A Nation’s Fatal Ingratitude

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6,000 Indian soldiers fight in the minus 50 degree bitter cold of the Siachen Glacier. A callous Ministry of Defence is now giving them flimsy gear that’s fit only for minus 10 degrees, finds Neha Dixit

At a ruthless distance Soldiers at a base camp in Siachen wearing extreme cold weather clothing
Photo: AP

ON MAY 26, five days after he began his second innings as defence minister, AK Antony made a firm statement. He said that if the ministry found malpractices in any defence deals, it would declare them null and void right away. Clearly, Antony, who had cancelled two such deals in his last tenure, is still struggling to unearth the alleged goldmines for defence dealers. Meanwhile, the wheeling and dealing continues unabated.

In a two-month-long investigation, TEHELKA discovered that top officials in the Ministry of Defence (MOD), including the Master General of Ordnance (MGO), have laid the foundation to jeopardise the lives of as many as 6,000 soldiers posted in Siachen, the highest battlefield in the world. It all started with an easy compromise of rules to accommodate a tainted but favoured company.

In August 2006, the MOD floated a proposal (TEHELKA has a copy) to invite tenders to procure 53,480 sets of Goretex suits (jacket and trousers) for the soldiers in Siachen. Known as Extreme Cold Weather Clothing System (ECWCS), these suits help soldiers survive at 22,000 feet above sea level, where temperatures fall below minus 50 degree centigrade. These suits are three-layered and are designed to provide insulation and shield the body from cold wind, snow, rain and flying debris. However, the most unique feature of these suits is that the third, most important layer is made of Poly Tetra Flouro Thylene, known as Stretched Teflon in common parlance, a technology patented by the US brand, Goretex. This special membrane helps body sweat evaporate to prevent it from freezing and sticking to the soldiers’ bodies and causing frostbite. Frostbite is one of the most common reasons for soldiers to die in the freezing glaciers of Siachen – it’s reported that at least 90 percent of Siachen’s soldier deaths are not caused by bullets, but by sub-zero temperatures in the glacier. Sources say that roughly six soldiers die because of the extreme cold every month. Proper equipment and cold weather clothing is, no doubt, as important for the health and safety of the soldiers as is their military training.

Battlelines Indian soldiers muster at the base camp after returning from training in Siachen Glacier
Photo: Reuters

The US army and NATO forces have adopted Stretched Teflon, which is the only known technology to perform optimally in minus 50 degree centigrade temperatures. Traditionally, the Indian army too has been using this technology, and purchased these suits last in 1999.

What is also crucial is that the MOD proposal floated in August 2006 laid down no technical specifications, making space to approve and reject tenders randomly. First, a South Korean firm, Wonryong, was shortlisted and its samples were tested. In January 2007, the Directorate General of Quality Assurance gave some army specifications for the product, which the South Korean firm said were “technically impractical in nature.” This error was acknowledged by the ministry and was later changed. On June 3, 2008, the Additional Director General of Quality Assurance sent a letter to the MGO’s office advising it to place an order for 5,000 units. However, the letter was reportedly lost and the tender was cancelled for “inconsistent sample specifications”.

In August 2008, a new request for the proposal was issued in which the South Korean company was not asked to respond. Meanwhile, it was decided at the MOD that the MGO would be delegated some financial powers to facilitate quick decisions on items of urgent need. The extreme weather clothing fell under such a category. To facilitate the expanded role of the MGO, the original order for 53,480 suits was downsized to 27,000. This contract, worth US$ 7,795,035 (Rs 37.4 crore) was awarded by the MGO, Lt Gen SS Dhillon, to an American mail order firm called Black Diamond.

Apathy Defence Minister AK Antony at a military training camp in Siachen in May 2007
Photo: AP

TEHELKA has a copy of this contract that shows how rules were bent to create an order that was sharply in contrast to what was originally demanded by the MOD in 2006. The motive — to throw open a back door for Black Diamond to bag the contract.

Among the numerous violations, the most grave is that Black Diamond is allegedly using a technology that has no track record of being effective in temperatures as low as minus 50 degree centigrade. The Stretched Teflon that is the primary element that keeps off the cold has been replaced by Poly Urethane, commonly known as PU coated technology. PU is applied like paint onto fabric, in most cases nylon, on both sides. Till date, there is no track record of the PU technology being used below minus 10 degree centigrade anywhere in the world. It has not been attempted for a good reason — the PU coating cracks in temperatures below minus 10 degrees centigrade, which allows water and air to get inside the clothing. Air and water immediately lower the body temperature, which can turn fatal in exceedingly sub-zero temperatures. Top sources in the textile department at IIT Delhi confirm that PU coating is a non-breathable coating, which means that when there is sweating during any vigorous physical activity, there is no evaporation. Instead, the sweat turns into ice, leading to frostbite.

It is crucial to note that the agent who negotiated the deal with Black Diamond was the same person who represented an Italian company a few years ago. The company had come under the scanner two years ago for providing faulty snow boots to soldiers in Siachen, which was exposed by the India TV channel.

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OUT IN THE COLD

670 soldiers (official) and up to 20,000 soliders (unofficial) have died of cold since 1984
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90 percent of military deaths in Siachen are due to sub-zero temperatures, not war
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Several soldiers suffer frostbite, blindness and memory loss
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Soldiers lose up to 20 kg in their three-month posting at Siachen
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Due to scant oxygen, soldiers wear oxygen masks all the time which makes some hearing impaired

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SIACHEN IS one of the toughest areas in which Indian soldiers perform their duty — battling not just the enemy, but also the inhuman weather in the endless glacier. Oxygen in the air is 30 percent less than normal, as a result of which soldiers have to wear an oxygen mask at all times. Frostbite, snow blindness, pulmonary and cerebral edema take a huge toll on the soldiers. Due to high altitude, soldiers lose their appetite. Even when hungry, not much stays edible for too long — oranges freeze to the hardness of baseballs and potatoes cannot be dented with a hammer. Soldiers invariably end up losing up to 20 kg of their weight in just a three month tenure. According to official figures, 670 soldiers have lost their lives in the glacier till date due to cold weather. However, a retired major general posted in the glaciers some years ago suggests that up to 20,000 soldiers have died due to cold weather since April 1984, when the post at Siachen was established. When the unbearable cold does not lead to death, it causes acute disabilities — after a single posting at Siachen, several soldiers suffer hearing, eyesight and memory loss for the rest of their lives.

Stretched Teflon is a layer that prevents frostbite. Black Diamond simply coats a nylon layer with Poly Urethane — a potentially fatal shortcut

The Indian Army, on its part, patently justifies these debilitating difficulties by saying that it pays an extra Rs. 7,000 extra per month as ‘Siachen allowance’. A serving captain asks, “What is the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) doing about this? We are ready to give our lives for the country, at least we should not be provided faulty clothing.”

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HARD FACTS

The technology being used has never been tested in conditions below minus 10 degrees
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The MoD is paying a higher price to Black Diamond when there were other options at lesser price
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The original order of 53,480 suits was downsized to 27,000 to facilitate the awarding of the contract
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The contract only mentions the name of Dalian Airport in China, conveniently omitting the actual place where the suits are manufactured
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Two years ago, Black Diamond’s agent represented a company that came under the scanner for providing faulty snow boots to Siachen soldiers

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Violations multiply. While inviting tenders, the MOD had clearly stated in its 2006 proposal that responses are invited only from ‘Original Equipment Manufacturers,’ which Black Diamond is certainly not. On its website, the company states that it only operates as a retailer and sources its products from other manufacturers. Posing as an American journalist, when TEHELKA called Black Diamond, Bill Crouse, one of the directors of the company said, “We do not manufacture anything. We are merely providing these suits to the MoD on their special request.”

This ‘special request’ that the MOD made was to a company that is not a manufacturer. Worse, the contract only mentions the name of Dalian Airport in China, a transit point from where the goods are to be brought to India. It conveniently omits the place or factory where the three-layered suits supplied by Black Diamond are actually manufactured. Also, when Goretex, the patent holder, was charging US$ 570 per set and the Korean company US$ 248 per set for the Stretched Teflon technology, Black Diamond quoted US$ 289 per set for a technology that has never been used below minus 10 degree temperatures.

Illustration: Sudeep Chaudhuri

The consignments have not started arriving in India, although the first batch was supposed to arrive in April 2009. When TEHELKA contacted the Directorate General Quality Assurance, Brigadier Ajay Gehlot, he refused to answer any questions. “This is a matter of national security. I have nothing to say,” said Brigadier Gehlot.

Despite repeated attempts to contact them, the DRDO and the current MGO, Major General Vijay Sharma, refused to meet this reporter or answer any queries. Lt Gen SS Dhillon had signed the contract with Black Diamond on January 28, 2009, three days before he retired. This is also when the contract was downsized from 54,000 suits to 27,000 suits so that the contract could be accommodated under the new financial powers of the MGO. When Lt Gen Dhillon was contacted, he said, “All that I can say is that we do not take major decisions 15 days before we are supposed to move from a posting.” Lt Gen Dhillon has now been appointed a member in the Armed Forces Tribunal created to expedite trials of pending cases against army officers.

WHILE VARIOUS quarters of the MoD keep mum, this deal, along with a couple of recent incidents in the last few years, raises serious concerns about the role of the MGO with regard to the welfare of soldiers in Siachen. In October 2008, the Comptroller Auditor General (CAG) released a report saying that soldiers in Siachen were issued “partly torn” and recycled special clothing for the winters due to its untimely procurement. His report stated that the “Army Headquarters had failed to ensure timely procurement of Special Clothing and Mountaineering items used in operational areas like Siachen, resulting in stock-out levels of these critical items being as high as 44 to 70 percent… Such a practice of recycling special clothing items is not desirable on grounds of hygiene, operational suitability and overall morale of the troops.”

The proposal invited responses only from‘Original Equipment Manufacturers’. The chosen supplier, Black Diamond, however, is a retailer

A national user survey conducted by the CAG revealed that 50 percent of divisions or regiments were not satisfied with the quality and fitting of the clothing supplied. The major reason for dissatisfaction among users was related to a mismatch in trousers and shirts and their inappropriate sizes, poor quality of clothing with a problem of quick fading of colour, low usage-life of boots against the prescribed shelf life, and lack of water-proofing in caps. Blaming the Army’s MGO for the shortages between 2002 and 2007, the 2008 CAG report says that besides shortages, imports are being made by the Army without proper quality requirements. The audit reveals shortages in crucial items, including sleeping bags, socks, jackets, gloves, boots and even snow goggles. The biggest deficiency the Army faces is in gloves, with barely 30 percent of the required stock available. This means at any given time only three of every ten soldiers in Siachen can protect their hands from fatal frostbite, commonly known to course through the body starting at the extremities (fingers and toes).

Two years ago in 2007, the CAG had noted that about 10 contracts worth Rs 49 crore were placed by the MGO, out of which items worth Rs 29 crore were rejected either on ‘receipt inspection’ or by the end users, the soldiers.

There is a shortage of gloves and socks, with barely 30 percent of stock available. Only three in 10 soldiers can protect themselves from frostbite

When TEHELKA contacted Defence Minister AK Antony, clearly enumerating all the malpractices and the violations in the deal, he requested for an “official” complaint to which he would respond.

Evidently, the remoteness of those laying down their lives in harsh conditions is feeding the apathy of those sitting in Victorian bungalows in the warm centre of the country. At a time when the MGO is tainted by a large number of controversial deals, Antony’s first priority in his second tenure should be to tame this wild beast unfit to even provide adequate clothing to its soldiers. Every iota of information must be paid heed to without hiding in the comfortable defence of the official and the unofficial.

neha@tehelka.com

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