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Home > News > Columnists > Dilip D'Souza

Psst! Wanna Buy Some Aeronautical Grade Aluminium?

January 25, 2003

This is for all those who are inspired by the show of Indian military might rolling down New Delhi's Rajpath on January 26. This is for all those who feel that heady heartbeat of patriotism as they watch. This is for all those who respond to the calls of our ministers and leaders, their chest-thumping exhortations about standing up for the country and uniting in times of war and such like.

Not a thing wrong with any of those things. Until you begin examining some of what those very ministers have been up to, behind the rhetoric they throw at us. Then you start wondering what the rhetoric really means to them. And what it should mean to us, if it comes from men like these.

Kargil war, 1999. Unceasing talk about throwing the intruders out. The great 'betrayal' by Pakistan, the godawful struggle valiant soldiers waged to fight their way up those slopes. We heard it all, you remember it all. So you may also remember talk about the inadequate footwear and clothing our soldiers had to use as they floundered in the snow. We felt it keenly, the anguish for brave men forced to fight -- and die -- in those conditions.

Naturally, the government quickly placed orders to stock up on jackets and boots and sleeping bags and much other military equipment. Anything for those suffering soldiers, anything in the name of defence. Very commendable. But do you remember hearing what happened to those orders? I don't. I could be wrong, but I don't believe there has been any significant news about them since the Kargil war ended.

A couple of reasons for that occur to me. One, anguish only lasts so long. After the fighting was over, we went back to our daily cares and chores. It was difficult to stay exercised over issues that seemed so glaring while the soldiers battled. Two, and this is probably the crucial one, what happened to those orders isn't pretty.

There's a report out about all the orders and purchases that were made in the name of Kargil. It is a damning one in every detail. Who do you think wrote it? I can hear the chorus building already: must be some obscure organisation, no doubt a bunch of leftists and pinkos intent on maligning this government that's filled with nationalists.

But hold the chorus. No pinkos here. The report was authored by the government itself, in the shape of the Comptroller and Auditor General, the body that audits government spending. CAG Report 7A of 2001, 'Review of Procurement for Op Vijay' (Operation Vijay being the official name for the Kargil war) is further support for a theory I've been nurturing over the years: the strongest case against the things our governments do -- whether building dams or running schools or buying defence supplies -- is made not by outside critics, but by governments themselves. By their own literature, performance and reports.

Theories aside. If you read Report 7A, you will feel a growing rage and frustration. Nearly every paragraph is another element in what adds up to a story of skullduggery, manipulation and arbitrariness -- and believe me, I've tried hard to find kind words -- and all in the name of our soldiers.

Consider just a few extracts. There's the overview: three short paragraphs that sum up the rest of the Report. The defence ministry, it tells us, 'relaxed extant procedures to quickly secure supplies for Operation Vijay.'

Fair enough: fighting a war, in desperate need of supplies, you don't want to be bogged down in arcane guidelines and regulations. The government spent Rs 21.754 billion to 'quickly' buy these supplies; of that amount, the CAG was reviewed purchases worth Rs 21.6309 billion, or almost all the spending initiated during the Kargil war.

'Nearly all the supplies' -- Rs 21.5 billion worth, the overview says -- 'were [received] well after cessation of hostilities and therefore in no way supported the operations.' Worse, Rs 17.6221 billion worth was received after January 2000 -- six months after the fighting ended. Besides, the government 'knowingly' paid Rs 442.1 million more for some items, bought Rs 918.6 million worth of 'shelf life expired ammunition' and imported Rs 3.4237 billion more of ammunition even though our own ordnance factories were producing the stuff. The overview ends with this stark observation:

'While critical supplies of clothing, ammunition and arms could not reach the troops during the operation, an amount of [Rs 10.46 billion], almost half of the total, entirely in foreign exchange, was spent fruitlessly, breaching established principles of propriety.'

'Fruitlessly.' Spent in the name of those suffering bravehearts, but spent 'fruitlessly.' And that's just the overview.

The rest of the report runs to over 11,000 words. I cannot hope to tell you here about all that's in it, but here are some random revelations.

1. In July/August 1999, three firms were asked to supply a total of 40,000 bullet proof jackets, total cost Rs 516.5 million, to be delivered by August 1999. One was the lowest bidder, Tata Advanced Material Limited, who should ordinarily have got the full contract. But TAML admitted that they could not supply the jackets by August. Because the army insisted on that deadline, the order was 'divided' between the three firms. The two others, both foreign, quoted prices 80 per cent higher than TAML.

How did the ministry respond to this? By claiming that the foreign firms' jackets were of 'superior quality' and that they would be delivered in time. This is 'not tenable,' says Report 7A, because TAML's jackets 'fully met the technical specifications' the army had spelled out; and in any case the jackets never made it into the army's hands by August. From all three
firms, they began arriving not in August, but in October 1999, continuing to trickle in till June 2000.

'The basic purpose of splitting the order,' comments the CAG, 'was never realized.' Not only that: dividing the order, the CAG says, 'entailed unjustified additional expenditure.' Rs 157.7 million unjustified.

2. In July 1999, the defence ministry placed an order with a South African firm for 100 anti-material rifles, total cost Rs 232.2 million. This, even though these particular rifles 'fell short of the range specified' by 24 per cent, their ammunition would work only at altitudes up to 6500 feet (well below the Kargil heights), they did not have army-required handles, night sights and 'open sight systems.' These shortcomings were passed over 'in view of the operational urgency:' that is, the war.

The first six of these rifles were to be delivered within 15 days of signing the contract. Instead, they arrived in December 1999. 35 more came by May 2000. The rest arrived later still. Because they did not have the open sight system, they were not cleared for use till November 2000. A year and half after the end of the war.

3. As a result of the war, the government signed two contracts in 1999 with a Russian firm, to buy ammunition. The contract specified that the ammunition 'was to be new, unused and of current production.' Very good. But four particular varieties of ammunition, for which we paid Rs 745.9 million, were actually manufactured between 1976 (!) and 1991. With our own shelf-life specification of 7 years, they were between 1 and 16 years (!) out of date when we took delivery.

How much more of this is there? An Italian firm sold us boots. 3438 pairs, for which we paid Rs 18.5 million, were 'too small for adult use;' the army itself observedthese were 'too small to fit any soldier.' Another Russian firm supplied us automatic grenade launchers. This, even though they fell short of our requirements in their range, their rate of fire, the magnification of their sights, and several other details. Still, we asked for them within 2 weeks of payment (July 1999); but delivery began only in October. Because the army complained about Indian-made gloves as far back as 1996, we contracted with an Italian firm in June/July 1999 to supply over 50,000 pairs of gloves between August and October 1999. They did not start arriving till December. The CAG comments: "the troops had to make do with defective gloves during OP Vijay."

The defence ministry rejected an entire shipment of Swiss woollen socks (cost, Rs 58.6 million), made necessary by the Kargil war, that arrived only in November 1999. The 'requirement for OP Vijay had to be met ... by limiting the number of socks per soldier.'

How much more?

One last sample: the infamous coffin scam. An American firm signed a contract to supply aluminium coffins for the bodies of dead soldiers. The firm suddenly asked to be allowed to increase the weight of coffins from 18 to 55 kg (!). While the government was considering this odd request, the firm began supplying the heavier coffins anyway. 150 of them turned up, for which we handed over Rs 14.7 million, 90 per cent (!) of the contracted price. We 'rejected' all 150 because they were overweight; but at the time of the CAG's audit, they were still with us.

Not only that, the firm claimed they used 'aeronautical grade aluminium' (why? Were they expected to fly?), for which they charged us Rs 4.531 million a tonne. Not only was this figure ten times more than what Hindustan Aeronautics Limited pays for 'importing the highest grade aluminium,' this is over 70 times the price of high-grade aluminium on the international market in 1999 (Rs 63,360 a tonne).

Besides, the caskets, required explicitly for soldiers killed during the war, began arriving only after March 2000 anyway. Long after the poor men found their way home in whatever other coffins were used.

'It is obvious,' says the CAG, 'that the rate quoted by the firm was highly inflated. The transaction achieved little other than to benefit the supplier.' Yes, we actually used our dead soldiers to 'benefit the supplier.'

But wait! The defence ministry has decided to punish the American firm for what you will agree is a gigantic swindle. Aren't you proud? Yes indeed! Remember that 90 percent we paid them? The ministry has taken a decision 'not to pay the balance 10 per cent.'

That'll show them! Oh boy, those grubby Americans -- and for that matter, those grubby Russians, Swiss, Italians, South Africans and who knows who else. They must be shaking in their multi-purpose boots, or gloves, or coffins, or jackets! Shaking with laughter. All the way to the bank.

Who explicitly and knowingly approved all the grubbiness in Report 7A? Well, they didn't think you would actually read Report 7A. You see, that's a third reason we haven't heard much about what happened to the orders for equipment during Kargil: our ministers *know* nobody will read such reports. They *know* nobody will ask questions. Our silent ignorance, you see, lets them thump their chests in patriotic fervour.

So call their bluff. Please read:

Review of procurement for OP VIJAY (Army) (7A of 2001)

Dilip D'Souza

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