Mostly dogmas

More of the same gives you more of the same

One of the positive outcomes of the controversies sparked by General V K Singh is that it has, even if it is ephemerally, triggered a public debate on defence policy. Carrying it forward is important. In today’s Business Standard, Ajai Shukla responds to my arguments for reform in defence procurement.

Mr Shukla raises two broad points. First, that we ought not to throw away indigenisation while reforming the defence public sector; and second, that economic liberalisation that gave us a modern, competitive automotive industry cannot give us a modern, competitive defence industry. Let’s consider them in turn.

The argument, as I explicitly state in my article, “is not say indigenisation is an unworthy goal. Rather, it is to suggest that the longstanding approach to indigenisation has not only met with limited success but also that the same goal can be achieved using different means.” Mr Shukla shows how reliance on foreign technology causes problems of denial, interoperability and sabotage. The answer, however, is not a “sharper focus on indigenisation” which can easily become wrapping paper for the reform-resistant status quo. No amount of tinkering with the structure and management of India’s defence PSUs can make them competitive enough to provide for our defence requirements.

In fact, the Mr Shukla’s own points support my argument that PSUs have captured our defence procurement policy. “DPSUs,” he writes “notably BEL and BEML, have undermined indigenisation by serving as fronts for the back-door induction of foreign technology through partnerships with foreign vendors.” The political economy of the Indian public sector enterprises will not make them do any better if they are given a sharper focus or placed under a different ministry.

Next, the argument that the defence industry as a whole is different from the automotive (or any other industry) is untenable. Beyond the point that the defence industry has fewer customers than other industries, they are all made of the same people, have the same economic incentives, draw capital from the same economy, react to competition in similar ways and so on. It is unfathomable why Mr Shukla should consider this naïve. Of course, you can’t expect a private sector defence industry to emerge if the government creates disincentives for it, or if it refuses to purchase from it, as happens today. I recall similar charges of naiveté being thrown about when telecommunications, banking and insurance sectors were liberalised. People deeply involved in an industry feel that their industry is different. Well, it’s not. The laws of economics apply to defence as much as they do to the vada pav industry.

Similarly, it is not at all strange to see arguments that free trade or entry of foreign players will weaken the domestic private sector. That is an argument that has been made since Nehruvian times, much to the detriment of the nation. Sadly, it continues to be made despite being proven wrong. Did allowing foreign automobile manufacturers, telecom companies or insurance providers hurt our car makers, telcos or insurance companies? The reality is quite to the contrary. You can have a debate on whether or not Indian consumers should be allowed to purchase from multi-brand retail chains owned by foreigners. But how can you have a debate on whether the Indian armed forces should be prevented from having the best possible equipment to protect us?

The danger with the kind of attempted middle-ground approaches suggested by Mr Shukla is that they end up as a cover for inaction. The onus is on those who prefer mild variations of the status quo to explain why persisting with policies that have failed us for decades will suddenly begin delivering promised results now.

The dogmas that undermine our defence

Reforming defence procurement, mindset first

This the unedited version of my op-ed in today’s Business Standard.

Why is it that on the one hand India is the world’s biggest arms buyer, and on the other, the outgoing army chief has complained that we are short of basic war-fighting equipment like tank ammunition and field guns? Why is it that our defence procurement takes years to complete and can be halted or reversed by allegations of corruption? Is corruption so rampant within the top echelons of our armed forces that the both the army chief and defence minister could shrug off a brazen attempt to bribe the general in his office? How come the defence ministry has spurned and blacklisted vendors from countries whose geopolitical interests are aligned to ours?

It is easy to treat these issues as merely the failings of individuals and the shortcomings of the latest procurement rules. It is easy to park the unholy affair under the general head of how corruption is undermining our nation. To do so would be to ignore the underlying causes of why things have some to such a pass.

The first is the dogmatic pursuit of indigenisation, a mindset that pervades the defence establishment. It has resulted both in policy capture by public sector unit (PSU) network and introduced layers of complexity in procurement rules. Ordinarily, as end users, the armed forces would want the best possible equipment for the rupee, but they too are prisoners of a narrative that involves the pursuit of a chimerical indigenisation. For in New Delhi, it is still nearly heretical to suggest that an enemy killed by a foreign-made bullet is as dead as an enemy killed by a partly-indigenous bullet.

This is not say indigenisation is an unworthy goal. Rather, it is to suggest that the longstanding approach to indigenisation has not only met with limited success but also that the same goal can be achieved using different means. Back in the 1970s and 1980s the government couldn’t produce an indigenous passenger car no matter how many it purchased from Hindustan Motors and Premier Automobiles. It was only after the liberalisation of the economy and the entry of foreign competitors that Tata Motors, Mahindra and others could produce automobiles that are not only indigenous but also in the same league as their foreign competitors. The route to effective indigenisation, therefore, is counter-intuitive. We must open our defence sector to foreign investors so that Indian industry can acquire the capabilities to produce the equipment our armed forces need.

This cannot be achieved by offsets that require foreign suppliers to spend part of the contract price in India. Offsets might re-inject part of the defence expenditure into the domestic economy but will not result in the transfer of knowledge, skills and human capital that are essential for India to build a modern defence industry. The most effective way to get there is to open doors for foreign direct investment in defence manufacturing. Capping the foreign equity at 26% has attracted few investors. Instead of arguing over another arbitrary level at which to set the cap, we should do away with it altogether.

The second is the equally dogmatic anti-middleman mindset. Going by the statements of the defence minister, it would appear that middlemen—like their lobbyist cousins—are uniformly evil and therefore ought to be banned outright. Yet middlemen are not the cause of corruption. Rather, both middlemen and corruption are the twin offspring of the same parent—complex procurement rules.

The more complex a set of rules, the more the need for ‘specialists’ to help navigate through them. The reason lawyers and chartered accountants exist is because the law and the tax code are complex. Middlemen exist because they perform a useful economic role. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong or immoral about them. It is our rules that make them so, driving underground a genuine economic activity.

Why do we have complex procurement rules? Because we have overcrowded them with multiple, sometimes conflicting objectives. Changing our approach to indigenisation as argued earlier can simplify them to some extent. Even so, it is unlikely that they can be simplified enough to eliminate the need for agents. That is why instead of prohibiting middlemen in defence procurement, a far better policy would be to create a regulatory framework under which they can operate legitimately.

Agents could be required to declare their past and current affiliations, and disclose relevant family connections. Former defence officers and their civilian counterparts could be required to serve out a cooling off period before getting into the business. The policy objective ought to be to align—to the extent possible—the economic incentives of the middlemen to the organisational interests of the armed forces. We don’t have to like lawyers and chartered accountants in order for us to let them discharge their economic roles. Why should it be any different with middlemen?

The final cause of the mess in our defence procurement is that we often ignore the geopolitical consequences of our purchases. Awarding the tender to the lowest bidder might be the best method to resurface parade grounds but not for billion dollar purchases of equipment. To treat both purchases the same way would be to lose strategic leverage that comes from being able favour a country which can give us something else that we need. Blacklisting companies from friendly powers exposes us to purchases from less friendly ones.

The biggest argument for indigenisation is that reliance on foreign suppliers is risky because supplies can be withheld in order to coerce us. That risk can be mitigated if we procure military equipment from countries with which we have extensive economic ties, and vice versa. Reducing the incongruence between our top trading partners and our top arms suppliers ought to be an important policy goal.

The ghost of Bofors continues to haunt our defence procurement. Avoiding stepping on the dung on the road is now more important than getting to the destination. As the defence minister admitted in parliament, the pace of modernisation is slow because every allegation of corruption is investigated. This leaves us with the unfortunate implication that that anyone, from an inimical foreign power to a disgruntled equipment vendor, can apply brakes on the modernisation process. The ghost must be exorcised by liberalising the defence manufacturing sector and getting rid of the superstition that passes off as strategy.

Copyright © 2012. Business Standard. All rights reserved.

Liability-shiability absurdity

Liberalise the nuclear power industry!

It is painfully hard to watch the ongoing drama over civil nuclear liability. So much is the political class—from the UPA government to the opposition BJP—engrossed in lawyerly detail, so much has the Congress party abandoned the idea of economic reforms which Manmohan Singh was once famous for, that the biggest policy issue is not even being debated.

That issue is the full liberalisation of the nuclear power sector. There is no good reason why only state-owned (or majority state-owned) enterprises should operate the engines that make electricity from uranium. Instead of quibbling over whether or not to limit liability to operators or to extend it to their suppliers, the political class and the strategic analysts who advise them should be setting their sights on amending the Atomic Energy Act to liberalise the sector and allow for a neutral regulator to supervise them.

During the thick of the debate over the India-US nuclear deal, this blog had argued that liberalising the nuclear power industry is necessary, and that the nuclear deal is an opportunity to accomplish that task. Instead, both the government and the opposition have tied themselves in a legalistic bind over the irrelevant issue of supplier liability.

Irrelevant? Largely, yes. Because in a liberalised environment, all the government needs to do is hold the operator liable, and leave it to the operator to decide how it wants to cover its liabilities.

Related Link: PRS Legislative Research’s M R Madhavan’s brief on the civil nuclear liability bill, in Pragati

General Electric

After the “clean waiver” in Vienna

According the the Nuclear Suppliers Group, its guidelines “are implemented by each NSG participant in accordance with its national laws and practices. Decisions on export applications are taken at the national level in accordance with national export licensing requirements. This is the prerogative and right of all States for all export decisions in any field of commercial activity and is also in line with the text of Article III.2 of the NPT…” To understand what this will mean in practice, just read this report from Bloomberg.

The waiver means that companies including France’s Areva SA, Russia’s Rosatom Corp. and Japan’s Toshiba Corp. will be able to export nuclear equipment to India. General Electric Co. and other U.S. companies will have to wait until Congress ratifies a 2006 trade pact backed by President George W. Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

General Electric, the world’s biggest maker of energy- generation equipment, said Aug. 25 that it may lose contracts in India to French, Russian and Japanese rivals if Congress doesn’t ratify a U.S.-India nuclear deal soon after the agreement wins approval from the Suppliers Group.

Rice said the U.S. has talked to India about the potential competitive disadvantage.

“I think they recognize and appreciate American leadership on this issue,” she said. “Because of that I think we’ll have ways to talk them about not disadvantaging American companies.”

Still, she said “the best thing would be to get it through Congress.” [Bloomberg]

It is understood that there is a tacit agreement that the first commercial deals will involve US companies…as long as the US Congress does not prevent it. The non-proliferation ayatollahs are up against the General Electrics on this one.

As for the Indian government, the real job begins once the party is over. Negotiating the nuclear deal with the United States, IAEA and the NSG was the easy part. The hard part involves liberalising the power industry. See energy security begins at home; Mr Advani sees the light and the uranium at home.

Related Link: The problems with India’s power industry regulations. The NSG saga covered at Idaho Samizdat.

After the fig leaf dropped off

Time to demonstrate those ‘reformist credentials’

Now that the Communists are off the UPA government’s back, let’s see how much reform Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister P Chidambaram can deliver. Ajay Shah writes

Assuming the PM and the FM decide they want new drafting work done for one piece of legislation, it takes roughly a month of focus for a small team to get a good quality draft done. This is parallelisable – so 10 new drafts could get done in a month. The question is then one of whether it’s possible to introduce a new Bill and get it passed within the short time available. There might be some pieces of legislation which are non-controversial, where this could indeed come about.

I wrote an opinion piece in today’s Financial Express titled What now, UPA? about these questions. Now that the CPI(M) is out of the way, what is the task ahead of us in building the financial sector that India deserves?

Here’s the quick summary. There is a big task ahead of us. A lot of it can be done without legislation. The pending Bills are on the right track. But they are only a small slice of the legislative agenda in financial sector reforms. The bulk of the work has yet to begin. For the fuller rationale about these issues in financial sector reforms, see the Mistry and Rajan reports. [Ajay Shah]

This blogger, though, is not holding his breath—but will find the greatest happiness if proved wrong.

The knave of bad times

They destroyed the paddle. Schitt creek* is coming up

Growth in industrial production fell to 3%, the lowest in six years, indicating that bad times might be ahead. There’s worse. As Niranjan Rajadhyaksha demonstrates, the UPA government has frittered away the opportunity to put the economy on the footing to handle the coming problems. In the “misery index” he constructs, among emerging market economies, only Pakistan and Egypt fare worse than India.

But there is little doubt that the economic fundamentals are deteriorating. The hole in the government’s finances is getting bigger. It could now be close to 1991 levels, if measured correctly. The current account deficit, too, is growing and could conceivably touch 1991 levels by the end of this year. The foreign exchange market has already picked up these worrying signs. The rupee has been slipping against most major currencies over the past few weeks. Somewhere in some tax haven, a few hedge funds must be seeing these trends and sharpening their claws.

It is unfortunate and inexcusable that India is now at a point when it seems far more vulnerable than most other emerging market economies. The government should have used the splendid five-year economic boom and soaring tax collections to slash its deficit and prepare the economy for an economic downturn. It did not.

History will not judge the United Progressive Alliance government too kindly on this score. It is distressing that some of the same people who helped pull India out of trouble in 1991 have done so little to prepare for the next round of economic turmoil. One expected more from a team led by Manmohan Singh.[Mint]

Mr Rajadhyaksha is being charitable to Dr Singh and the UPA government. Not only did this crew fail to prepare for the coming storm, but actually damaged the boat. It’s a sin of commission. [Also see Swaminathan Aiyar’s piece on fiscal deficit]

* Thanks to Chidanand Rajghatta for revealing the decorous use of that euphonious euphemism

How wrong Manmohan Singh is

He advocates a false morality to disguise his government’s failures

Dr Manmohan Singh the prime minister has routinely relied on platitudes (instead of on incentives) to motivate the UPA government’s policies. But he is getting even the platitudes wrong. In a country where the average annual per capita income hovers around an unacceptably low US$1000, he wants people to earn less. Why? Because, according to him, earning less, and expecting to earn less, is a national duty.

By equating a degree of self-sacrifice with national duty, the PM has tried to make a moral argument. He has said that this is what corporates and highly paid executives owed in the endeavour to contain prices and keep the overall growth momentum on track. While this has a populist touch and will appeal to an opinion that is ready to view corporates as “fat cats”, private employment is increasingly the preferred option for most educated persons.

Sectors characterised by “significant market power” in the hands of a few producers have a societal obligation to assist the government in moderating inflationary expectations, the PM rounded off. [TOI]

He has gotten it exactly wrong. The national duty of every citizen is to make as much money as legally possible. Anyone who suggests otherwise cannot have the best interests of the Indian people at heart. Oh, he’s only referring to the top executives, you say? Well, first, depressing wages at the top will cascade down and result in lower earnings for everyone in the pyramid (just as increasing wages at the top will increase wages for everyone). And as a matter of principle, just how does making the rich earn less help the nation? In fact, it does just the opposite. It would have been one thing for Dr Singh to call upon the rich to deepen the culture of philanthropy. But to equate “self-sacrifice” with “national duty” is dangerous nonsense.

Dr Singh shamelessly masks his government’s failure to ensure free, competitive markets—and prevent the build up of significant market power—by claiming that monopolists have societal obligations. That’s dangerous nonsense too. The solution to the build-up of market power is further liberalisation and effective regulatory oversight. Dr Singh’s admission that there are sectors where companies have significant market power calls for moving forward with the economic reform process. Just what happened to the privatisation (okay, disinvestment) agenda?

We have said this before, and we say again: Dr Manmohan Singh has done immense harm to India’s future. The evil that he has done will live long after him. The good was interr’d with P V Narasimha Rao’s bones. Corporate India would do well to ignore the shameless moral poseur. Yes, it’s late in the day for this government. But Dr Singh should go. [See previous calls.]

My op-ed in Mint: Clarity in defence expenditure

Time to stop putting the defence rupee in so many different pigeonholes

In our op-ed in Mint, Sushant and I argue that to convert defence outlays into outcomes, it is necessary to consolidate defence expenditure under one head.

Read on…

The guns and butter trade-off
It’s time for India to review its outdated practice of obfuscating the true defence expenditure

Finance minister P. Chidambaram’s Budget speech on 29 February will be more than two hours long, but an expense item of more than Rs1 trillion will be covered in a couple of minutes. Defence expenditure is the second largest item of non-planned expenditure. It was covered in 34 words last year. Continue reading “My op-ed in Mint: Clarity in defence expenditure”

My op-ed in Mint: Conscription is not the solution

The solution to officer shortages is military modernisation and liberalisation of education

In our op-ed in Mint, Sushant Singh and I argue that the shortage of officers in the armed forces is not an anomaly, and merely raising take-home salaries isn’t going to solve the problem. First, India needs a capital-intensive army and must allocate more resources to military modernisation. Second, the armed forces need to deepen their officer training programmes and build what they can’t readymade. Ultimately, India needs to increase the supply of employable graduates—for that, setting education free from government control is a must.

Read on…

Rough diamonds into leaders
Talented graduates are increasingly scarce and the search for ‘officer-like’ qualities will be increasingly futile. It’s time for other, harder strategies

What does the Indian Army have in common with the National Association of Software and Services Companies (Nasscom), the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the National Manufacturing Competitiveness Council? Answer: They are all complaining of a shortage of employable graduates. The army is short of more than 11,000 officers. In 2005, a Nasscom-McKinsey report projected that the IT industry would face a potential shortage of 500,000 people by 2010.

The army may be looking for young people with “officer-like qualities”, while the private sector is looking for people of “management calibre”, but they are essentially fishing in the same pond. India produces three million graduates each year. But as Satyam’s B. Ramalinga Raju noted, “most of these are uncut diamonds that have to go through polishing factories, as the trade requires only polished stones”.

It is more than a coincidence that the Armed Forces were unable to fill available seats at the Indian Military Academy since the early 1990s—just after the P.V. Narasimha Rao government’s reforms dismantled the licence raj. Steady economic growth over the last two decades and the emergence of globally competitive IT, financial and manufacturing industries has increased the opportunity costs of joining the Armed Forces. Furthermore, productivity growth in these sectors is increasing wages: A young Indian will have to give up even more to join the Armed Forces, which offer relatively lower take-home salaries.

It is tempting to believe that merely raising military pay will address the issue of officer “shortages”. To do so would be to ignore the fundamental changes to the relative abundance of capital and labour in India’s growing economy. Continue reading “My op-ed in Mint: Conscription is not the solution”

Defence industry woes: beyond the blame game

The real issue is competition (and the lack thereof)

It is unfortunate that those making arguments for positive change feel compelled to blame participants of the status quo for all that is wrong with it. The most famous example of this—and its unfortunate consequences—is the India-US nuclear deal. The prime minister’s office under Manmohan Singh sought to justify the need for this deal by casting doubts on the record and the capabilities of India’s nuclear scientific establishment. Not only did it create resentment in a constituency whose co-operation is vital for the success of the deal. It didn’t play too well with the public either, as people were more likely to trust India’s scientists on the topic than its politicians and spin doctors.

Now Bharat Varma, a respected analyst and editor of the Indian Defence Review, disses DRDO in an article in which he makes a very important point: the need for greater competition in the defence industry. Blaming DRDO for ‘failing the Indian military’, though, was unnecessary and will draw undue attention to the less relevant part of his article. There is little doubt that DRDO’s performance could have been better. But holding DRDO responsible for failing the armed forces is like holding Hindustan Motors responsible for India’s lacklustre car industry during the license permit raj. The real fault lies elsewhere. Given the right incentives, sleepy state-owned behemoths can reveal surprising agility. [Related Post: A player who is also a referee]

Capt Varma’s offers good suggestions as to how these incentives might be changed. One word: competition. It is fair to say that India has the industrial capacity to support the most exacting needs of the armed forces. What has really failed the Indian armed forces is the government’s failure to harness the vitality of the private sector and combine it with the achievements of DRDO and the wider public-sector scientific establishment. [Related Posts: Liberalise the defence industry; On government husbandry]

Public awareness of military and security issues is relatively shallow. The interest of reformers would be better served if the public debate generates more light than heat. Given the gravity of the issues involved, a slugfest that places the armed forces and DRDO in opposing camps is wholly unnecessary. You are now bound to see DRDO’s supporters respond to Capt Varma’s article by pointing out how the armed forces prefer foreign hardware. And the debate can get passionate.

It is more important to target the Indian government, the political class, and the scandal-happy media for a concert of ineptitude, political point-scoring and sensationalism that is responsible for the armed forces not getting the most bang for the taxpayer’s buck.