The Big Story
Posted online: Sunday, August 03, 2008
at 1412 hrs
In one of the yards at Mazagon Dock Ltd in Mumbai, a stealthy project is underway to help the Indian Navy acquire a new edge in its blue-water capabilities. The Sunday Express became the first publication to be allowed past the gates of MDL to chronicle the work of the men and women behind the building of the $3.5 billion Scorpene submarines.
It involves cutting-edge naval defence technology and is considered one of the most potent independent military capabilities India has acquired. But the most striking sight at the East Yard of the Mazagon Dock Limited (MDL) in Mumbai, where this capability is being used to build the next generation Scorpene submarines for the Indian Navy, is the scores of geometrically perfect circles.
They are all over the giant workshop—circular strips of steel with a diameter of 6.2 metres, some are semi-circles waiting to be welded into a circle, finished ones are being pre-heated for more welding, and yet another set of complete circles is being joined to create the rib cage for the sub’s hull.
At first sight it looks almost like any other factory floor. But talk to the men and women behind the ultra secret effort, codenamed ‘Project 75’, and out come stories of extreme grit, technological achievement and a soldier-like dedication aimed at helping the Indian Navy acquire its ambitious blue-water force.
Project 75 is a part of India’s 30-year submarine-building programme that aims at a projected force of 24 vessels. And it is not the first time MDL is building submarines. The public sector ship-builder built two HDW submarines as part of the deal India signed with Germany in the 1980s, with the last vessel being delivered in 1994. But the yard had fallen silent until India signed a $3.5 billion deal with France in late 2005 for six Scorpene submarines. And despite being hit by controversies over the involvement of middlemen, construction of the first sub started in December 2006 and delivery is due in 2012 and thereafter one each every year. However, it is not just the number of years that separates the two projects.
While the first two HDW submarines were built in Germany and 120 MDL workers went there for training to build the rest in Mumbai, this time the number is as minimal as it can get. Three welders have been trained in France and three engineers will be trained in incorporating noise reduction technology, key to a submarine’s ability to operate stealthily in international waters. Besides, the HDW did not have missiles while the Scorpene is considered to be among the best missile-armed subs in the world in its class, if not the best.
“This project means a lot to us as it has changed the mood of the workforce at our submarine-building facility,” says Vice-Admiral S.K.K. Krishnan, Chairman and Managing Director of MDL, admitting that the six-acre yard was “dormant” for a long time after the last HDW was delivered.
Building a sub, he explains, is a bit like building an aircraft. “Only this has a little more risk involved as the machine travels at tremendous pressure levels under water and even if there is a crack the size of a thread in the hull the entire submarine can burst,” he adds.
“It is here that we are learning to stand on our feet and rely on our experience, and once the process becomes continuous then the confidence to build submarines with our own skill will progress naturally. While the design is frozen for the first two with no changes, we will have some flexibility from the third and that is where our real test will begin,” he says.
While some foreign diplomats and defence analysts have expressed fears that the deliveries could be delayed due to suspected delays in transfers of technology, MDL officials shrug them off and say they are confident that the first vessel will sail in 2012. The construction, they said, is presently in the first stage called hull formation and has to go through four other crucial stages before it can be handed over to the navy.
In submarine building, explains Commodore Gopal Bharti, MDL Group General Manager in-charge of the East Yard, “it is the building of the hull that is most critical” and therefore the process of welding steel frames into a capsule, which will eventually house navigation equipment, weaponry, the batteries and space for the crew, forms a significant stage.
“Even if there is a minute error in between the many layers of welding in any part of the hull, we have had it,” pitches in Prakash Goplani, General Manager for Production at the East Yard. “Underwater pressure does not differentiate between trouble spots and water gushing inside can tear the submarine apart.”
It is here that the French put the Indians to their first test. Three senior MDL welders were sent to France to learn the MIG/MAG style of welding so that they could train another 40 back home in the new technology in which a metallic wire is fed through a welding gun and melted in an electric arc. The wire serves the dual purpose of acting as the current-carrying electrode and the welding consumable filler wire.
Having mastered the craft in alien conditions, the trio spent days and nights at the yard transferring that knowledge to their colleagues. “It’s a camaraderie that can’t be found in books when an ageing welder shares his craft with the new blood as they build a submarine,” says Goplani. The team would come from Mumbai’s far-off suburbs as early as 4 or 5 in the morning and often work overtime as they did not want to kill the “excitement and the continuity”.
The first challenge was to build two sub-sections of 6.2-metre diameter for the capsule as a trial. A Scorpene is around 67 metres long and is made in phases where 16 sub-sections comprising 83 circular frames are joined to form the rib cage of the hull. “Only a perfect circle can withstand extreme pressure conditions in deep waters,” says Bharti. And it was anything but easy. “Unlike the earlier SSK class submarine, where the hull circle had a tolerance of less than 5 mm, this one has a tolerance of 1 mm, which means once bent into shape, the circle from any level should have a diameter of 6.2 metres with an allowance of 1 mm,” he said. “This means it can either be 6.199 metres or 6.201 metres but not a millimetre more or less. This was really tough for our welders who were used to the earlier model and we simply did not get it right.”
Welders would go home depressed as the steel also had an extra spring which meant after it was bent and released it would stretch a little making the assessment difficult. Trial and error was the only way to overcome it. “There are no shortcuts to any action,” is how Santosh Belani puts it, as he oversees the frame manufacturing unit in the yard. “It takes between 32 to 35 days to make one circular frame,” he adds.
The monsoon brought with it a different set of woes as humidity made it difficult to achieve the right temperature for welding. “In fact, the frustration touched its peak when every radiograph would find faults in the welding,” says Bharti. “Seventy per cent of all the welds were found going wrong and we had to re-do it. We really started wondering if we would ever achieve accuracy. For the first one year it was just nightmares, and it was like sleeping with the enemy.”
The next nightmare is expected when the engineers have to incorporate the noise reduction technology to make the sub as “silent as a grave”. But having been able to master the welding challenge, the East Yard feels this too shall pass. “Today, we are in a position to participate in any shipbuilding project which comes with the challenge of new technology. It’s a different story when you have just three welders helping in the transfer of new technology compared to the earlier project where an army went to Germany. We are finally standing on our feet and are really confidently at that,” says Goplani.
The Boss of the East Yard
MORE than three decades ago, Prakash Goplani had applied to 80 places for a job after his mechanical engineering degree from Mumbai’s VJTI and was “confused” when he was flooded with lucrative offers from the private sector and an offer from MDL. So he called his father for advice. “He said, ‘why are you even thinking? Go ahead, build for the nation’,” Goplani recalls.
Goplani has never looked back since. Today, the 58-year-old is the general manager of MDL’s East Yard and having built ships such as the Nilgiri class frigates, the Godavari class destroyers and the Shishumar class submarines, he is considered the “father figure” for the nearly 500 workers on the yard. And he is as conscious of the magnitude of the responsibility of building the Scorpenes as he is of the changes at the yard.
“Much has changed in here. Things used to be manual in the 1970s, with very little documentation. Today, everything is done using the latest technology,” he says. Goplani is aware that there is some talk in strategic circles of Project 75 being delayed. But as the man responsible on the ground, he has access to progress reports few others have.
“Despite the pressure and teething problems usually associated with transfer of technology, we are on schedule. We will see the frames for the hull moving in for assembly beginning September and the frames for the second Scorpene are almost ready, which means at this stage we are ahead of our deadlines,” he says.
All those years of sweat and toil have given him the wisdom “that making the submarine is not just about engineering excellence. You need to have the humility to take suggestions from your workers as sometimes, the craziest of ideas sets things right”. Yet there are some regrets. Both his sons are engineers and although he wanted one of them to work for a public sector company he could not stop them from being lured by the private sector.
The Three Welders
Three senior MDL welders, Sadanand Pawar, Narendra Kudkar and T. D. Khade were the chosen ones sent to France to learn the hi-tech MIG/MAG welding technology so that they could return and teach 40 senior colleagues. For Kudkar, 48, his first day in class itself was more than a learning experience. One look at them and the French weren’t exactly screaming ‘avoir confiance’, he says, underestimating their potential.
Fifty-year-old Pawar, known to have a “rock steady hand” and sharp sight, found his morale slipping after the first interaction. “I have been doing just this for the last 30 years and suddenly someone hints that I’m not good enough,” says the man who wakes up at 4 a.m. to reach the yard by 7 a.m. That night, Pawar recalls, he thought, “It is my country’s pride at stake.”
Forty tests in 16 days and with no retakes, the French instructor was gushing that even their own workers had not given them 100 per cent accuracy without retakes in the initial days. “I stopped myself from telling him that I started welding even before he was born,” Pawar says. Kudkar, 48, had extra challenges to deal with. “Being a pure vegetarian, it was difficult to live on mutton and macchi. But every time I put a morsel in my mouth I would tell myself, it’s for the country,” he says.
Back home after 52 days in France, the trio spent days and nights teaching their colleagues. “The initial days were the toughest when we would wait to know radiography results of the joints welded. I felt like a schoolboy waiting to know his results. We wouldn’t get any sleep. We were too tense,” says Kudkar.
The Youngest Engineers
AT 25, mechanical engineers Vinay Chaurasia and Amit Gadepalli are the youngest on the work floor and part of a rare breed that has opted for a public sector job in these days when corporates start wooing students even before they graduate out of engineering college. Chaurasia is from Jhansi and even though his siblings are mechanical, chemical and software engineers, nothing had prepared him for being put in charge of building the Scorpene hull, he says.
Nagpur boy Gadepalli chose MDL over Infosys and Mahindra and Mahindra and says the decision to choose a government job over software packages is his best yet. “Imagine, the only place where I put my management training to use was to break the ice while interacting with the workers,” laughs Gadepalli who oversees welding operations, adding that the “future of the country” was what motivated him to opt for MDL.
Both young engineers admit that there are times when they face friction since many of the workers they boss over have been welding since the early 1980s, around the time they were born. But since both generations are new to the MIG/MAG technology that is being used, it bridges the gap and makes them “classmates of the same school”, says Gadepalli.
“It’s difficult sometimes, when I see my friends doing so well in the software sector. But I tell myself, I am building a submarine, can you beat that,” adds Gadepalli, who plays the mandolin at night. He also tries to convince his colleagues to learn a musical instrument. “I tell them, how difficult can learning a musical instrument be considering you are building a Scorpene.”
The Tech Lady
IT engineer Geetha Sunathkari quit her job at Allahabad Bank and moved to MDL because she wanted a five-day-week job so she could study for her MBA in finance. Although she tries to underplay her role as the senior IT administrator in a highly secretive defence establishment by saying “it is pretty routine here”, the seriousness of her job hits home when she also adds that she is constantly reminded of the “War Room” information leakage scandal that hit the forces in South Block.
Part of her job at the design department is to rotate passwords with her colleagues and ensure perfect secrecy is maintained as they look after the Technical Data Package Information System, which stores designs and is the networking unit between key departments. So paranoid is the process that passwords of some systems are changed frequently, she says, adding that “there are times when it hits me what my job is, and a smile crosses my face”.
Sunathkari is equally excited talking about the saris she presented to the woman-trainer from France and even has a picture saved as the background of her desktop. Her experience of working with a bank prepared her to maintain confidentiality, she says and laughs, “Otherwise, can you imagine women keeping secrets?”