THE MOVING FINGER WRITES
Now that the hullabaloo over the leaked letter to the Prime Minister written by retiring Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. VK Singh has more or less subsided, the media can give some thought on what the position of the Army’s fighting strength is in terms of its infrastructure and what is being done to improve it. Among the points raised by Gen. Singh are the following: (a) Army tanks have run out of critical ammunition (b) 97 per cent of air defence is obsolete (c) Infantry is operating without critical weapons (d) Elite Special Forces are woefully short of essential weapons and (e) there are huge voids in critical surveillance. We do not know what Gen. Singh himself has done to improve matters during his 2-year term as Army Chief and how come his letter to the Prime Minister came to be leaked; was a letter necessary when the matter could have been discussed privately at the highest level?
Gen. Singh obviously had something more in mind than wishing to set matters aright. What exactly are the facts? Where does India stand in the matter of defence expenditure vis-à-vis China? The latest reports indicate that China has increased its military spending by 11 per cent this year, a little short of the 12 per cent increase it spent last year. India, apparently, has been following suit, but, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a leading authority on political-military conflict, the challenge for India is the inability to fully dispurse funds because of corruption, bureaucratic delays and infellicienties in procurement.
Reportedly, India does not suffer from a shortfall of funds. New Delhi is the world’s leading arms purchaser, spending something to the tune of $40 billion, a year. Yet, India nowhere matches China in armed strength. China has an armed force of 2.3 million in comparison to India’s 1.3 million. China has 2,800 battle tanks to India’s 568. China with sixty has four times the number of submarines than India which has a mere 15. In the matter of frigates, China has 65 to India’s 11. Importantly, China’s fighter/ground attack tactical aircraft number 1,669 to India’s 784. China, it is claimed, is indigenously developing most of its weaponry, while India is almost 70 per cent dependent on Russia, Israel, the US and the UK. In the matter of defence expenditure, according to available information, the US spends $ 739 billion, China $ 89.8 billion, the UK $ 62.7 billion and France $ 58.8 billion.
India is way behind China. But think of what the IISS has said that though getting enough funds, the Indian Armed Forces have to deal with corruption within itself. Is that the whole truth? Earlier in March, according to the Mumbai – based Daily News and Analysis (March 27, 2012), the Defence Ministry banned six foreign and two Indian companies for ten years for allegedly being involved in the payment of hefty sums to the Director General of Ordinance Board to secure the contract for setting up factories to produce specialised material for artillery shells. The firms included the Israeli government company that manages much of that country’s defence exports to India – and Israel is now second largest exporter to India. It needs to be warned. Bribery, it now appears clear, has been endemic in the larger world of Defence – and it has even been exposed in earlier times.
Thus, in a series of reports in July 2011, the DNA had brought to light a scam related to the procurement of components for Tatra trucks – backbone of the Army’s artillery and transportation wings. Noted the paper in a recent issue (27 March) : “DNA had done a series of investigations in July 2011, high-lighting that Tatra trucks were sold to the Army at an inflated price. For over a decade, Tatra trucks were bought from the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM), via a London-based firm. Bharat Earth Movers Ltd (BEML), a defence public sector undertaking routinely imported the trucks and sold them to the Army. (Presently there are about 7,000 Tatra vehicles with the Armed Forces). It is surprising that BEML patronised a foreign manufacturer at a time when the Indian automobile industry had flourished”.
One might ask what was Gen. Singh doing when all this was going on right under his nose. For that matter, one may well ask what the earlier Defence Ministers in power between 1998 and 2004 were doing, considering that the Tatra has been in action for almost 20 years? BEML had been buying Tatra trucks from a middleman in London. According to Defence Ministry guidelines, all purchases should be made from the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM). But BEML has been dealing with Tatra Sipox (UK) Ltd which was neither the manufacturer of Tatra and was not even its subsidiary. The racket has been in operation since 1997. All this is highly suspicious. What comes as a major shock is that Gen. Singh has dropped another bombshell.
According to the New Indian Express (30 March) the Army Chief has sought a CBI inquiry against a serving Corps Commander, Lt Gen. Dalbir Singh for allegedly receiving kickbacks on procurement of parachutes and night vision devices. Is nobody clean in our security services? What have we come to? At least can’t India raise domestic production of necessary weaponry and allied goods, bringing down purchases from abroad amounting to 70 per cent to a bare 30 per cent? The issue isn’t something that has just crept up. Indian Defence Yearbook 2008 edited by Lt Gen RK Jasbir Singh has a great deal to say on the subject. Happily, Indian industry seems now to have woken up. Media reports say that Tata Motors may invest upto Rs 600 crore on development and manufacturing of infantry vehicles and Larsen & Toubro wishes to tie up with Samsung Techwin to make Howitzers and Bharat Forge is investing Rs 100 crore in developing a new artillery gun.
According to reports, Tata Motors, Ashok Leyland, Mahindra and Mahindra and Larsen & Toubro have formed multiple joint ventures and entered into technical collaboration to locally develop and supply defence and para-military forces with modern equipment. This is a recent but welcome development and deserves to be replicated in many other fields of armed forces requirement. Meanwhile, isn’t it time for the government to undertake a massive clean-up operation with immediate effect to cleanse our security establishment? Gen. VK Singh may have had his own reasons for blowing his whistle, but it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good.