Why Is the Ministry of Defence So Committed to Forming Committees?

At best, the ministry has cherry picked some recommendations for implementation, outrightly rejecting or remaining silent over the rest.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) appears to be a committee-happy colossus. Over several decades, it has instituted a mind-boggling number of panels, committees, working groups and task forces – often on matters previously examined by other, similar groups – only to later dump their reports and recommendations.

At best, it has cherry picked some recommendations for implementation, outrightly rejecting or remaining silent over the rest. Consequently, most of these committees, barring a handful of exceptions, have had little or no impact, whether on indigenising defence requirements, hastening material procurement or improving the MoD’s functioning.

On August 26, for instance, the MoD announced the institution of a five-member committee, headed by V. Ramagopal Rao, director of the Indian Institute of Technology  in New Delhi, to overhaul the 52 laboratories of the government-run Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) for ‘current and future defence and battlefield needs’. This is a reiteration of a similar committee established in 2007 under Dr P. Rama Rao, former secretary, Department of Science and Technology, also to review the DRDO’s functioning.

The Rao committee’s recommendations, submitted in 2008, resulted in clubbing several DRDO laboratories and related institutions into smaller and more manageable clusters, but only after an internal MoD committee under the defence secretary had further scrutinised the recommendations and concurred in the regrouping of the DRDO’s laboratories in seven technology clusters headed by distinguished scientists as their directors general. The need to review this arrangement yet again, which began functioning 2011-12 onwards, remains inexplicable.

There has, however, been no dearth of committees and task forces regarding self-reliance in India’s defence requirements. In 1992-93 one such headed by the late A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, as DRDO head – and later president of India – had formulated a 10-year plan to augment the level of indigenisation in defence equipment from 30% to 70% by 2005. Almost two decades later, the situation remains unchanged, with India emerging as one of the world’s largest materiel importers for successive years.

Subsequently, in 2004 the government constituted the Vijay Kelkar Committee, headed by the former finance secretary, to recommend changes in defence acquisition procedures by majorly involving the private sector. The report was submitted by it in two parts: the first in April 2005 that focused on defence procurement procedures in addition to recommending several ways to promote indigenous production.

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Though some of the Kelkar committee recommendations, like the creation of a 15-year equipment acquisition plan and the introduction of offsets in defence purchases, were accepted, many others were shelved. The rejected ones included the vital recommendation for accreditation and fostering of Raksha Udyog Ratnas, or industrial ‘jewels’, in the private sector that could undertake major defence manufacturing projects and joint ventures.

The second part submitted later the same year suggested greater freedom for India’s nine Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) to form joint ventures and consortiums with overseas original equipment manufacturers to render them more efficient. Seven years later in 2012, MoD issued ‘Guidelines for establishing Joint Venture Companies by DPSUs’ which, some reports suggest, were rescinded in 2016.

The Kelkar committee also recommended corporatisation of the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), which had been suggested by the T.K.A. Nair committee five years earlier in 2000. This was later to be recommended again by the Vice Admiral Raman Puri (retd) committee in 2015, albeit with slight changes, and the Lieutenant General D.B. Shekatkar (retd) committee the following year.

However, it was only on May 16, 2020 that finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the decision to corporatise the OFB as a part of the wider defence reforms to improve its autonomy, accountability and efficiency. Not much is known about how and when can one expect this ‘reform’ to fructify.

Earlier, in 2001-02 following the recommendations of the L.K. Advani-led Group of Ministers, which examined the recommendations of the Kargil Review committee report on intelligence and operational lapses that led to an 11-week long border war with Pakistan in mid-1999, measures were initiated by the MoD to streamline military procurements. This included establishing the MoD’s ‘dedicated’ Capital Acquisition Wing in 2001.

Since then, at least four committees have examined various aspects of the organisational structure and procedures evolved by the MoD for materiel procurements. The first was in 2007 under N.S. Sisodia, a retired civil servant and then director general of the New Delhi-based Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, the IDSA. Its report was probably never made public.

In 2012, the National Security Council set up a task force under Ravindra Gupta, a former secretary to examine various aspects of defence modernisation and self-reliance. Four years later in 2016, a committee headed by Pritam Singh, a management professional, recommended setting up of a bespoke Defence Acquisition Organisation to, among other things, promote indigenisation and self-reliance and bring the entire gamut of procurement activities under one organisation.

The same year- 2016-the Committee of Experts, headed by Dhirendra Singh, another former secretary submitted a voluminous report which formed the basis for making several procedural changes to the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP)-2016. Unsurprisingly, this too is presently under review by a committee set up last year under stewardship of the MoD’s Director General (Acquisitions).

Meanwhile, the 2008 Defence Expenditure Review Committee under the stewardship of V.K. Misra, former secretary (defence finance) had made several recommendations to rationalise defence expenditure, much like the Arun Singh Committee 25 years earlier chaired by a former minister.

What came out of the recommendations of these committees is unknown, but in 2016, yet another committee was constituted under General Shekatkar to re-balance defence expenditure by recommending measures to enhance the military’s combat capabilities and to improve its “teeth to tail ratio”, especially with regard to the Indian Army.

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Of the 188 recommendations made by the Shekatkar committee on a wide array like defence budget, modernisation, structural reorganisation, and training, only a handful had been implemented till April 2020 that included the long-awaited appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff. With no deadline laid down for implementing the accepted proposals, it will not be surprising if MoD loses interest and constitutes one more committee to examine identical issues in the coming years.

All these innumerable committees and task forces have seldom proved fruitful, due principally to the change in political and bureaucratic leadership, or loss of interest, before the recommendations are implemented. Manohar Parrikar, the late defence minister, for example, was keen on creating a bespoke Defence Acquisition Organisation, but the 2016 Pritam Singh committee report which made innumerable suggestions to streamline this process was dumped once he returned to Goa as the chief minister.

Few past reports are available in the public domain, but the handful that are do not make any mention of the obstacles MoD may have to overcome while implementing its contentious recommendations.  This, in turn, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the MoD to take informed decisions. Often it also results in several MoD-associated organisations putting up stiff resistance to the recommended changes as they are perceived to be inimical to their particular intrinsic interests.

The recent recommendation to corporatise the OFB is a prime example of this impediment. For, while it is trendy to advocate its corporatisation, there is no attendant explanation on how executing this ‘reform’ will make the ordnance factories more efficient and serve the cause of self-reliance better. It also fails to address the concerns of the 80,000-odd OFB employees regarding their prospects at a time when unemployment is multiplying across pandemic-affected India.

In most instances these reports also do not contain ready-to-implement recommendations, necessitating time-consuming bureaucratic intervention to figure out ways on doing so. On closer examination, some of these proposals are found to be simply unimplementable, but in classic instance of bureaucratese the MoD’s civil servants end up being blamed for implementation delays, or worse, for obstructing the recommendations.

A fundamental problem with many of the recommendations is their financial viability. Nothing illustrates this better than the suggestion of raising the country’s annual defence outlay – excluding defence pensions – to 2.5 to 3% of the Gross Domestic Product. This proposal has been seldom backed by any explanation of why is this considered as an ideal level of funding to modernise the military; but more importantly, given the parlous state of the economy, how possibly could the defence outlay be raised to such astronomical levels.

In times of fiscal prudence it is time the MoD realised that disjointed, sporadic and repetitive efforts at reforms, based on nebulous ideas, divorced from financial realities, and without a dispassionate debate or multi-party political support, are unlikely to transform India’s management of higher defence. There is a great opportunity waiting out there for MoD to disprove the maxim that committees are groups of people who individually can do nothing; but as a group they can decide that nothing can be done.

Amit Cowshish is former financial advisor (acquisitions), Ministry of Defence.