The root of the problem lies in a selector who is also a player
It should be baffling to most people. Six years ago, India’s defence ministry approved the purchase of Israeli Barak surface-to-air missiles for the Indian Navy. The navy loves them and swears by them to this day. So why the ugly controversy?
Politics is the first thing that comes to mind—ever since Bofors and especially after ‘Tehelka’, defence procurement scandals have become a perennial favourite with politicians looking to ‘fix’ their opponents. Never mind that these acts of partisanship have ensured that the funds that India has set aside to modernise its armed forces take a long time before getting translated into meaningful hardware. Defence deals are the least transparent of government purchases even in the most transparent countries. That makes them particularly prone to controversy. But the way India’s procurement process is set up makes it even more so.
The fundamental challenge for policymakers has been to balance the need for self-sufficiency in defence production against the immediate needs of the armed forces. But it is not this challenge that is the problem. Neither is it simply a matter of whether DRDO is an incompetent behemoth or not. Rather, it is in the role the DRDO plays in the defence procurement process.
In the current controversy, a key part of the controversy lies in the Defence Ministry choosing the Israeli missiles over DRDO’s objections. Keen to get the Navy to use the Trishul missiles it is developing in-house, the DRDO had institutional interests in promoting its own product. Its interests were very different from that of the end-user, the Indian Navy, which preferred the Barak system. DRDO’s conflict of interest is the root cause of this controversy and indeed in most of India’s defence procurement woes.
There is an urgent need therefore, for the Indian government to rationalise defence procurement, starting with the restructuring of DRDO. Its procurement function must be completely separated from R&D and production units. Unfortunately Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appears to be barking up the wrong tree when he mentioned the need to further regulate the role of middlemen. If the procurement process itself is not reformed, thickening the rule books is unlikely to result in less controversy.