India’s Defence Public Sector was mandated to achieve self-reliance in defence production, but seven decades after independence, India has the dubious distinction of being the largest arms importer in the world. This, despite the fact that at the time of Independence, India had a well-established defence industrial base, when compared to China.
Shri Abdul Kalam, India’s former President had dwelled on this aspect when he was the President, stating that India imports 70% of its defence needs and indigenously manufactures only 30% and that the country needed to reverse this ratio. That we have been unable to do so points to institutional inertia and structural weaknesses in the decision making processes and also to a culture of impunity that appears to have crept into the defense manufacturing sector and in the MoD.
In an earlier editorial, I had highlighted the shoddy state of ammunition manufacture in the Defence Ordnance Factories. Defective mines manufactured by Ordnance Factory, Chanda, were ordered to be stored in Central Ammunition Depot, Pulgaon, despite objections by the DGOS who had recommended their destruction.
The MoD refused to order destruction and when these mines exploded in 2016, leading to the death of 19 military and civil personnel, there was scarcely an outrage at the shoddy ammunition manufactured by the ordnance factories or at the cavalier manner of India’s MoD, which chose to do nothing about it. To date, no babu in the ministry and none in the Ordnance Factory, Chanda, has been held accountable for the tragedy.
This sorry state repeats itself causing death and destruction in its wake, but each time no one is held accountable. The recent loss of two test pilots while assessing the fitness of a recently overhauled Mirage fighter by HAL has received some media coverage, but again no heads will roll.
Logically, the HAL chairman should have resigned, as also the defense secretary, but a gesture of this nature is not a part of the DNA of Indian babus. They simply wait for the media attention to die down and then continue with their slothful wasteful ways. Is it any surprise then that India will forever remain a defense importing country?
The public sector cannot seem to manufacture anything that can be looked upon as a quality product leaving aside a few notable exceptions. Be it small arms, ammunition of any type, tanks for the army, the military equip-ment…the list is endless.
But the more surprising thing is that the MoD has held on to its turf like a blood-sucking vampire, at the cost of the nation’s defence preparedness. And yet we see sterling examples of competence in the space sector, where ISRO has achieved worldwide recognition. Or India’s missile program, which is yet another success story. These need to be replicated across the board.
But what we get are debates on the Rafale fighter aircraft, which keep getting more and more vitriolic by the day with the Congress president swearing by the competence of HAL to produce high-quality aircraft like the Rafale. This is laughable when HAL has yet not been able to deliver a fully weaponised Tejas, which can take on the enemy in combat.
We need accountability in all our Defence Public Sector Undertakings and in the Ordnance Factory Board. Unless these institutions are overhauled, we will never be a power to reckon with. It is time that India’s political authority took charge and put the babus in their place. Time also to look more proactively at the private sector and gradually phase out the white elephants masquerading as India’s public sector.