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The ministry of defence (MoD) would have us believe that its Atmanirbharta Abhiyan – or relentless campaign for self-reliance in defence equipment – is on an unstoppable roll, as evidenced by a continuing series of ‘positive indigenisation lists’ (PILs) it issued to prohibit the import of diverse military platforms and related kit.
Collectively, these mystifying listings encompass 1,548 items that are included in six lists issued periodically since August 2020, till the most recent one on August 28.
Three of them enumerate 310 major platforms – like lightweight tanks, field artillery, cadet training ships, helicopters, combat aircraft, assault rifles, missiles, and assorted ammunition and accessories, amongst others – that are to be developed and manufactured domestically.
A corresponding number of three additional lists, enumerate 1,238 miscellaneous items, mainly components, which were earlier imported by the Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs), but would now be gradually indigenised, while a sub-list enumerates 2,500 items which had already been indigenised when the first list was issued in December last year.
The latest PIL in the latter category was issued on August 28 which proscribed the import of 780 ‘strategically important’ line replacement units (LRUs), sub-systems and components. The staggered ban on their import comes into effect in phases, stretching progressively over five years, from end-2023 to December 2028.
Two similar lists – notified in December 2021 and March 2022 – had likewise banned the import of another 458 items by the DPSUs, of which MoD now claims to have indigenised 167, obviating their purchase from abroad. It is acutely embarrassing that the DPSUs were importing these items, given that these could so easily have been manufactured locally.
The August 28 list is of a piece with the previous ones, especially the above-mentioned sub-list of 2,500 already indigenised items that included assorted nuts, bolts, screws, bushes, washers, gaskets, pins, hoses, sealing rings, rivets, clamps, plugs, valves, nozzles, pipes, and jets.
In many instances, different sizes of the same item were listed separately in a bid to seemingly inflate the MoD’s list and render it more striking and achievement-oriented. But far from being embarrassed over these trifling claims, the MoD projected it as a notable achievement of its Atmnanirbharta Abhiyan.
Continuing in the same vein, MoD has packed the August 28 list with similar seemingly low-technology and easily indigenisable items. There are, for instance, four types of lamp indicator assemblies, eight different pipe-bleed air systems, five flexible shafts and backlit panels, and 11 types of slide and swivel joints, apart from several run-of-the-mill items like speed indicators, compressors, cam and metal bushes, watertight lamps, cooling and lubrication systems, wiper blades, safety valves and digital intercom handsets.
What tops these exaggerated claims is the impending indigenisation of a clock for the Dornier Do- 228 twin-turboprop short-take-off-and-landing aircraft, which has been licence-built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited since 1983. Another ‘banned’ item that sticks out like a sore thumb is the ‘industrial grade laptop’ which, considering India’s advanced computer manufacturing and software development skills, should not have posed any difficulty in indigenising earlier.
Be that as it may, the proscribed LRUs, sub-systems and components do not, for the most part, seem to be hi-tech products and in no way beyond the design and development capability of either the Indian industry or many DPSUs which have been licence building advanced platforms like fighter aircraft since the late 1960s, and designing combat and transport helicopters, alongside series producing a host of varied missiles, sundry other equipment and ordnance.
It makes little commercial sense to indigenise run-of-the-mill items needed in limited quantities. Had it been cost-effective, there was little or no reason for the DPSUs not to strive to indigenise all of them which, under MoD pressure, are now being localised to fast-track atamnirbhata and somehow highlight self-reliance.
Besides, available evidence also indicates that ‘forced indigenisation’ of the type the three PILs seek to promote in limited numbers, only inflates the indigenised items’ overall cost. It can also pose financial and operational challenges relating to the trial and testing of the hurriedly indigenised items which, in turn, could also disrupt the manufacturing schedule of the principal equipment or system on which the concerned item is to be integrated.
Such unmindful indigenisation can also beggar Indian companies, mostly micro and small manufacturing enterprises (MSMEs), if there is no recurring demand for these items, or alternatively, a multiplicity of companies end up making the same product. These drawbacks are critical to the limited business and employment opportunities which the indigenisation of nuts and bolts may create.
Amit Cowshish is a former financial advisor (acquisitions), Ministry of Defence.