Efforts to improve the teeth to tail ratio in the armed forces has led to drastic pruning of manpower in the Army Service Corps (ASC), Army Ordnance Corps (AOC) and the Corps of Electronics and Mechanical Engineers (EME). Further cuts are unlikely to yield any additional dividends, but may well emasculate these organisations, which in turn could impact on the operational effectiveness of the Army.
An element oft overlooked however is the large civilian component in the public sector that draws its sustenance from the defence budget but has not been made accountable to the Services or to the nation for its productivity. Reference is made here to the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the nine Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSU) and the 41 Ordnance Factories (OF), which combined have a manpower strength in excess of 1,80,000 personnel. This too constitutes the ‘tail’, but is generally left out in any discourse on the subject.
The ordnance factories function under the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), headed by the Director General, Ordnance Factories. The 41 OFs, including two which are yet to start production, have about 100,000 employees. They are divided into five product based operating groups, viz. weapons, vehicles and equipment, materials and components, armoured vehicles and ordnance equipment (clothing andgeneral stores). The performance analysis of the OFs make for dismal reading. Not only are their products of poor quality, they are over priced as well. They have little incentive to improve performance as they have a captive market in the armed forces and in the central armed police organisations. A comparative analysis carried out of the employees of Vehicle Factory, Jabalpur (VLJ), with that of Ashok Leyland (AL) indicates that the private sector employees of AL are three times more productive than their counterparts in the public sector VFJ. More disturbingly, the cost per employee is four times more in the Jabalpur factory. The government needs to disinvest in OFs producing vehicles and clothing items and leave it to the private sector to supply the forces with better quality items at lower rates. That will be a more pragmatic manner of reducing tail. The OFs should restrict themselves to those fields where it may not be prudent for the private sector to get involved.
The record of some of the DPSUs is not much better. As an example, BEML which supplies Tatra vehicles to the Army, imports the same in a knocked down condition, assembles the parts and sells it to the Army at three times the cost. That is far from its avowed aim to be a dominant player in design, development and manufacture, as all it has exhibited is screwdriver technology. Defence DPSUs need a critical performance audit, and most need to be privatised. That too will reduce the ‘tail’.
Finally, a word about the DRDO. It seems astonishing, that for a country that can send a mission to Mars, it fails abysmally in making an effective and robust small arms system for the Army. The talent pool in DRDO is undeniable. Yet user satisfaction remains minimal. The organisation needs to scale down its activities in non core areas and focus its energies on a lesser number of upper end technologies. For DRDO to deliver, it needs to be restructured on the lines of ISRO, and be given complete autonomy under the direct supervision of the PMO.
There will be resistance to change, as the civil bureaucracy has a vested interest in maintaining a large organisation, through which it gets it pelf and power. But if the Prime Minister’s ‘Make in India’ campaign has to succeed, then the public sector has to be downsized and made responsible to the user. Let us therefore look at the ‘tail’ in a holistic manner, and not mindlessly reduce force strength at the operational level.