Doomed to fail ?


– Neeraj Mahajan –

In an unprecedented move with far-reaching consequences, the Government of India and Ministry of Defence (MoD) —   are planning to disband 8 Army Base Workshops, 14 Station Workshops, 04 Ordnance Depots, 43 Military Farms, and Army Postal Services by 31 December 2019.

As per the new formula, the command and control of the 8 Army Base Workshops will be handed-over to Defense PSUs and private sector companies firms. They will not be required to pay a single rupee for crore rupees worth of existing land, plant, tools or machinery. Remarkably, each of the 60-80 years old workshops have hundreds of acres of land, in prime locations all over the country – which will also be ‘given’ on the platter as a ‘free gift’ to the civilian management in the private sector.

“The government will provide land, infrastructure, plant and machinery, equipment system support, oversight and facilitate the contractor… The contractor operates and utilizes the facilities available, manages all types of work and is also responsible to get required licenses’, certifications and accreditations to deliver mutually agreed targets and maintains the plant machinery and services integral to the venture”, a MoD communique spelt out.

All this is ostensible as per the “GOCO” (Government-Owned Contractor-Operated) scheme, suggested by the Lt Gen Shekatkar Committee, which was tasked to “enhance combat capabilities by rebalancing the defense expenditure” and scrutinize all organizations and every person paid out of the defense budget. The committee’s main objective was to find ways to cut down manpower by bringing in the private sector.

“The above decisions have been taken in the overall interest of the Army and the Nation,” Minister of State for Defense Dr. Subhash Bhamre wrote to Kodikunnil Suresh, (MP, Lok Sabha) in a written reply.

Significantly the Committee of Experts (CoE) led by Lt Gen Shekatkar claimed that – if its 188 recommendations to modernize the Armed Forces were implemented in time, they would lead to a saving of Rs 25,000 Crore in the next five years. But ironically, the Commission’s recommendations were not taken seriously enough – even by the government which commissioned it. Only 65 out of 188 i.e. less than one-third–recommendations made the Shekatkar Committee were accepted. Even now, the Shekatkar Committee report and most of its recommendations are ‘secret’, and kept under lock and key.

Our way, their way

The Shekatkar Committee submitted its report in December 2016, but even before it did so, the ministry had already started looking for Defense PSUs and Civilian Companies to run the Army Base Workshops.

The Shekatkar Committee’s mandate was to restructure the Indian Army and enhance its Combat capability. It was tasked to suggest alternate options to improve operational readiness and efficiency of the existing staff—combatants (Army officers, JCOs and ORs) and civilians employed in different wings of the Armed Forces.  The idea behind all this was to find ways to re-deploy and restructure the posts directly or indirectly occupied by uniformed and civilian employees in the Armed Forces.

The Shekatkar Committee apparently took pains to examine how every uniformed army official could be pulled out from the Army’s logistics tail and re-deployed elsewhere to add punch to the combat arm. It was a welcome step but ended up producing an undesired impact.

One of the most illogical steps suggested by the Shekatkar Committee was to hand over the Army Base Workshops to private sector companies firms to improve operative efficiency in the Armed Forces. But how would this happen, merely by replacing by the Army officers with civilian managers –no one seems to know?

This almost amounts to “offering your son for adoption, if he is not good in studies,” said a retired officer.

Another issue that many people in the defense or private sector can’t fathom is why should the Army Base Workshops as well as – the peripheral land, plant, tool, machinery or equipment worth crores of rupees be given to the private contractors virtually “free of cost”, without payment of even a single rupee?

“If they aren’t ready to put their money, where their mouth is, how they can be made accountable to ensure that everything – how-so-ever time consuming or unprofitable, works efficiently?’ asked a retired Army General who did not wish to be identified.

“You might have heard the famous idiom about ‘Rats Fleeing a Sinking Ship’ — rats and mice can sense an impending danger, disaster or corporate fiasco, and escape before it happens. It is a part of their natural behavior to flee, abandon, or run away,” he added. What he meant to say was that as long as the new civilian management wasn’t required to make heavy investment before operating the Army Base Workshops rally, they would always take it as a test-ride.

“They will be the first to ask for a share in every profit and disown any responsibility in any loss,” he said. Ironically, one of the pertinent questions that no one seems to have asked so far is how before even appointing a peon or clerk in a government department, the candidates are asked to submit their resume and appear for several tests and interviews, how come, the new manager who will be allowed to manage things under the GOCO scheme aren’t being asked to explain their expertise and credentials.

Do the PSU or Private Companies have the know-how, proficiency, experience of running full-fledged operation of Army Base Workshops.

“As on date – how many people in the private sector know how to operate (run) a tank or missile—leave alone repair it.  Even if we accept that there are quite a few engineers in General Dynamics (US), Thales (France), Leonardo (Italy), BAE Systems (U.K.), Raytheon (USA), or Finmeccanica (Italy) who can do so, how many of them would like to leave their secure job and join an Indian company which even today is at the experimental stage and may collapse tomorrow,” the officer asked.

Another issue that everyone seems to have overlooked that — the motive of any private sector company is to make profits. A private sector company is concerned about profit or loss. It may always be ready to do anything that brings instant profit, but would it do so, in case of an impending loss? Would the civilian participants under GoCo scheme, be equally keen to bear the burden and like to be told to do ‘this or that’, in non-profitable ventures? Who will bear the loss and up to what extent?

Would the new management after privatization like to do things with a social motive – things which have a low-profit-margin and are required only once a while, instead of things which sell like hot cake and have higher profit percentage? Would they spend on unproductive activities like building school/colleges, temple/ Gurudwaras, crèches, or hospitals for staff welfare? Also, would they provide employment to SC, ST, OBC, BC, minorities, females, differently abled, outstanding sports persons, and reemploy ex-serviceman?

As of now, the Army Base Workshops are headed by a Commandant (Brigadier) who is assisted by other Defense Officers and combatant soldiers (nearly 25 %) and Civilians 75 %. Can a change of guard, undo everything and turn the clock backwards?

Anything that upsets this balance will do more harm than good. Paradoxically, even before fully studying the impact of this change on the functioning of ABWs, the Shekatkar Committee dropped another bombshell by suggesting that station workshops should also be pruned and handed over to the private players for repair and maintain certain types of vehicles and equipment.

How would it help by removing the cream from the milk? Are we trying to suggest that slow pace and inefficient work-style in the Army Base Workshop is due to the Army personnel? If so, shouldn’t they be retired, instead of being redeployed?

Allegedly the manner in which the whole issue has been treated, smack of an attempt to play one against the other and dirty politics. This is not a free-style tug of war between Civilians and Defense employees – where it doesn’t matter– who wins or loses.

As on date, nobody has commented how this move will affect the uniformed Army personnel currently posted in the Army Base Workshops and station workshops. Even if we set aside the impact at the lower levels, this move is sure to strip the eight Brigadiers belonging to the Corps of EME who are currently posted as Commandants of the Army Base Workshops. Significantly unlike the fighting arms Infantry, Armoured or Artillery, who produce the maximum number of Generals – already there are very few posts in the Corps of EME for people even to rise to the level of Brigadiers. Many people retire just at the level of Colonel or below.

But instead of acknowledging the problem, the Ministry of Defence is issuing statements to pacify the civilian staff. “No retrenchment of employees would take place as a result of this decision and the available manpower will be re-trained and re-skilled on voluntary basis to work in core areas of production as per their changed specialization.”

This will surely have an impact on – the Indian Army’s and India’s future. What if soon after reducing the military manpower in these establishments, we realize that all this was a big mistake and things have gone from bad to worse?


About the Author

Neeraj Mahajan

Author & Senior Journalist

Neeraj Mahajan is a hardcore media professional with over 30 years of proven credentials and 360-degree experience in print, electronic, web and mobile media. He has a proven track record of innovative ideas and their execution from start to finish in all formats of media. Above all, he has proven abilities as an investigative journalist, a hardcore reporter hungry for facts, and out of the box thinker.

Disclaimer : The views expressed by the author in this feature are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of INVC NEWS.


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