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April 9, 2001

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General Ved Prakash Malik (retd)

The Tehelka impact

Defence preparedness, procurement procedures and corruption

The shock, anger and anguish of the nation on the Tehelka tapes should lead us not to political and turf scorecards but to analyse its causes and remedies. My concern is on three linked issues which affect the military and its preparedness to fight and defend the nation from external and internal threats. These are -- the state of defence preparedness; procurement procedures for new weapons and equipment in the ministry of defence including services headquarters (SHQ); and corruption and sleaze in the military.

I am not so na´ve as not to realize the macro politico-social issues involved in the expose but after experiencing the post Kargil political crossfire, I wish to stay away from that as much as possible.

The first thing we must realize is that there are some acute shortages in our military equipment. Post-Bofors, lack of progress in essential defence requirements over the last decade-and-a-half has already created what security experts commonly know as 'defence train wreck,' which means non-replacement of aged and antiquated military equipment.

For example, no new artillery gun has been inducted into the army after the partial purchase of Bofors in the early '80s. We are still hanging on to nearly 600 Vijayanta tanks, which are over 35 years old. By the time a T-90 or an Arjun tank replaces the last T-55 tank, it will be nearly 60 years old. A large number of 'force multipliers' listed in the priority procurement plan of the 9th defence plan have yet to be procured. There are no AJTs, replacements of MIG-21 are overdue, and so on.

Unfortunately, little progress has been made to remove this hollowness over the last two years and if there were a war tomorrow, my successor would have to repeat my words of the Kargil war that 'We shall fight with whatever we have.' This state of affairs, despite a war that we fought less than two years ago, and with availability of funds which had to be partly surrendered during this period, should make us realise where the real problem lies: the defence procurement system and procedures.

Before I proceed to this next issue, let me emphasise that in modern warfare -- limited or otherwise -- there is no point in having a large but ill equipped military force. It is counter productive. You need a well-balanced force in terms of quality equipment and quality manpower to meet new challenges, and regular updating of the military is a national necessity.

Therefore, unless quick follow-up action is taken on the Tehelka episode, procedures revised and officers made more accountable, military procurements will slow down further affecting our defence preparedness adversely. In the interim period, we could keep the parliamentary standing committee on defence and the Central Vigilance Commission informed on all ongoing major procurements.

In February 2000, I caused political and media eyebrows to be raised during a joint exercise in Rajasthan, when I stated to some journalists that our organisation and procurement system and procedures do not allow early making up of deficiencies or modernisation. There was nothing new or original about it.

Almost all previous chiefs had written about that to the MoD. The 13th Lok Sabha parliamentary standing committee on defence had observed that procedural bottlenecks were delaying the defence procurement process. The Kargil review committee had also noted that in spite of intense procurement activity and wholehearted efforts of all concerned, many of the important weapon systems that were to be procured under 'fast track process' at that time had not been procured.

However, due to my statement in public some questions were raised in Parliament and, therefore, the ministry decided to appoint a committee under the vice chief of army staff to review the 'defence procurement procedures'. This committee did submit its report but that was overtaken by the group of ministers' macro level report on the whole issue of national security including the functioning of the MoD.

Let me now describe and comment on some of the difficulties faced in our existing defence procurement procedures and process.

  • The budgetary support to our defence plans is uncertain and irregular. Annual incremental budgeting does not lend to efficient defence procurements.
  • Since total financial powers for the capital procurement are vested with the MoD, all procurement cases have to be processed and cleared by them in consultation with the MoD (Fin). Due to lack of military background and technical knowledge, they take a long time in 'establishing the necessity' of a new weapon or equipment.
  • Indigenous development of weapons and equipment invariably takes a very long time which also leads to cost overruns. Arjun tank took 30 years and there are several similar examples, eg, Nag, Trishul, weapon locating radars, AFV radio sets, LCA and so on. Cost escalations are never taken seriously and the foreclosure of unsuccessful projects seldom takes place. This leads to either technology obsolescence or reappraisal of the laid down services qualitative requirements (SQR).
  • Although our trials system and results have an excellent reputation all over the world, it is time consuming and complex because of the need to evaluate the weapon/ equipment in different terrain and climatic conditions. The trials have to be conducted in the presence of all representatives of the vendors under laid down conditions. All vendors try to influence the trial report if their equipment is unable to meet the SQR or compete with others' equipment.
  • The users (SHQ), agencies responsible for research and development, production, quality assurance, and the staff of the MoD and MoD (Fin) work in watertight compartments. Every officer and department must satisfy itself on every aspect of the case on file. Each case keeps moving up and down with piecemeal and repeated queries being asked by the MoD and MoD (Fin). It has often to be referred to the financial authority (CFA) for approval of the request for proposal, staff evaluation of trials, constitution of price negotiating committee, contract document etc. The file- pushing from one office to another goes on endlessly. Only towards the last stages do the senior civil and military officers hold joint discussions to resolve differences before getting the final decision of the CFA.

Due to forceful lobbying by the vendors through every means, fair and foul, including use of intense media campaigns against competing vendors or the officials who cannot be influenced, the whole system has become opaque and therefore suspect as well as vulnerable to corrupt practices by the vendors and any integrity lacking officer dealing with procurements. The middlemen and agents are there and it is doubtful if they can be totally eliminated. Perhaps we need to list and identify them publicly and make their credentials known to the media, CVC, and any other public watchdog organisation.

The crux of the problem is that over the years, particularly after the Bofors deal, our procurement system has not functioned well: it tends to be laborious, opaque, prone to delays and definitely not responsive to the needs of the military. The solution to the problem, therefore, lies in having a system of procurement boards or an 'integrated set up' within the MoD which has representation from all concerned departments, like the defence procurement agency in the UK and the directorate general of armament in France.

The procedures to be followed should be simple, transparent to the maximum extent possible and with clear-cut accountability. In fact this is what was recommended by Arun Singh's task force and has now been accepted by the cabinet committee on security. The Tehelka episode has made its early implementation mandatory.

But then any system is as good or as bad as the personnel handling it: which brings me to the third issue: of corruption in the civil and military.

Let us not forget that the military -- about 1.5 million officers and men -- after all is only a part of the whole Indian society. If most of the Indian society is corrupt, how do we expect it to remain unaffected? We should give it the credit that compared to the extent of bribery and sleaze all around, and for so long, this institution has remained least affected till date. The traditions, the ethos, professional dedication, discipline with deterrent punishment system, and most importantly the strong sense of camaraderie, have so far prevented this virus from spreading widely.

I have no doubt that the officers found guilty in the Tehelka case will get quick and exemplary punishment. The other finding of Tehelka, of unnecessary bragging and self-importance under influence of liquor and yuppie culture, will also be taken care of. After seeing the fighting machine in action in Kargil only two years ago I am not despondent today but definitely concerned about the future.

What about the future? Unless the stables are kept clean every horse gets infected. The bad ones take less time and the good ones take more. It is only a question of time. So let us get our priorities right, and get on with the cleaning of dirty stables in whatever form they exist and not waste time on score cards.

General Ved Prakash Malik (retd) is the former chief of the Indian Army.

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