Where Does Facilitation Stop and Bribery Begin?

Published: 09th March 2014 11:22 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th March 2014 11:22 AM   |  A+A-

Some three decades ago, when I was in the government, I made the acquaintance of a senior bureaucrat in an economic ministry who had the audacity to circulate the equivalent of a note verbale among a select few suggesting that a "consideration" of 10-20 percent be built into all deals, particularly to those relating to the defence sector.

This was at a time when transparency had not even come into the lexicon and India was slowly opening up to the West to overcome the stranglehold of the then Soviet Union.

Not surprisingly, many wondered whether he had a bee in his bonnet or was just being tongue-in-cheek and took little notice of the suggestion.

Then, the Bofors "scandal" broke in and he gleefully re-circulated his note, saying: "See, I told you so. Had the consideration clause been there, this might not have happened."

While on Bofors, let it be remembered that even though it cost Rajiv Gandhi his job and the case spent innumerable years in court, it could not be proved that money was paid underhand to land the $1.3 billion contract for 410 155mm field howitzers for the Indian Army.

Let it also be remembered that the Bofors guns were the mainstay during the 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan. But for their "shoot-and-scoot" capability, the going could have been much tougher for the Indian Army.

For close to 15 years now, the army has been desperately trying to shore up its Bofors inventory, now down to half because of cannibalisation due to lack of spares. And yet, the government won't move because of the Bofors shadow.

Then, in 2009 there were reports that the Indian Army was evaluating a 155mm ultra light howitzer being manufactured by a Singapore firm. A year later, there were two contradictory reports - that the firm had been blacklisted for alleged graft and that trials were to begin of the towed version of its 155mm gun.

The company vehemently denied there was any wrongdoing.

"We are more than willing to open our books for inspection. We have not done any wrong. Our corporate governance is of a very high standard. In the last 40 years, there has not been a single instance of our having done wrong," a top company official had told this writer at the time.

There was no progress on either front - either on the probe or on the trials.

Then, there were reports that the successor to the original Bofors gun, this one assembled by the US subsidiary of a British firm, could be sold to India. Last year, citing the lack of a response from the Indian government, the company said it was shutting down its plant in Britain where the components of the gun were manufactured before being assembled in the US.

With efforts to produce an indigenous gun having failed, from where will the army now get its howitzers - particularly when it is raising two mountain divisions and a strike corps?

Now, take the case of two submarines manufactured in India under the transfer of technology route.

In the first, the product was excellent but the German parent came under the graft cloud as a result of which there was no follow-on order as provided for in the contract. Here again, nothing could be proved and the issue died a natural death.

Then, another European firm was contacted in the late 1990s and even as Indian engineers attempted to re-invent the wheel - the expertise acquired during the first project having being lost as those who had worked on it had retired - graft charges surfaced once again.

The response was on expected lines: "Ask us what you want to, we will give you the answers."

Thankfully, the issue has died down. However, for want of appropriate clearances due to the controversy, the first of the six submarines slated for delivery in 2012 is now expected only in 2015.

Now comes the case of a British aero-engine manufacturer being under the scanner for a deal in the energy sector but which could impact the Indian Air Force (IAF). This is because the former deal piggy-backed on the latter for engines for the IAF advanced jet trainer (AJT).

Now hear this: The company in question is an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) for the AJT, so there's no question of it competing with anyone for the order!

So, what's the common thread running through all this? That bribes have been paid? In spite of years of investigation, has any proof of this surfaced?

Quite obviously, there has been facilitation because otherwise, how would the armed forces be exposed to the best that is on offer at any given time - and let's face it: there's absolutely nothing wrong with the quality of products delivered or on order.

The presence of a large number of arms dealers in the capital - one of whom is a prominent hotelier - is ample evidence of some people making pots of money. Has any of this been passed on to those who cleared the deals? Even if it has, no paper trail has emerged in any case.

I don't hold a brief for any of these arms dealers but where does a legitimate business dealing get converted into wrongdoing?

Look at it this way: Journalists are bombarded with invites and a plethora of inducements from a variety of business houses, offering trips abroad and within the country and a rash of gifts ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.

All this, to "create a good impression" in the mind of the journalist about the company.

What would you call this: Inducement, facilitation or bribery?

I guess it depends on the scale!

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