It must be a phenomenon unique to Government of India. It doesn’t quite matter if a decision concerns national security, has the necessary financial allocations and is a moral imperative. A decision can be stalled by a new layer of indecision.
How long could it take any government to procure bullet-proof jackets for its soldiers? Perhaps a few weeks—or even months at worst. How long does it take for India to procure bullet-proof jackets for soldiers risking their lives? At least a decade, it would seem.
To appreciate the systemic sloth, consider this chronology that defines the bullet-proof culture of indecision.
• April 2003: The Standing Committee on Defence is informed that the armed forces needed 3, 53,765 bullet-proof jackets, but only 1, 24,640 were available.
• December 2003: In reply to RMR Sirigireddy, MP, is informed that procurement of one lakh jackets is under process.
• March 24, 2004: An authorisation of 3,53,765 jackets is cleared as per letter No. B/82241/29/CCS/BPJ/MGO/EM (GS&C)/124/DO (CPS/D (O-I) 2004. The alphabet soup notwithstanding, shortage
• August 29, 2004: Government informs P K Maheshwari, MP, one lakh jackets under procurement, contract for 26,774 signed in April, 2004.
• September 2006: Sanctioning powers first enhanced in April 2002 enhanced again —acquisition of proposals up to `20 crore delegated at the level of defence minister
• October 2009: Defence Acquisition Council approves procurement of 353,765 jackets —of which 186,168 jackets to be procured in 11th Army Plan.
• March 2010: Government tells Prakash Javdekar, BJP MP, that jackets are procured on basis of requirement and “is an ongoing process”.
• April 2010: Standing
Committee told “based on revised GSQR” vetting of Request for Proposal is in progress and the procurement is likely to fructify soon.
• July 2010: Meanwhile, Home ministry informs Parliament seven Central Paramilitary Forces too are short of 89,196 jackets.
• December 2010: Defence ministry tells the Standing Committee that procurement
is in process.
• September 2011: Government tells N C Swamy Gowda, MP, procurement of modular, lighter jackets is ongoing as per Defence Procurement
• August 2012: Government tells Supriya Sule, MP, present holding of jackets is “sufficient to meet operational requirements” and that procurement is an ongoing process.
• May 2013: Government
tells Abdul Rahman, MP, proposals invited for supply of 186,138 jackets and that no
bullet-proof jackets were bought in three years.
• January 2014: DG Acquisitions approves order of 1,86,138 jackets.
• February 2015: Trial samples submitted to Terminal Ballistic Research Laboratory. Curiously, government also informs that 50,000 jackets ordered by revenue route using “old GSQR”.
• April 2015: Standing Committee is informed that shortage continues and also that shelf life of existing jackets about to expire. The committee finds it an “unpleasant surprise” that despite persistent questions, “no improvement has taken place” and it calls for explanations.
• August 2015: The committee finds “no sense of responsibility and fixing accountability” in replies submitted by the ministry over the non-procurement of jackets.
The saga of procuring bullet-proof jackets has continued for 12 long years without resolution. Indeed, the issue has been rotting for much longer. The problem first surfaced in November 1997. Rajnath Singh Surya, BJP MP, asked the government of the day about the shortage and was told then that jackets were being procured on a quote-unquote “emergent basis”. It has been over 18 years since that assurance.
The regime of neglect extends across segments despite the existence of a host of alphabet-committees. To appreciate the callousness, lack of empathy and sensitivity, consider this. The Standing Committee had asked about the shortfall of “2,17,388 high-ankle boots, 13,09,092 canvas brown rubber sole shoes with laces, 4,47,000 Balaclava caps, 65,978 durrie IT olive greens and 1,26,270 mosquito nets—yes, mosquito nets. The response from the ministry: “Action is at hand to ensure that the requirements of high-altitude clothing and equipment will be met by the procurement underway.” Unsurprisingly, the Standing Committee described the response as “vague and casual.”
The rot in the system was most visible in the problems faced during the Kargil conflict. Indeed, in 1999, the Kargil Review Committee Report had explicitly stated: “Among aspects of modernisation to which priority should be given is that of equipping infantrymen with superior light weight weapons, equipment and clothing suited for the threats they are required to face.”
The issue is clearly not of costs or of want of funds. The defence ministry informed the Standing Committee that the Army could not utilise its modernisation budget fully six years in a row. Between 2008-09 and 2013-14, `1,3499 crore of allocated funds was surrendered even as soldiers struggled with inadequate equipment and gear.
World over, countries have systems that respect priorities and processes that deliver accountability. Why should it take a decade for government of India to equip its soldiers—what exactly is being invented or reinvented here? The moot question is: Is this the best India can do? Can India afford to live with a system that can sleep over decisions that concern the lives of soldiers defending the nation?
Shankkar Aiyar is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change