While the Modi government has tried and to a certain extent succeeded in making the defence ministry less graft-ridden, it still has a long way in formalising the way it investigates corruption.
New Delhi: A little over 20 complaints of alleged corruption, a decent chunk of which have been filed over the last two years, have languished without a proper investigation by the defence ministry’s chief vigilance officer (CVO), according to Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) documents.
The complaints, some of which stretch as far back as 2007, brings into sharp focus the sluggish functioning of the CVC at the ministry-level.
It also highlights how the Narendra Modi government, which before the 2014 elections promised to modernise India’s defence sector by making it more efficient and transparent, has struggled to formalise a method of probing corruption and convicting wrongdoers within the defence ministry.
The CVC’s notice doesn’t provide specific details of each complaint that is yet to be investigated, but just identifies when a complaint was sent for “ I&R” or “investigation and report”.
The oldest complaint, as shown below, that still hasn’t been officially investigated (with a report sent back to the CVC) stretches back to August 8, 2007. While no corruption complaints were sent by the CVC for follow-up in 2008, from then onwards the number of uninvestigated complaints have piled up. 2009 saw two complaints, 2011 saw five, 2012-2014 another five while 2015 and 2016 saw a total of nine complaints that have yet to be investigated.
What kind of complaints?
Ironically, two complaints in 2016 were filed just a couple days before and after defence minister Manohar Parrikar told the Rajya Sabha in a written reply that “no case involving corruption in defence procurements undertaken during the last two years has come to light”.
Senior defence ministry officials, when asked, insist that not all of the corruption complaints – especially those that have been lying dormant for over three years now – are of the large-scale, political-corruption variety that have marked India’s defence sector over the last 30 years.
“I would say that around 70% of those complaints are more small-scale incidents of alleged corruption that have to be investigated. These don’t have anything to do with defence procurements. In my opinion, a lot of them are because of bureaucratic delays or simple incompetence. A good portion of the complaints also stretch so far back that getting together the case files on it are still taking time,” a senior ministry official, who declined to be identified, told The Wire
However, two people with direct knowledge of the matter confirmed that three of the complaints sent by the CVC for investigation in 2015 and 2016 dealt with various procurement processes that started before the Modi government came into power but Parrikar’s ministry is now seeing through.
As one official from the army’s acquisition wing put it: “a handful of the procurements [sic] that are still ongoing date back to Antony’s tenure. The story of many of these procurements is one of several flawed RFPs and a misunderstanding of what is required for India’s military and India’s defence ecosystem”.
Scrapped rifle deal
The line between an incompetent, flawed procurement process and an arms deal fuelled by corruption has increasingly become very thin.
Consider for instance a recent Rs 1,000 crore deal to acquire 40,000 close quarter battle (CQB) carbines and over 30 million rounds of ammunition that was scrapped. The original tender was floated in 2010, with officials within the army’s acquisition wing and defence ministry divided over whether the technical specifications laid out were correct.
By 2013, as The Wire reported, that was something amiss with technical trials resulting in a single-vendor situation, which not only would raise the eventual price but also sparked allegations that it had a “corruption tone” or at the very least some funny business had happened along the way.
Parrikar scrapped the deal eventually, with one industry executive joking that any kickbacks that may have been paid would “now have to be refunded”, but only after his junior minister Rao Inderjit Singh kicked up a fuss and was eventually transferred out of the defence ministry.
The questions that defence analysts raise include: When should a proper investigation be mounted? Who should carry out the investigation? Who decides what goes to the CBI? Is it enough of a potentially corrupt deal is cancelled?
Another retired army officer, who declined to be identified, put it this way: “The history of Indian defence is one where scandals topple administrations, see huge fines being paid and defence middlemen fleeing the country, but no defence ministry officials are ever convicted. Why is this so? A bribe is not thrown into an empty abyss in hopes that goodwill will follow.”
In the case of the Israeli rifle deal, at least two informal probes were carried out, one headed by Air Marshal P.P. Reddy (retired), both of which apparently found no suspicious deviations. And yet former minister of state for defence Singh, who was unceremoniously transferred, felt that a CBI probe was needed.
And what of the CVC’s complaints that are pending investigation? These complaints are generally first determined “actionable” by the CVC and are then sent to the corresponding ministry or public sector enterprise (PSE) so that the respective chief vigilance officer (CVO) can investigate.
In PSEs, vigilance officers generally operate under a dual-reporting structure and hence also report to central vigilance commissioner K.V. Chowdhary, whereas in ministries and their subordinate offices either a director of a joint secretary-level officer doubles up as a CVO in addition to their other responsibilities.
In India’s defence ministry, there is a vigilance division that looks after “matters pertaining to Service HQs/Inter Service Organisations under Department of Defence, Department of Defence Research & Development and Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare..”. ‘Matters’ here includes corrupt practices and irregularities. The department of defence production , however, does not come under this.
Once a complaint is sent from the CVC to its CVO at the ministry-level, they are supposed to investigate and report back within three months. The list of twenty pending complaints before the defence ministry is divided between complaints that have not been investigated for six months to one year, and above one year.
The CVC in general receives around 80,000 cases a year, according to agency head Chowdhary, out of which 2,000-3,000 cases “involve those with actionable calls”. These cases are then forwarded to other agencies such as the CBI.
Parrikar and Jaitley
The NDA government, before coming into power in 2014, had three major promises with regard to defence: fast-tracking military equipment procurement, modernisation and increasing efficiency and delivering on high-profile issues such as OROP (One Rank, One Pension).
To his credit, Parrikar has also astutely tied corruption with the modernisation of India’s military forces and the general efficiency of the defence ministry’s procurement process. Which is why there are now integrity clauses for high-value deals, a new policy for blacklisting vendors and an attempt at bringing public the activities of middlemen, where they can be officially scrutinised.
Transparency International, while condemning the high rate of corruption in India’s defence sector in 2015, noted with approval some the new anti-corruption steps taken by Parrikar’s defence ministry.
And yet, they are still half-measures according to experts. The new blacklisting policy hardly touches on financial penalties, which Parrikar in late 2014 had said would play a crucial part: “How much you (the vendor) violated, pay the Indian government 4-5 times that, only then will you be permitted to participate in defence tenders.”
The new policy also doesn’t take active cognisance of investigations that unearth corruption in India or in relation to an Indian deal. This is particularly unwise, experts say, because most of the high-profile cases over the last twenty years such as the Bofors scam, the AgustaWestland payoffs or even the recent Embraer imbroglio, all of which were first brought to India’s attention by foreign investigation agencies or media organisations.
To what extent should the CVC be involved in cleaning up India’s defence sector? As the delayed investigation into complaints show, there is still a long path for the Modi government to walk.