 'Look I don't know what is going on in the navy, so let the chief handle it.'
The chief, being a sensitive person, has taken the moral responsibility and quit.
There is a flaw in the system, which keeps the three -- the army, navy and air force -- detached from the ministry of defence. That is unique to India.
In other countries that is not so. In, say, the United Kingdom and the United States, the services are very much part of the department of defence. So, if something goes wrong, then it is the department of defence that is responsible.
The minister in charge is responsible for things that go right and for things that go wrong.
That system does not exist here. Therefore the chief has decided to take moral responsibility.
And the politician is free to do what he feels. If his conscience hurts him, he is welcome to quit. But in the current system he can quite happily say: I am not really responsible for what happens in the navy.
A bad situation?
Sad situation. It is an aberration in the system.
A big aberration which we have been trying to correct for 50, 60 years -- saying you must integrate the armed forces with the ministry.
'We have lost a good officer. We lost a good chief'
Photographs: Sahil Salvi Vaihayasi Pande Daniel
Was Admiral Joshi perhaps nudged to leave?
That's not true.
Does his resignation really help the situation in the long run?
It would help if the navy instituted a huge inquiry or investigation to find out: Is something actually wrong with the navy? Are they doing something wrong? If they are doing something wrong, how to fix it?
So, in that sense, if it does trigger off that kind of inquiry, it will help.
Otherwise, we have lost a good officer. We lost a good chief.
You don't feel he should have resigned?
No, it was not necessary under the circumstances.
Of these five or six accidents that took place, most of them were minor, trivial accidents. Except the two submarine incidents in which lives were lost.
The other incidents happen in all navies all the time. He need not have resigned.
'There is nothing wrong with our training and our operations'
Photographs: Reuters Vaihayasi Pande Daniel
So this most recent submarine accident is not the result of poor training, but because of the navy's aging Russian equipment?
Lives have been lost, so it is serious. They are old submarines. They have been overhauled in Russia.
Questions should be asked about the standards of Russian maintenance practices and about our whole operational and maintenance procedure.
Are we doing something wrong? Or have the Russians done something wrong?
Is there a design fault? That area needs to be investigated.
The rest of the incidents, which have been listed in the newspapers -- I think seven to eight of them -- are petty incidents. But they have been picked up by the media, an intrusive media, who drummed it up.
All that has built pressure. There is inherently nothing wrong with our training and our operations.
Why are we not able to break this dependency on Russian equipment?
That's a huge question! It will take a long time to answer.
There is a dependency on the Russians, which is about 40 years old. The West refused to sell us equipment in the old days. We went to the Russians.
We went to them to such an extent that 80 to 90 per cent of the equipment of all Indian armed forces was Russian -- Soviet -- at one time.
The last 10 years or so, after liberalisation, we started diversifying. But it will take a long time.
Once you buy a piece of equipment, it lasts for 30 to 40 years. For all that time you have to import spare parts. So we are still very much in the hands of the Russians.
That will take a long time, and a lot of determination, to wean ourselves away from. But we are making a start. We bought ten billion (rupees) worth of American equipment recently.
But we are still going back to the Russians. The Indian aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, was recently overhauled there.
Vikramaditya was built by the Russians. Only the Russians can overhaul it. You can't say I will go to France and overhaul it (there). It cannot be done.
Russian equipment can only be overhauled by the Russians and only Russian spare parts will fit on it.
It is like buying an American car. When it is due for repair, you can't say I will go to a French company and get it repaired.
For the entire lifetime of that piece of equipment -- which can be anything above 30 years -- you have to keep going back to the Russians. You have to keep buying spare parts from them.
We have to now find out if it was the fault of the Russians or our fault.
'It's tragic that Sindhurakshak hasn't been pulled out of the water yet'
Photographs: Indian Embassy in Russia/K R Deepak Vaihayasi Pande Daniel
You had mentioned the need of doing a similar post mortem, when I had spoken to you post the INS Sindhurakshak disaster. What were the findings of that submarine disaster?
It is very tragic that the submarine has not yet been pulled out of the water. It is still sitting in the water!
The ministry of defence has to approve a contract with an international firm to pick out the submarine.
When it comes out of the water, then they can open it and then they can find out what went wrong.
Now eight or nine months have elapsed. The ministry of defence has not been able to push the case through and get someone to pick the submarine out of the water.
So it is not surprising that it is taking so long?
No, it is surprising! It is scandalous!
That's the way things work.
When you talk about the minister resigning, then these are the issues that he should be conscious of.
It is his failure, not the navy's failure.
'Submarines that were to be ready in 2012 may be ready in 2018'
Photographs: Wikimedia Commons Vaihayasi Pande Daniel
Why have efforts to build a new class of conventional submarine, the Franco-Spanish design Scorpene been delayed?
Yes, it is relevant. If we had new submarines, then we would be operating them, rather than operating old submarines.
There again the approvals are given by the ministry of defence. The very initial approval to start construction of the Scorpene took about seven to eight years.
There were unexplained delays. They are not answerable to us. They just kept delaying it.
Once it was approved and work started in Mumbai, then there were other areas where further approvals were required. Again, there were delays from the ministry of defence.
So cumulatively there have been seven or eight years of delay from the ministry of defence.
These submarines, which were supposed to be ready in 2012, may be ready in 2018.
That is one of the reasons why we are sailing in old Russian submarines rather than brand new French submarines.
Everything is sad.
'We should never lose lives at peacetime'
Photographs: Reuters Vaihayasi Pande Daniel
There is also the question of dominance in the Indian Ocean.
We are not looking at dominance. We are certainly looking towards no one else exercising dominance in the Indian Ocean, by which I mean the Chinese.
There was an article in the Mumbai Mirror newspaper about the bravery of these two officers. Their actions reflect the strength of the Indian Navy. How will their deaths affect morale, recruitment, willingness to work on submarines?
Our people are very professional and very highly motivated.
But when your chief resigns, then obviously every young sailor and officer will pause and say what happened? Something is definitely wrong.
Fortunately we will have a new chief in a few days time. Things will come back to normal. But it definitely has an impact.
It makes a dent in the morale and the motivation of young people who question what is all this about.
There is no doubt they will sail, they will fly. They will do whatever is asked of them they are not going to question that.
But definitely we should be conscious that we have young men and women who are serving. Their morale and motivation is impacted by such an event.
It is very sad. It is terrible. We should never lose lives at peacetime.
I don't know the circumstances (of the accident and how the two officers died). They died in a compartment where they were overcome by gases.
I am sure they died doing their duty. There is no doubt about that. So to that extent they were very brave young men.