After Pellet Guns, Government Explores Other “Non-Lethal” Crowd Control Weapons

Chilli grenades, which have been suggested as an alternative “non-lethal” weapon, reportedly killed three people in Kashmir in 2013.

Demonstrators run for cover amid tear gas smoke fired by Indian police during a protest in Srinagar, July 6, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail

Demonstrators run for cover amid tear gas smoke fired by security forces during a protest in Srinagar, July 6, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail

New Delhi: With pellet guns causing the loss of eyesight for over 200 protesters this year, the arguments for replacing them with other non-lethal weapons have grown louder. Pellet guns were introduced as a favoured form of ammunition for crowd control in 2010, after firing on stone-pelting mobs in Kashmir led to over a hundred deaths.

But now, it has been learnt that a seven-member committee constituted to review their use has suggested their replacement with chilli-based pelargonic acid vanillyl amide (PAVA) shells. It is worth remembering that in 2013, at least three lives were lost in the state due to use of pepper grenades. The basis provided for pepper grenades is similar to the arguments earlier given for pellet guns – they cause severe irritation but not grievous injury.

Nearly a fortnight after violence erupted in Kashmir on July 8, following the gunning down of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, union home minister Rajnath Singh had stated that the government will look at non-lethal alternatives to pellet guns. Subsequently, the expert committee was constituted to discuss the issue with the security agencies.

On August 25, Singh indicated during a meeting on Kashmir that an alternative to the pellet guns may be on the horizon.

It was then revealed that the expert committee had suggested that PAVA shells, developed by Indian Institute of Toxicology Research, Lucknow under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, be introduced as they temporarily incapacitate and immobilise the target.

Already under trial for over a year, the contents of PAVA shells are a synthetic version of an organic compound found in natural chilli called capsaicinoids. Being very potent, they cause severe irritability and can paralyse humans temporarily. The chemical capsaicin is also found in pepper spray, which is legal in India but banned in several parts of the world.

The general thinking now is that PAVA shells should be manufactured in large numbers by the Tear Smoke Unit (TSU) of the Border Security Force in Gwalior.

The panel is also said to have considered the use of “dye marker grenade with irritant”, “tear smoke shell with soft nose” and the “stun grenade” being made by TSU, which results in a blinding flash that stuns the target.

It is worth noting that across the globe, security agencies are working on devising non-lethal weapons for crowd control.

According to a report, in the US, the military has tried out a sticky foam that could stop rioters in their tracks, but are yet to arrive at a perfect solution. They realised that this “goop” needed to be improved upon because “people could move their feet faster than the sticky foam could be applied”.

In the UK too, agencies have been experimenting wildly. From sticky nets to stinky bombs and foam, they have tried out various options.

In India, a report on ‘Standard Operating Procedures to deal with public agitations with non-lethal measures’ brought out by the Bureau of Police Research and Development in 2011 had discussed the pros and cons of various kinds of equipment in different situations.

The agency under the home ministry mentioned that a variety of equipment was being tried out to control crowds. The report had stated that while water cannons, regular tear gas shells, stingers and dye-marker grenades, plastic bullets for mob dispersal, various forms of taser, pepperball launchers, the LRAD or long range acoustic device, laser dazzlers, net guns and stink bombs were either in use or were being tried out, each one of them was effective only in certain situations.

Water cannons                      

According to the report, water cannons, which give out “a high-pressure stream of water”, typically at 15 litres per second, were common but their main problem was that they were “ponderous” and could not go into small lanes. Also they had a low range of 50 metres and their tank of 8,000 litres could only supply water for eight minutes.

Tear gas shells

The report said the effectiveness of tear gas was limited to open spaces and depended greatly on prevailing winds. “People have learnt protective tricks like use of wet cloth to evade its ill impacts. As such experienced rioters do not take it seriously. The shells are either smothered with a wet gunny bag or thrown back,” because the tear smoke munition burns but does not explode.

Stingers and dye-markers grenade

In this method of crowd control, dye is sprayed over members of a crowd with the intent of creating a psychological impact on them and forcing them to flee. But, the report said, stinger grenade pellets do not go beyond 30 feet and do not cause any more harm than rubber bullets. “For stinger and dye-marker grenades to be more effective, these may be developed after incorporating irritants” it said, suggesting that they should also be used from a very safe distance.

Plastic bullets

For bullets made of plastic, which are fired from the regular rifles, the report had stated that for them to be effective, the range should be about 50 yards. But, it said, since these guns should not be used from close range, they were unsuitable because in real life under stress it is unrealistic for the policeman to be able to judge range correctly.

Various forms of taser

Tasers which give an electric shock are weapons that use electric current causing instant temporary neuro muscular incapacitation. There are various forms of tasers like X-26, X-3, X-12 and taser shock wave. The report mentioned that taser X-26 fires a single shot and hence cannot be used on a mob. It was thus a weapon for controlling an individual with very low range of just 35 feet.

Taser X-3 has three barrels and still cannot deal with a mob. Taser X-12 fires in a projectile manner without the wire attached to it to produce a shock of 500 volts. It has a range of up to 100 feet. And, finally, Taser Shock Wave mounts several wire bound tasers together but because of the projectiles coming out cannot have any wire mesh protection, and hence remained vulnerable to stones.

The report said the basic limitation of the tasers was their are their low range and usually single-shot nature.

Pepper ball launchers

Pepper ball launchers are small balls filled with pepper powder irritants. They are among the closest to the PAVA shells being considered for crowd control. The BPR&D report had stated that these launchers have a very low range of just about 30 yards in comparison to tear gas and hence were risky in front of mobs throwing stones. Moreover, their accuracy deteriorated beyond 30 metres and they required firing of at least six to ten rounds for causing real discomfort. Also, it had stated that the irritant effect was not adequate in open spaces and remained vulnerable to winds and drizzles.

Long range acoustic device

LRADs, as these are popularly called, produce a loud sound which can be delivered in a particular direction. However, the report stated that their range was limited to 70 yards. These sonic weapons use certain frequencies at certain amplitude to produce instantaneous nausea, vomiting, dizziness or stomach ache – all strong enough to compel a person to leave the area immediately. But the report had advised that they should not be used from a close distance.

Laser dazzlers

These are devices that produce both short and long ranges of flashing light which causes discomfort to the mob. It comes in both hand held and vehicle mounted versions. The report had stated that laser dazzlers can be used effectively on a mob only up to a range of 50 yards or so and that it could impact two or three people at the most at a time.

Net guns

These guns fire nets on the target and ensnare up to one person at a time. These, however, cannot be used for a larger crowd.

Stink bombs

Stink bombs contain foul-smelling chemicals which compel people to leave an area to protect themselves from the intolerable stench. Suggesting the use of mercaptons in these, the report had demanded that the stink of the chemical must not linger more than a few hours. It had also cautioned that they could run into legal problem if used in a market or residential area.

Incidentally, several of these non-lethal weapons for crowd control have been tried in the past in Kashmir, often in different quantities and with varying effect. With pellet guns causing serious eye injuries and penetrating the skin, bone and even internal organs of targets, security agencies have often tried these other non-lethal options.

But in March 2013, it was reported that at least three women lost their lives when pepper gas and pepper grenades (also called chilli grenades) were used. The issue had also rocked the state assembly and the People’s Democratic Party, which was then in the opposition, staged a walkout on March 11, 2013.

Much has changed politically, emotionally and strategically in the Valley since then. It only remains to be seen if the new “chilli” options will be able to apply some balm to the wounds or only bring more tears to the citizens of Kashmir.