The Game of Snakes and Ladders That Is India’s Defence Acquisition Procedures

These practices, now presided over by the DAP 2020, have become difficult for ordinary mortals – much less the foreign vendors – to either comprehend, manage or execute.

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Lured by India’s heightened spending on military acquisitions and the accompanying initiative to manufacture defence equipment locally, many overseas armament vendors, sensing good business opportunities had parachuted into India. But with the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan or self-sufficiency mantra replacing the earlier ‘Make in India’ enterprise as the new refrain for achieving self-reliance in defence production, many of their landings have turned out to be hard and brutal.

No wonder that many such foreign companies look increasingly like Alice, the bewildered seven-year-old child in the 19th century apocryphal fantasy tale, wandering aimlessly at a garden party, awaiting the providential appearance of the white rabbit to magically lead them to the promised Wonderland of India’s vast and fabled arms market.

But their illusions and make-believe are soon shattered as they navigate, often for years at a time, the bottomless maw of the Ministry of Defence (MoD)’s bureaucracy, its foibles and exaggerated sense of importance. A former Indian Army Chief of Staff had accurately likened India’s defence acquisition procedures to the popular children’s game of Snakes and Ladders.

General V.K. Singh had asserted in 2012 that all files dealing with military purchases invariably slipped back to the start from the top, just as the end appeared imminent, much like the many counters that slid rapidly down the board in Snakes and Ladders, following a roll of the dice.

Unfortunately, little has changed in the intervening decade.

Also Read: The Deadly Alphabet Soup That Is India’s Defence Acquisition Procedure

On the contrary, these practices, now presided over by the MoD’s 657-page Defence Acquisition Procedure, 2020 (DAP 2020) have become even more convoluted, riddled with frequent changes and exceptions, difficult for ordinary mortals – much less the foreign vendors – to either comprehend, manage or execute.

For, this magnum opus that governs all three services’ capital acquisitions, begs the obvious question: what about the acquisition policy, or are India’s military procurements guided merely by the garbled procedures? The answer is expectedly complicated; for the DAP 2020, that came into effect in October that year, is a dense and complex mix of policy and procedure, fortified by official ‘precedents’ and widely differing interpretations of the legalese, in keeping with the hybrid legal system India practices.

Oh, come on, most would say, that’s nothing but mere nitpicking. After all, what’s the harm if policy and procedure are intertwined? Theoretically, none. Except that, while policy needs to be firm and unwavering over a long period, procedures need to be flexible to be able to serve the purpose for which these are made in the first place. However, when both get inter-laced, as in DAP 2020, which is the eighth ‘revised’ procurement manual in the last two decades, India’s risk-averse bureaucracy, pursuing the path of least resistance, elevates procedures to the level of policy, making them altogether inflexible and intransigent.

BrahMos Aerospace at the Defexpo India in 2020. Photo: brahmos.com

To put it in a nutshell, this interlocked concept of policy-cum-procedure, or bureaucratic ‘jalebi’, remains the bane of the MoD’s decision-making process and the death knell of many a materiel acquisition programme which, in turn, have adversely impacted India’s long-delayed military modernisation. Playing ‘safe’ is invariably the name of the game, though to be fair, given the environment, it is understandable to some extent, as even the slightest error runs the risk of being pounced upon by rivals, if not the government watchdogs, with dire consequences.

Accustomed to straightforward dealings and relatively more flexible and consultative business culture in their respective countries, many vendors operating in India are often driven to the brink of despair – exceptions notwithstanding – while attempting to interact with the civilian and military bureaucracy in South Block and the adjoining ‘Bhawans’ and hutments housing various Service Headquarters and their respective Directorates. Inside these unprepossessing premises the ability to put across a point of view, obtain information, or resolve an issue without being talked down to by the officials can be a lurid experience, bordering at times, on the cathartic.

The entire experience is memorable, to say the least.

To begin with, securing an ‘audience’ with the ever-busy ‘concerned’ defence officials is troublesome, requiring infinite patience, persistence and at times even invoking favours. But having somehow managed access, these interactions are, in most instances, perplexing. For, when not being talked down to and talked-at, the hapless vendors are inundated with bombastic and unending accounts centred on the ‘wondrous’ features of DAP 2020 and countless ‘reforms’ effected by the government to promote the ease-of-doing-business.

The disquisition on the high level of domestic defence engineering prowess and soaring domestic materiel exports which presently account for 0.2% of the global arms exports, amongst diverse other longwindedness, is guaranteed to positively stun the visitors into somnolence.

Each official in these multi-tiered decision-making labyrinths has a different take on what is needed, and what really is expected of the vendors. The latter are also summarily informed that they would have to unquestioningly transfer state-of-the-art technology to domestic Indian companies under the MoD’s ever-changing goalposts for equipment, whilst bearing responsibility for the end product, albeit without providing them any control over the manufacturing agency. All vendors’ suggestions stemming, in many instances, from vaster experience in executing defence contracts around the world, are tersely dismissed as either trivial, insignificant or irrelevant in the Indian context.

Fearful of losing lucrative contracts and subscribing to the dictum that the customer is always right, few vendors challenge the MoD’s viewpoints, even at the risk of playing second fiddle to the Indian companies, which now are increasingly becoming the ‘prime vendors’ for most domestic defence contracts. Those who do dare disagree or even remotely question their interlocuters, are immediately ‘educated’, often in hectoring or patronising tones, depending on the need of the moment, about the virtues of ‘co-development and co-production’. Logic and practicality are trumped by the unspoken diktat of India’s infallible bureaucracy: be reasonable, do it my way.

On a handful of rare occasions when these ‘senior officials’ feel cornered by some uncomfortable question during a seminar or roundtable discussion, they straight-facedly respond varyingly by declaring that there is either no ‘immediate solution’ or that it was a larger issue that needed ‘due consideration’, or deliver the ultimate trump card that ‘it was a good point’ and leave it at that. Some not-so-senior officials, on the other hand, concede that the concerned query was simply ‘above their pay grade’ and needed further attention at a ‘higher level’.

Unable to ignore the ‘potential’ of India’s military equipment needs, but weary of its three Ps –(acquisition) personnel, policies and procedures – potential vendors should perhaps heed Albert Einstein’s advice in their dealings: If your head tells you one thing and your heart tells you another, before you follow either, decide first whether you have a better head or a better heart.

If that presents a dilemma, the alternative is to suspend belief while dealing with the Indian MoD’s civil and military bureaucracy and follow Oliver Cromwell’s maxim: trust in God but keep your powder dry.

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