How can India become a regional naval power if its sailors keep dying?

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India is not engaged in active naval warfare against any country at the moment. This might seem obvious to say, but it bears repeating because of the number of lives the country seems to be losing to naval accidents despite it being peacetime.

On Thursday, one sailor was killed and another four were reported missing after a torpedo recovery vessel sank off the coast of Visakhapatnam. As of Friday evening, 18 hours after the incident, authorities were still carrying out an extensive search operation to locate the missing sailors.

“The vessel was on a routine mission to recover torpedoes fired by fleet ships during a routine exercise, when it experienced flooding in one of its compartments,” the navy said. “One sailor has lost his life during the rescue operation and four personnel are reported missing.”

This incident is only the latest in a series of accidents that have plagued the Indian Navy over the last few years, giving it the ignominious reputation that the Air Force, with its own ageing fleet and frequent crashes, once held. The issue has become even more pressing at a time when India has sought to project itself as a naval power that can rival China’s influence over the seas.

Frequent accidents

The headliner is the accident that sank INS Sindhurakshak while it was berthed at the naval dockyard off the Mumbai coast in 2013. That incident led to 18 casualties and many more injuries, the worst disaster faced by the Indian Navy since the 1971 war.

But Sindhurakshak wasn’t a one-off. Last year alone, two Talwar class frigates were damaged because of collisions and a minesweeper ship had almost its entire interior burnt after catching fire while undergoing repairs.

Already, 2014 has been equally problematic. From ships running aground to holes being found in the structures to boiler room explosions, there has been a steady stream of small incidents that have barely been noticed. And on top of these have been the fatal incidents. Two officers suffocated to death on the INS Sindhuratna, a submarine, after a fire broke out on board during trials. One officer killed on the INS Kolkata as a result of a toxic gas leak. And now there is yet another casualty with the torpedo recovery vehicle, with four remaining officers still missing.

In response to a question in the Lok Sabha in August, the defence minister said that there had been 22 accidents over the last three and a half years, leading to the deaths of 21 naval personnel.

Strange disconnect

Now consider these statements and announcements from Indian authorities, of both administrations, over the last year. “India committed to modernising Vietnam’s naval defence.” “The Indian Navy is committed to ensuring the safety and security of [Indian Ocean] sea-lanes.” “We have also sought to assume our responsibility for stability in the Indian Ocean Region. We are well-positioned, therefore, to become a net provider of security in our immediate region and beyond.”

Indeed, not only has New Delhi framed a doctrine where it attempts to guarantee its own safety on the high seas, it has also taken the responsibility of making the ocean safer for other countries. From upgrading the navies of other nations to patrolling sea lanes, the country has often sought to prove that the ocean is Indian in more than just name. But in order to do that, it will have to show that it can first keep its own sailors safe – that too in peacetime.

The new government has shown some inclination to alter the various problems faced by the navy, from terribly outdated ships and equipment to inordinate delays in production of new boats. Defence Minister Arun Jaitley insisted in Parliament in August that efforts were being taken to prevent further accidents and that sufficient funds would be allocated to modernising the navy. Last month, the government announced the first of these initiatives: spending Rs 53,000 crore on building six new submarines.

But if India is to become the “net provider” of security in the region and even beyond, it’s first task will have to include ensuring that these promises are accompanied an approach to safety that sees fewer sailors dying because of mishaps.

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