March 20, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/ General Shankar Roychowdhury

'The scandal is going to affect defence procurement'
'The scandal is going to affect defence procurement'

It has been a busy week for former army chief, Shankar Roychowdhury. His telephone in his modest North Avenue flat has constantly been ringing and he's been busy with several meetings. Everyone wants to know what he feels about the Tehelka revelations that has paralysed the National Democratic Alliance government. In a long ranging interview, Roychowdhury spoke to Roving Editor Ramesh Menon about what it meant for the defence forces and for the country's defence preparedness.

What would be the fallout of the scandal that has hit the country?

Everyone is missing the main issue. Let us look at the long-term impact that it is going to have. It is going to affect defence procurement as nobody would now want to take decisions for a long time to come.

Does that mean defence preparedness may be affected?

Yes, I am afraid it might be affected.

After the Bofors scandal, the decision-making procedure was totally crippled as the people who were to take decisions stopped taking it. And rightly so. Who will put his head into the noose? Five years hence they might be dragged out and questioned. Every officer will tell himself that he has two or three years in a position where he has to take a decision. He will tell himself that the next guy can well take the decision.

After the Bofors scandal, there were hardly any purchases.

There was almost no modernisation after 1986. When we went into the Kargil war, we saw all the shortages. It was something we knew for years. Projects, which were thought of years ago, were now being looked at again like the T-90 tank. But now after the Tehelka tapes, it will again come to a halt. There is a real danger here and thinking people should focus on this.

Sounds serious.

It is very serious. It will again slow down modernisation. This is the real issue before the country. Let these tapes now be seen in a different perspective. Action has to be taken, an inquiry has to be held, the guilty has to be punished. But let not the fear of taking decisions on arms procurement derail the modernisation process and defence preparedness of India.

Ordnance depots and supplies are said to be areas where corruption has been growing down the years.

There is some truth in that. Spares for instance, have to be purchased. We have to get it from the market. This is one area where the army interfaces with the market and there is scope for corruption. The market is full of spurious spares and it is a real danger. So in many instances, we have spotted corrupt purchases and then punished those involved. Then, in many cases, they just do not buy saying that the spares might be spurious. So our vehicles just get stalled. What do we do?

Panic buying of defence equipment leaves little time for scrutiny.

In India, the way of arms procurement is to get weapons in bulk after an emergency. When there is no emergency, there is planning but is not carried out. It happened in 1962. Then, again in 1965. And now post Kargil, it is happening. This will keep happening, unless you have a defence procurement plan. If you rush to buy in an emergency in the world market, prices will rise as they know you are desperate.

Just like it did with the Bofors shells during the Kargil war.

Forget Bofors shells, even vegetable prices rise if they know you do not have an option but buy.

Can scams in defence purchases be prevented?

Defence organisations carry five-year perspective plans. These are beautifully prepared plans as they are done by very fine minds. We know what we want, we know when we want them and what we urgently need. But everything remains on paper and ends up as good presentations. It ends up in non-allotment of funds. The opportunities for such scams are there because you rush to buy in an emergency.

Was it not amazing that these undercover reporters could break in and talk to so many officers, give them money, get information. The system was so porous.

From what I saw -- the interaction was in hotels, private residences or political party offices. The penetration did not occur in a defence establishment. So to say that the defence establishment has been penetrated is not true. The fact is that it is appalling (repeats appalling) that they have low-grade clerical staff in the ministry of defence. You have total outsiders reeling out statistics about defence equipment in the tapes. It obviously shows that classified data from the defence ministry is being freely quoted. They can get documents out. This has to stop.

Are middlemen dangerous?

There are manufacturers who do not have an office in India and they need a representative. That is fine. It is a legitimate activity as he represents his company.

Then there are middlemen who take out little bits of information and use it. They try to use undue influence to influence deals. We have to strictly deal with these kinds. People like R K Jain and R K Gupta whom you saw in the tapes had absolutely no business to have access to the kind of information they did. This is serious and needs to be investigated. How did they get all this information? It is a major security leak.

Were you surprised when the tapes were released?

I was very appalled at what those army officers did. I could not sit through the screening of the tapes and after 45 minutes I left. I felt very disturbed.

Were you shocked at what you saw?

Let us face it. We are aware of such things happening. But it was so stark as it was on film. It was more hurtful than shocking.

Will corrupt deals end up with India getting substandard defence equipment?

We have all heard of deals and vast sums changing hands, but the quality of equipment has never been affected. The way these things are done is to inflate the price. So what we get at a higher price is good stuff like the Bofors gun for example. It proved itself during the Kargil war.

What do you think of retired service officers becoming agents and middlemen of arms dealers?

I do not see anything wrong there. If an officer has specialised knowledge he has picked up and knows how the purchase system works, what is wrong if he becomes a consultant and offers advice? After all, he also has to eke out a living after retirement. But if he goes to offer inducement for purchases, he must be punished. Also, he should never use the classified information he has.

What is the purchase system like? Can it be refashioned to suit changing times where middlemen cannot be wished away and where corrupt officials should not get space to operate?

The purchase system is very elaborate. If the army needs new equipment, it makes a concept paper, which is developed, into what is called a General Staff Qualitative Requirement where the parameters are laid down. It is sent to the ministry of defence, which evaluates it and contacts various arms manufactures. A technical evaluation is done.

Then, it gets the equipment for user trials, which is done by the army in typical Indian conditions of extreme heat and cold. This may take two years or more. A trial report is then passed back to the same long chain of command it came from so that all know what is in it and all can comment. There are many people in the chain and it is never one person who takes a decision.

Finally, the army headquarters tells the ministry of defence what it thinks. The ministry then goes for price negotiations at a multiple bidder level. Price, transfers of technology, financing procedures are all dealt with. Some equipment is bought in a knocked down condition so that they can practice putting it together. Because it is a cumbersome process, chances are that one person will never be able to influence the process. It takes ages to materialise, but it has its advantages too.

So, what changes would you suggest?

The multi layered system of defence procurement itself is a safeguard against any manipulation. But what we need is a system that has safeguards but is not so slow. There is a definite need for revision of defence procurement procedures to combine accountability with speed of decision making. This is a major challenge. Because of the delay, allotted funds are not spent.

Why have civilian bureaucrats got so much of a say in defence purchases?

Well, that may be changing. In the last two projects, they have got a senior army officer to head the Price Negotiation Committee. Earlier, it used to be a civilian and the feeling was that they did not trust the army or felt that the army did not know anything about buying equipment. I hope this continues -- putting army officers in responsible positions for defence purchases.

What about political interference?

Politicians may say take this and that equipment but the defence forces can always say that we want only this. And they will get what they want.

What do you think the morale of the defence forces today is like?

Their morale is indestructible. It cannot be shaken. Yes, they might be angry, they may feel frustrated because of this, but they will fight like hell when they have to.

Has the scam affected the image of the services.

There is no doubt that what has been shown of the service officers has done major damage. But notwithstanding what the tapes have shown, the vast majority works with dedication, devotion and integrity. The tapes do present a sordid picture of the services. All cannot be equated with the scum we all saw on television.

Can you see something good coming out of this scandal?

The tapes have given a good jolt to the system that it badly needed. But we must use the opportunity to see the long term political, security and defence issues it throws up. If it starts a process of good governance, all of us should be happy. But till now previous experience does not indicate that. All previous cases of corruption are hanging fire. Nothing happened.

Design: Dominic Xavier

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