Frequent TV messages on August 9 to remain standby for an announcement by the Defence Minister at 10 a.m raised speculation of an important breakthrough having been achieved over the Chinese intrusions in Eastern Ladakh. However, Minister Rajnath Singh, reiterating Prime Minister’s call for Atmanirbhar Bharat (Self Reliant India) through a series of tweets, called for self sufficiency in defence, and released a list of 101 items covering ammunition, small arms, radars, simulators, various types of ships and barges, personal and communication equipment amongst other items which stand embargoed from imports; 69, 11, 4, 8, 8 and 1 item from December 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025 respectively.

The government has been stressing ‘Make in India’ and self-reliance in defence right from 2014. Yet, the SIPRI report “Trends in international arms transfers 2019" showed India as the second largest arms exporter in the world during 2015-2019, behind Saudi Arabia and followed by Egypt, Australia and China in that order.

This state is despite the mammoth establishment, the Defence Research and development Organisation (DRDO) and its 50 laborataries, four defence shipyards, five DPSUs and 41 Ordnance Factories under the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB).

The size of our existing defence industry is about Rs 80,000 crores with the public sector contributing almost 80%. This indicates where the problem lies; with the immense potential of our private sector not optimized. The private sector has repeatedly said that the ‘level playing field’ is mere lip service.

On August 3, the defence ministry relased the draft Defence Production and Export Promotion Policy 2020 aimed to reduce dependence on imports and take forward ‘Make in India’ initiatives through domestic design and development, as also promote export of defence products as part of the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ policy.

This policy is well-worded but the irony is that a similar draft policy issued in 2018 with similar goals achieved little.

Experience shows there is a big difference between policies issued by MoD and execution. The Defence Minister’s announcement of Atmanirbhar in Defence needs to be examined in this context even as a full week is being laid out as a follow up – how much of is it more than an exercise in public relations?

Among many tweets of the Defence Minister, one reads, “All necessary steps would be taken to ensure that timelines for production of equipment as per the Negative Import List are met, which will include a co-ordinated mechanism for hand holding of the industry by the Defence Services”.

According to the media, the list of items to be embargoed was prepared by the Defence Minister after several rounds of consultations with all stakeholders to assess current and future capabilities of the Indian industry for manufacturing various ammunition/weapons/platforms/equipment within India.

But a closer scrutiny of the list indicates the items belong to the DRDO and OFB. If these items are already in service, there was no need to include them to make the list look impressive. If these items are not in service, then the quality and quantity to meet requirement of the forces in the required time-frame raises questions.

Are we creating conditions for another mad rush for ‘quality’ imports in another future emergency like the current one?

Isn’t it a shame that with the gigantic DRDO-OFP-DPSUs complex part several decades we are making emergent imports?

Some observations on social media about the Defence Minister’s announcement include:

one, the Prime Minister having called for Atmanirbhar Bharat on May 12, Defence Minister’s call 89 days later appears more to deflect from the flak of removing admission of Chinese intrusions from MoD’s website;

two, the DRDO-OFB item list will ensure all tenders go to DRDO-OFB-DPSUs whereas there can only be a significant change if private players are allowed to bid in all tenders – a true level playing field;

three, the worst will be if private companies are forced to become sub-vendors of DPSUs;

four, is this exercise to not corporatize the OFB, and;

five, all procurements are vetted by MoD and capital acquisitions deliberately kept with defence secretary, so blaming the defence forces for imports is mere cover.

The crying need all along has been for the public sector in defence to be drastically overhaulled for delivering cutting edge weapon systems without huge time and cost overruns. Yet even the corporatization of the public sector despite announcements is held ransom by workers unions aligned with the Congress, BJP and the Left, who are intimately linked to the Department of Defence Production in MoD, whose joint secretaries preside over their boards.

The fear is that if at all corporatization happens, it will be cosmetic. Repeated CAG reports have pointed out endemic corruption, sub-standard of products, time delays and excessive costing of products. Ironically Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) reports end up in the dustbin, same as reports by Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence, otherwise we would not be in the state we are today.

As if self-certification was not enough, the outgoing CAG Rajiv Mehrishi has made an unprecedented statement saying CAG reports should not be made public as these provide information to the enemy. We must be naïve to not acknowledge that enemy moles are very much present in the government as well as governmental defence sector. How else do clasified documents get leaked from the PMO and MoD?

But now Mehrishi’s statement (deliberate?) will be used to push under the carpet all the black deeds in the defence sector, obviating whatever media and public pressure was possible until now. Being in uniform, the forces may be constrained to protest and if any protest is raised it would be kept under wraps. For the bureaucracy it will be the usual ‘heads I win, tails you lose’.

How Atmanirbhar in Defence plays out will unfold in the coming years but if we want it to succeed, the public sector needs to be completely overhauled with primary focus on niche technologies. The private sector must be allowed in defence in a major way. Unless these changes are made, we are not likely to see much change.

Lt General P.C.Katoch is a veteran of the Indian Army. Views expressed are personal.