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|March 30, 2001||
Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)
Can corruption in defence deals be avoided?
Some years ago Indira Gandhi had quipped that 'Corruption is a global phenomenon!' Even earlier, Chanakya in Arthashastra had said: "To know if government officials handling the treasury are stealing public money or not is as difficult to detect as whether a fish is drinking water or not?'
Corruption in defence: a global phenomenon:
Some years ago, in the US of A, a major scandal broke out when it became known that General Dynamics, the company that made the Trident nuclear submarines, charged 10,000 dollars for a toilet seat! Admiral Rickover, the father of the nuclear submarine programme, was alleged to have received millions of dollars for an ordinary China tea set. The company that made submarines bought it as an 'antique'!
There are countless more examples of moneymaking in defence. The Lockheed scandal of the 60s claimed the scalp of the PMs of Japan, Italy and Prince Bernhardt of Netherlands.
The defence department is ideal for shady deals. Countries like to keep the acquisitions secret, there are monopolies and public gaze can easily be kept away under the garb of 'national security'.
In countries like India, it is even easier as a weak judiciary, a rubber stamp Parliament and an apathetic public make the 'executive' very strong. In our scheme of things where we continue to follow the 1935 British constitution (the Constitution of India of 1950 is a pale copy of the British design), the Parliament is a toothless tiger and a mere debating society, with very little control over the executive (that includes the ministers and bureaucrats).
In the Indian armed forces, the military engineering service, the ordnance corps, the supply corps and to an extent the electrical and mechanical engineers (and its equivalents in the navy and the air force), who have to deal with procurements and money, have been known to indulge in malpractices. The only saving grace has been that once caught, unlike in the civil society, the culprits were punished severely.
As late as last year, even a three star general was forced to resign on moral grounds. But as one travels to higher and rarefied echelons, accountability is difficult to establish as clever individuals often cloak their personal interests as 'national security.'
Limits of transparency and DRDO's failure:
Transparency is the latest buzzword in India. But there are obvious limits to it. One cannot, in the name of transparency construct a bathroom with glass walls, can you? Defence needs are many times, like in the recent Kargil clash, so urgent, that neither the price nor the source is of any consequence. The technology embargo on India, in operation since 1974, has made things even more difficult.
The colossal failure of DRDO to meet defence requirements has left no choice for us but to go for imports. Except for the missile programme (basically an offshoot of the civilian space programme) and nuclear weapons (under the atomic energy commission), the DRDO has failed to deliver on every front, be it a tank, fighter aircraft or guns.
It is a crying shame that the armed forces use vehicles with 1942 technology ( the Shaktiman and Nissan), rifles that are of 1963 vintage (the 7.62 SLR) and tents that go back to the 1857 war of independence! It is indeed a matter of regret that a country that in the 1960s could produce the HF-24 Marut fighter bomber, in 2001 cannot make even a 'Saras' propeller-driven aircraft of world standard! Countries like Brazil, Spain and even Indonesia have stolen a march over us in this field.
I had been once briefly associated with G R Khairnar, (the Mumbai crusader against corruption) in those heady days of 1993! Even then I had pleaded with him that public agitation was no solution to the problem, what was needed was a systemic reform to 'reduce' corruption! The elimination of corruption is next to impossible as long as greed exists.
The second prong of the attack on corruption is 'certain' and heavy punishment. The twin approach can definitely have a better chance of success than the 'Utopian' dream of searching for Raja Harishchandras in 21st century.
One way of getting the executive to adhere to norms is by establishing parliamentary control over the procurement. There is no reason why the Indian Parliament should not control decision-making on procurements though a committee of MPs that holds hearings, in camera if necessary, to give approval to deals before the tax payers' money is spent. Today the only accountability comes from the CAG report, that comes after the event (many times after years) and no action is taken on it. The Parliament can ask for independent witnesses and even hear the rival views.
To cater to emergencies, like Kargil, a provision could be made to give certain powers to the prime minister. But even these decisions should be subjected to ex-facto scrutiny including the justification of the emergency!
National security is not a partisan issue. The leader of the Opposition, already enjoying a Cabinet rank, must be made ex-officio member of the national security council. This is the only way to make our political parties act in a mature manner. If this arrangement would have existed during the Kargil clash, much acrimony could have been avoided and many lives of the brave jawans could have been saved.
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