LUDHIANA: Mortar bombs, projectiles, grenades, rockets, detonators, artillery shells were unheard of in Shekowal and Kalewal village, until Indian Army’s biggest operation to dispose off scrap ammunitions began there in November.
Over 30 kms from here, 738 residents and 2,500 animals of the villages are evacuated each day by the police to the nearby Gurdwara and other safe places so that the Army can transport, segregate and then dispose of over 17,000 pieces of ammunitions of unknown origin that made their way to the centre of the industrial capital of Punjab.
Steel and other metal re-rolling units in Punjab had imported the scrap at throwaway prices between 1999 and 2004. They had not specified the nature of the consignment and only mentioning scrap while taking permission for the imports. It was only during inspections by Customs that their hazardous nature was discovered at a dry port in the industrial hub of Ludhiana in 2004 but it took nearly six years to start the process of disposing it off.
“Bomb disposal is always high risk so we take extra precautions to ensure the safety of the men handling the ammunition, the villagers and even the cattle. We execute six to eight blasts every day and the project should be complete in two months. The sheer scale of the operation has given us a chance to train our team,” said Lt. Col. Vinod Bhat, commanding officer of the 202 Bomb Disposal Unit (BDU), about the Operation.
The operation has been named ‘Saiyam'(patience). “We have been trained but each time a bomb is picked or placed there is considerable risk involved, that is why the remote controlled vehicles, telescopic handling machines, bomb suits etc are used, if proper precautions are taken there is little fear left,” said a jawan in a bomb suit as he picked a rusted piece of metal and carefully placed it on a padded crane. The scrap was intended to be recycled for the steel industry and had the explosives gone off while melting the scrap, consequences would have been catastrophic.
The ammunitions, weighing over 50 tonnes, was imported into the country in the garb of metal scrap to be recycled into steel. It was stored in five containers, four of which were 20 feet long and one was 40 feet in length at the dry port which is located inside a populated area in Ludhiana. Operation Saiyam will cost about Rs. 13.5 million and the authorities have levied this penalty on the eight private individuals who imported the scrap. Till now, Army officers have conducted over 60 blasts and destroyed over 1400 pieces. “It is only through visual inspection that we saying that there are about 17,000 pieces of ammunitions. We have not counted them physically. The number can go up when we take actual stock of the situation in the coming days,” he said. “This is a very tedious process and consumes a long time. Our officers cannot rush things and they have to be very patient. Therefore, we keep rotating our officers on different jobs so that monotony does not set in,” Lt. Col. Bhat pointed out.
The villagers have been told to keep away from their fields between 7 am and 5 pm till the operation is completed. Army aims to destroy the large calibre ammunition first so that the villages can be rehabilitates as soon as possible, “the cooperation of the villagers is very important, we have 12 police posts to ensure that once the blasts begin, there is no one around the area and until we are left with very small calibre ammunitions, we won’t take any risk,” Lt Col Bhatt said adding the most dangerous are the hand grenades as most of them are without their pins.