The Salawa Jaalawa (Inferno)

By Parakrama Dissanayake

05th June is a special day that always made me happy since marriage, it was the day that my eldest daughter was born. Sunday, the 05th of June 2016, was no different till evening. Then came the news of the Salawa inferno. The day that changed the lives and destiny of most people in that little hamlet. The conspicuous landmark in the area, the military camp is now in ruins as much as the lives of the people who lived in the area. My intention is not to write about the harrowing story about these people. There will be many doing that for good and bad reasons, both. Although  much water has flowed between then and now, I am yet to see or hear a logical analysis or story about the incident. Therefore, I thought I would give it a try.  My intention, of course, is not to comment on political opinions, but  to dispel myths and fantasy of attention seekers. To put things in the proper perspective in a responsible manner.

The Expert Analysis

I was appalled by a story that was doing the rounds regarding the incident. Though it has not gone viral, the electronic and print media both have given prominence to this story or rather an analysis given by a "foreign" Expert. Although none said who he was or what his expertise was. As usual, we take anything and everything what a foreign expert says as the gospel truth. I don't blame anyone for this, as that's what all of us do. However, his opinion or analysis is very damaging to the very fabric of National security. Why? He has, for some expert reason within about 48 hrs, concluded that the incident looks like sabotage. His sources? Eye witnesses who were outside the camp. He goes on to explain and establish his analysis. The last few days, many have asked me about this analysis since they are convinced. As we all know, news is based on sensation. In a company,  if it was announced that the it had a loss during the year, no one would be interested. But, if someone said the bosses wife ran away with the driver, it will be hot and juicy for months. So sabotage is what has hit the head of most people. If so, it will be part of a conspiracy. In my opinion, this Expert  is part of the conspiracy. First of all, he should be identified before late. He could be a threat to National security, he could also be a "plant" of someone. So he and his story needs to be checked. If at all, he considered himself an expert in explosives he cannot be one. As there are none in this field, other than specialists. 

Brief of Myself

By way of introduction, I am presently, working as a Security and Risk Management Specialist and a Trainer on compliance. I had the good fortune of being on an attachment to the Pakistan Ordnance Factories (POF), many years ago. A place where munitions are manufactured. I have also had the opportunity to visit many large ammunition depots in India. Iam also a trained and experienced investigator. Although, my credentials are not at all important, it gives credibility to what I have to say. Thus, the reason for the introduction. 

Ammunition Storage Blasts

In recent years, we have heard of many such blasts and explosions. Just to highlight some important one's that had far reaching consequences are as follows

1988 Ojhri, Rawalpindi/Islamabad blast, 4000 killed

2002 Lagos, Nigeria, 1000 killed. The fire  started in the street market close by and spread

2012 Donguz, Ural, Russia 4000 tons of ammunition  destroyed  

2012  Brazilville, Congo 200 killed 

2016  May 31st,  Pulgoan, Nagpur, India 17 killed 

In all these incidents there have been three reasons for such disasters. It's the cycle of Sabotage, Neglect and Accident. Of these, the last in Pulgoan, is the most striking and interesting. Though we are not privy to the findings of investigations, what we have had access to, is worth discussing as a case study. It is also interesting to note that this incident has so far has not  been brought to our attention by the local media and the Expert. For  better understanding I will outline in brief the incident. 


The Central Ammunition Depot Pulgoan is in the District of Wardah off Nagpur in Mahrashtra. It's about three hours journey by train from Nagpur. It is the largest depot in India and the second largest in Asia. Considered as the Mother Depot. It's around seven thousand acres in extent and has a perimeter of around twenty six kilometers. About six hundred soldiers guard the complex. (The information is subject to correction by any Indian authority). On the 31st of May 2016 about one hundred and thirty tons of ammunition was destroyed, following a fire and explosion. About seventeen were killed including two senior officers. Initial media reports stated that high temperature was the cause. One may not know whether it was the cause for the fire or the explosions. Reports also stated that some mines which had production defects and which were exudating were the cause. As some of us would know, mines consists of High Explovises (HE) unlike gun powder, which is a Low Explosive (LE). So even if there was a fire, the chances of HE getting blasted is very remote. Somehow it happened. One also needs to bear in mind that once a single explosion occurs there is so much that could explode through sympathetic detonations. Mines are stored along with detonators, Shells are stored along with fuzes. Detonators and Fuzes are more sensitive. Therefore, anyone doing a fuller investigation on Salawa, will certainly be at an advantage if one can gain access to what happened at Pulgoan. The Indian High Commission may assist.  

Investigations on Salawa

With all due respect to all those doing investigations, it could be said that it will be a difficult task collecting and collating evidence. Lot will depend on data bases which will be outside the dump. This will serve as the traditional documentary  evidence. Most of the in house documentation should be destroyed. There could be little coming to light, by way of circumstantial and forensic evidence. The other valuable source of evidence may come from expert evidence obtained from technical officers who are qualified and may be from countries which supplied the ammunition. Technically, with the shelf life of ammunition reaching it's peak, the chances of accidents also increase. More importantly, investigations should bring out how to move forward, response and accountability issues. 

Past experience on such incidents suggest two strong possibilities.  A fire being ignited in the compound due to some reason and spreading to an area where there may have been charge bags of artillery shells. Charge bags contain propellants which belong to the LE  category. The intense heat could have caused explosions,  in the store itself, though normally it  does not happen. However it's impact is  limited as the projectile does not travel. Or else, the ignited charge bags, propel the the shells to distant places, as both components are stored together. However, the shells may not explode on landing as they are unarmed, or without fuzes. The collateral damage to buildings may be due to the blast. The fact that no civilians were killed suggest that they had sufficient time to evacuate from the area as the first explosions were within the storage and the bellowing smoke gave them the signal. This evidence could be found without much difficulty at all. The most important question that begs an answer is, how does heat and temperature cause HE to activate. This could only have a technical explanation.

A Possible Way Forward

Standard lessons like where should ammunition be dumped and how, are the most obvious.

Look and learn, going back to Pulgoan, it is interesting to note that the Comptroller  and Auditor General (CAG) in India is privy to all what takes place in any military establishment. I doubt Sri Lanka has any system like that. It is very logical for the CAG to be in charge as he is the custodian of the State's purse. It is a very robust safety valve. In fact in 2013, the CAG of India had observed the deficiencies in Pulgoan. 

Safety, standards  to be followed are also very important. In the current context many countries adhere to the UN Hazards Division List 1.1 to 1.4.

Accountability, regular audits should be a key component in the safety mechanism.

Foreign assistance, is vital as it could come from the countries that sold/manufactured the munitions and those who have investigated such cases.

Professionalism, since explosives are related to physical  and chemical activity, those undergoing training should be qualified in those subjects.

National Responsibility  and Obligation, again Pulgoan teaches  us a good lesson. Reading through The Hindu, Indian Express one will see the degree of  restraint they maintained in reporting inaccuracies and fantasy. The responsibility of the media should not be only to report the plight of the affected but to be objective and balanced. Sadly, we see media organisations trying to be the "Best". More emphasis is on political perceptions. The Army, a disciplined and hierarchical organisation that cannot talk out of turn or unprofessionally. Therefore, it is handicapped.  The same happened in Pulgoan, the Army did not rush to give statements. Their immediate concern was control, management and   restoration. 

Clearly, the Nation is going through turbulent times. Navigating  in choppy waters is not easy either. One, an  act of God the other an act of man. Let us all be responsible.

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