The death of a worker in an explosion in which two other persons were seriously injured in the high security High Energy Material Research Laboratory (HEMRL) of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) at Pune on 22 December, has raised serious questions about the safety measures being followed by this laboratory. Concerns are being raised about how unskilled contractual workers are being allowed entry to this laboratory, and being allowed to work there, without any police verification and without meeting the prescribed norms. This super sensitive laboratory is one of its kind in conducting research and development work in the field of high energy materials for guns and rocket propellants, high explosives and pyrotechnics. HEMRL also handles sensitive projects for the Indian military, BARC and ISRO. The person who died in the recent explosion, Deepak Pokhale, was a contractual worker who was working in the laboratory at the time of his death.
In 2011, the Joint Controller of Defence Accounts (JCDA), in its audit report of HEMRL had stated that the laboratory faced security threats as it had outsourced a part of its work to unmarked contractual labourers who work for a private company. The JCDA audit report also pointed out serious lapses in the attendance of contractual workers and security procedures. The JCDA audit, which has been accessed by this newspaper, clearly states that as per Clause 12 of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the private company, the contractor has to provide 173 workmen to HEMRL. But the audit found that HEMRL did not have any uniform system of maintaining the attendance of the deployed manpower. “As per clause 1.5 of the general terms & conditions the vendor shall ensure that in and out records of all the personnel/workers are maintained at the security gate during the contract period. However, the same is not being done,” the report said.
“After the audit report came, we raised this issue at various levels, seeking suitable action on the shortcomings that were brought out by the report. However, nothing was done. Even now, any labourer can enter the premises without even getting a verification certificate from the local police station. All he needs is a plastic token, which he can get from the main gate without any verification”, an official working with the lab said.
According to him, there is no systematic way of recruiting a workforce for this super sensitive lab. “It is all being done in a very unprofessional manner. Most of the workers are allowed to enter the premises and work in the laboratory on the basis of the recommendation of an HEMRL employee. The workers need to deposit Rs 100 after which they get a receipt that works as a gate pass and on the basis of this, the casual labourer gets the biometric entry card from HEMRL security.” The person who died caused an explosion “while mixing elements”, says the source.
A DRDO official stated that a majority of the contractual workers at HEMRL were unskilled. “Despite rules suggesting a prescribed educational qualification for contractual workers, they are seldom followed. There is no proper process for identifying who in the guise of a contractual labourer is entering the lab. The process that is to be followed before a worker is allowed to work for the lab, is hardly followed. Anyone can pose as a contractual worker and gain entrance in the lab. For the supply of workers, HEMRL relies on a private company, Viswaat Chemicals Ltd, which is run by a former director of HEMRL,” a source said. Official sources in the DRDO said that this was not for the first time that such an accident had taken place in HEMRL. In a similar incident in 2002 at the facility, two lab technicians and four contractual workers were killed in a blast in the solid rocket propellant section. In 2009, a major explosion blew off the roof of one of the research units and left eight people injured. In the same year, another person was also injured in a fire accident.