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Force Magazine
Guest Column - Force Magazine
Passing the Buck
Was Admiral D.K. Joshi a convenient scapegoat post the tragedy on INS Sindhuratna?
Cmde Lalit Kapur (retd)
By Cmde Lalit Kapur (retd)

On 26 February 2014, a fire broke out on board INS Sindhuratna, a submarine undergoing workup at sea, off Mumbai, after refit. The fire was quelled using inbuilt fire-fighting systems, but caused nine casualties: two officers died and seven sailors had to be evacuated to hospital.

Shortly after reports of the event reached Delhi, Admiral D.K. Joshi, the 21st Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), walked across to the office of the defence minister and handed over his letter of resignation, “accepting moral responsibility for the sequence of accidents that the Indian Navy had experienced in the preceding few months” as per the ministry of defence (MoD) press release. In a subsequent interview, the Admiral described the root cause for his resignation as “this dysfunctional and inefficient business model that we have, wherein professional competence, domain expertise, accountability, responsibility and authority reside in separate silos”.

Warships, and particularly, submarines are incredibly complicated platforms operated by highly-trained crew. Given their complexity, the potential for accident is large and consequences can be disastrous. Experience indicates that about 80 per cent of all accidents are attributable to human failure, with the rest being due to material failure. A professional navy takes great pains to prevent both: the former by extensive training, in-depth analysis and deriving of lessons from all accidents coupled with use of well-thought out standard operating procedures. The latter is achieved through enormous attention to maintenance. Despite this, navies the world over do lose ships due to accidents in peacetime. It is unheard of for the chief of a service to be held accountable for accidents: his job is policy and the human or material element is not under his direct control. The quick acceptance of Admiral Joshi’s resignation without even a murmur, thus, raises numerous questions:

• Is the higher defence structure really as dysfunctional and inefficient as the Admiral has described in his interview?
• Was resignation the correct decision?
• Did the minister and ministry of defence (MoD) handle the situation with maturity, holding national interest paramount?
• What is the role the nation expects its service chiefs to play?
• Are training and maintenance standards good enough to operate our ageing platforms with the requisite degree of efficiency?
• What about the impact on morale?
• Does moral responsibility end at the level of the service chief?

Admiral D.K. JoshiThe higher defence organisation of any country comprises three primary parts — the political ‘head’ and the principal arms comprising the bureaucracy and the armed forces with domain expertise in different elements (land, sea, air). In addition, there are support structures to handle technology development, defence industry, paramilitary organisations etc. Ideally, all must work together as a team, striving within their domains and complementing each other to provide the nation with the desired result in the most cost-effective manner possible. In practice, the extent to which this happens in a democracy is a function of the inter-relationship between them.

The armed forces are created and trained to focus on outcome, to ensure that whenever they step in, they deliver the desired result. This is why they have become the nation’s tool of last resort in a variety of situations, from manning essential services during strikes to providing disaster relief to rescue of children who have fallen into wells, from tackling internal threats to external aggression!

The bureaucracy, on the other hand, is created and trained to provide ministerial support and focus on the process. The reader is invited to Google ‘bureaucrat meaning’. The result says: ‘An official in a government department, in particular one perceived as being concerned with procedural correctness at the expense of people’s needs’. It is not part of the bureaucrat’s remit to provide direction or to be concerned about the result; that is the job of the ‘head’.

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