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March 22, 2001


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Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

Is corruption endemic in India's defence forces?

The din and the noise which has surrounded the release of the Tehelka tapes may have the unfortunate effect of obfuscating the real issues in the scandal. So much of dust has been raised by demonstrations in Parliament, effigy burning in the street, media hype and irrelevant debates that we are in real danger of losing this opportunity of uncovering some basic ills in our defence establishment.

No one was particularly surprised to discover the rot and corruption in the nation's political systems. It has been common knowledge that parties require funds and they raise it by means which are both fair but mostly foul. What is novel about the tapes is that for the first time armed forces elements are seen to be involved in these shady deals. From being the darlings of the nation after Kargil, India's defence forces are in real danger of finding themselves in the list of villains.

Some elements in the media have been quick to paint the entire defence establishment with a broad brush as totally corrupt and unreliable. "Rotten from top to bottom," "Corrupt to the core," are only a few of the epithets which have been thrown at servicemen by even responsible and well balanced journalists. This article will attempt to answer two questions which are very much on everyone's mind after the release of the tapes.

Is corruption endemic in India's defence forces? Is national security at risk?

A petty form of corruption has always been part and parcel of India's armed forces. A large number of senior service officers who have expressed "shock" at the images of senior servicemen accepting bribes, must obviously have their heads in the sand or are suffering from an advance case of selective amnesia.

It all boils down to semantics. The large majority try to rationalise corrupt practices when they themselves indulge in it. Is there a single service officer who has not blatantly misused his staff car or used a batman (or 'sahayak' as he is called nowadays) to walk his dog in a peace station?

There is gross misuse of non-public or regimental funds. Subordinates routinely do up the house of the new commander of a division or brigade. They have little problem doing this as most often the previous incumbent has walked off with the carpet and the furnishings, if not the furniture. The best scotch at sky high prices is purchased and provided to the top brass. Establishments vie with each other in doing up their guest houses to provide better than 5-star and on-the-house accommodation to visiting senior officers.

Unfortunately this 5-star culture among officers is all pervasive and is actually condoned by senior officers who are often part and parcel of it. They have thus helped to bring about a perfect environment for the next step. When one begins to acquire a taste for good living, scotch and dinners in the Taj, one does not find anything wrong in accepting that bottle of Blue Lable from a well-wisher, who just happens to be an arms dealer.

And, after all, what is he asking in return? Not much. He just wants to know what you are in the market for and which are the countries from whom you are buying the equipment. And where is the file at present? And what did the chief have to say? Soon our serviceman has convinced himself that all that he is passing on is harmless information.

Fortunately for the services more than 95 per cent of the service personnel are not involved in such practices, mainly because they are of no use to the arms dealer. They deal in such mundane subjects as personnel, maintenance and repair of equipment and provision of stores. There is little scope or attraction for an arms dealer in these matters, although even here some cases of minor corruption come to light from time to time.

The army is holding an inquiry into the revelations of the Tehelka tapes. No doubt the Board of Inquiry will come to some swift conclusions and the guilty will be brought to justice within six months. That is more than can be said for the various civilians and politicians who were caught in the act.

Although it will be a good start, bringing guilty army personnel to trial will be the easy part. Far more difficult will be the task to eliminate the environment which made the work of the bribe-giver so easy in the first place. The chiefs of our defence forces must ponder over the reasons for the gradual but alarming eradication of moral values in the armed forces and the growth of the 5-star culture, which is making armed forces personnel easy prey to bribery and corruption.

Is corruption in the armed forces a threat to national security? Well, yes and no. Corruption in the forces has certainly the potential to cause considerable damage to the country's security apparatus. In worst cases, it will get you guns which will not work and ammunition which will not fire. It can make you buy equipment which you do not want at exorbitant prices. Eventually national security is jeopardised.

In the past at least, defence officers have not been guilty of such practices. Any wrong decisions in the purchase of equipment have invariably been taken by politicians. In the early eighties, for example, the navy was in the market for the purchase of ASW helicopters.

After extensive investigation, the navy's recommendation was for the French Super Puma helicopter. It was the defence ministry who arbitrarily decided on the Sea King, which the navy did not want as they had experienced a great deal of trouble with their earlier purchases. Again, in the case of Action Information equipment for the Godavari class frigates, the Naval recommendation was overwhelmingly for the Dutch Signaalapparaten equipment. This was overturned by the defence minister who wanted the contract to go to an Italian company.

Fortunately for the country, the system of evaluation and short listing of equipment is so well evolved and tested that unless corruption invades the defence services in a major way it will not result in the nation getting dud equipment. For example, if the services want to buy cars, the Ambassadors and the Fiats will be invariably eliminated in the evaluation process. What one will be left with will be a choice between Honda, Toyota and Nissan. If the services want the Honda, corruption will at the most get you a Toyota and not much harm will be done to national security.

Ironically, corrupt arms dealers may even get you the good equipment that you crave for. Their self interest will ensure speedy approval of the services' proposal. Two of the largest defence scandals in the past have actually resulted in the country getting some very fine pieces of equipment and in fact enhancing national security. The much maligned Bofors gun, for example, proved its worth in Kargil. It was able to fire continuously without any breakage at those high altitudes. Similarly, no one in the navy has ever had anything bad to say about the HDW submarine. They, in fact, want more of them.

Finally, the only way to stop arms dealers from invading the defence forces is to be more open in the purchase of equipment. There is nothing secret in the purchase of weapons and guns. Transparency will automatically bring a halt to or reduce the involvement of arms dealers in defence corridors.

Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

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