Priyanka Dutta, Kolkata: Heartbreaking pictures of the remains of seven soldiers — killed in an air crash in Arunachal Pradesh – being transported in cardboard boxes, have triggered controversy and concern on social media.
The images were widely circulated on social media and highlighted the fact that the Indian Army and the Air Force lacked basic equipment to ferry home their dead comrades in a dignified manner. But there is an even more startling fact coming out – the sources in the forces have revealed that the wait for body bags and the caskets is going on since 2001.
The need for the body bags and the caskets was felt for the first time during the Kargil conflict. The first contract for these was signed on August 2, 1999 with an initial order for 3,000 body bags and 400 caskets. In the beginning, 900 body bags and 150 caskets were supplied, but the contract was cancelled as early as the August of 2001.
Aluminium caskets mentioned in the papers were to be of 18 kg weight. But when the first consignment was delivered, the body bags were of 55 kg. The supply was stopped as it got embroiled into corruption allegations, which even led to the resignation of the then defence minister George Fernandes, who was later given the clean chit.
The CBI gave Fernandes a clean chit in 2013 after the gap of 12 years. It was found during the investigations that the noting of body bags to be of 18 kg was a typographic mistake. The United States Army also uses the body bags with the weight 55 kg.
On March 17, 2017, the Patiala House Court ordered the caskets to be released. Lately, an audit objection has been keeping the entire issue on hold as the objection was put up with a note to confirm with the U.S. Army about the weight of the body bags used by them. The U.S. Army also uses 55 kg weight body bags. There are 900 body bags and 150 caskets lying locked since 16 years.
Though Army sources say at that altitude, a Mi-17 helicopter cannot operate with the weight of 6 caskets.
“The Army teams had to put in lot of efforts to recover the dead bodies from deep down the Valley close to the Chinese border. It was a very difficult task. They however completed it. Wooden boxes are made at the Bases and then sent by Air to their homes.” Brigadier BK Ponwar, Director of Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College told to Kolkata24X7.com
Mr. Ponwar further affirmed, “Yes Govt has been requested for ready made Coffins for the purpose. Which is pending.’’
The Mi-17 V5 chopper was on an air maintenance mission, flying to Yangtse to drop off supplies at an Army camp. Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, Chief of the Indian Air Force, said, “The tail rotor of the helicopter flew off.”
When contacted with former IAF chief Arup Raha,Mr. Raha has denied to talk anything regarding the matter. “In a remote area, you can not expect it. Due to constraints in high altitude area, helicopter cannot carry full load. Mortal remains were wrapped in available local resources instead of improvised body bags or coffins.” Lt Gen Subroto Saha said.
Here’s the official statement released by the army on the matter:
“In a very sad accident on 6 October 2017, one MI-17V5 crashed near Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. The accident occurred in high altitude area while the helicopter was undertaking maintenance sortie. The post is not connected by any road. Immediately seeing the accident, all soldiers of the post commenced the recovery effort in the treacherous terrain. As the helicopter had caught fire, the recovery was difficult. On 6 October, the mortal remains of the crew and the soldiers who died in the helicopter crash were collected from the wreckage and were promptly moved to the nearest helipad. Due to constraints in high altitude area, helicopter cannot carry full load. Mortal remains were wrapped in available local resources instead of improvised body bags or coffins. This was an aberration.
Mortal remains arrived at Guwahati Base Hospital by 2P.M. on 6 October and thereafter post-mortems and other formalities commenced.
Immediately after the post-mortem, all the mortal remains were placed in the wooden coffins with full military honours. Consequent to paying of tributes as per full military honours, mortal remains of all the personnel have been sent to respective next of kin.
Carriage of mortal remains, wrapped in local resources as in this case, is an aberration. Body bags, wooden boxes will be ensured.
Armed Forces always ensure full military honour to the fallen comrades.”