In public perception, the Indian armed forces are considered the most honest out of all government organisations. Consequently, the increasing corruption cases in the armed forces are always ‘headline news’ and cause of immense dismay. Armed forces are the nation’s instrument of last resort and must not ever fail. Corruption reflects on the leadership standards of the armed forces and affects their capabilities. If the military is dishonest with respect to money matters, then there is a question mark on its commitment in battle. As a high court judge aptly said last year, “Corruption in any department cannot be tolerated but when it comes to corruption in Indian Army, this fact substantially shakes the very confidence of the society”.
Two days after the armed forces observed the Vigilance Awareness Week, India Today published a report on 29 October with a rather embarrassing headline — “Even Ladakh not spared, construction scams force Indian Army to rope in CBI”. It highlighted rampant corruption in the Military Engineering Services (MES), which function under the Engineer in Chief of the Army. In my view, it’s the hierarchy that is primarily responsible for the prevailing corruption in the armed forces due to incompetence or lack of integrity.
As per the advisory of the Central Vigilance Commission, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat and the service chiefs took the integrity pledge in well-publicised ceremonies. One can assume that the entire chain of command must also have done a similar exercise. While the essentials of the integrity pledge are already formally codified in the rules, regulations and military law, the taking of the pledge in public, seems to reflect the commitment of the hierarchy to eradicate corruption in the armed forces.
I analyse the nature of corruption in the armed forces, its causes and remedial measures.
Nature of corruption
Corruption mostly takes place in the organisations dealing with procurement and execution of construction/infrastructure projects. All major procurements are done at Command/Army Headquarters/Ministry of Defence level.
Like all government organisations, there is no direct transaction of money in the armed forces as well. For all procurement/projects, qualitative requirements are specified, tenders floated and contracts awarded to the lowest bidder. All these can be tweaked by the corrupt. Payments are made either when the order is complete or at fixed intervals in projects that have a long gestation period. Payments are made by the defence accounts department after the cost of the stores/equipment/project have been vetted by a competent authority.
Thus, the vendor actually gives credit to the armed forces/government. The people involved are the users, executive officers, approving authority, and the accounts department. Generally, there is an inordinate delay in making payments. The vendors cater for their genuine or inflated profit (depending on the degree of corruption), interest on the bank loans/money spent and for bribing all corrupt officials in the chain. So, the cost of procurement becomes exceptionally high. The user becomes a party to this system by accepting sub-standard items. Something similar happens with respect to supplies/stores/equipment/projects, which are centrally procured at the Army Headquarters and the Ministry of Defence or manufactured in the Ordnance Factories. The latter are notorious for poor quality control due to incompetence or corruption.
In my view, corruption inflates the procurement budget of the armed forces by at least 25-30 per cent. Once in a unit store, I chanced upon locally procured AA battery cells. On examination, I found that the body of cells was soft as pulp. An investigation followed. The cells were made in China and four cells cost Rs 5 in the market. The procurement price was Rs 5 per cell – the cost of the best in the market. All user units had accepted the sub-standard cells. Rs 3.75 had been siphoned off per cell.
The eggs procured for troops must weigh at least 48 grams each and a dozen must not weigh less than 600 grams. During a sample check done by me soon after I took over as Army Commander in January 2007, it was found that eggs supplied were weighing 25-30 grams each. Forty per cent loss of weight for a million eggs per day supplied to Northern Command implied that the supply, in terms of weight, was short of at least 400,000 eggs per day. The contract had been deliberately tweaked to lower the specification. All supply depots were complicit and the administrative supervisory staff, and users were incompetent.
Consider the India Today report. The works (construction projects) budget of the armed forces in 2019 was Rs 17,000 crore. Military Engineering Services (MES) are responsible for construction and maintenance of all civil engineering infrastructure, which include buildings, airfields, dockyards, water supply and electricity. The quality of construction is so low that buildings are put under maintenance within a year, which ironically is also executed by the MES. Houses built under the Married Accommodation Project in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, had to be demolished and the ones in Kolkata, West Bengal, became ‘leaning towers’. A Rs 125 crore ammunition storage depot constructed by the MES in Kanasar near Bikaner in Rajasthan, had to be written off as it became unsafe for storage of ammunition due to substandard construction.
Causes and remedies
The procedures laid down for procurement are near perfect. It is the approving, executing and supervisory authorities, users and their commanders who are at fault either due to incompetence or due to their integrity being compromised. It is clear that it is a leadership problem.
The leadership development programme of the armed forces needs radical transformation. If the leaders are not corrupt, then the only explanation is that they are incompetent, which points towards a flawed appraisal system.
Rules, regulations and military law are supposed to bridge the gap between human failings and ideal standards of armed forces. However, it is the same “good but not good enough” leadership that is responsible to enforce them. Failure to do so or doing it incompetently facilitates corruption.
At the user or unit level also, there is a failure of leadership. How else can one explain their acceptance of sub-standard equipment or below-par supplies?
There was veiled criticism of CDS Gen. Rawat and the three service chiefs by some veterans for taking the integrity pledge because the integrity of the officer corps was beyond reproach. I only hope the pledge has strengthened their resolve for leadership reforms. Lastly, instead of focussing on cosmetic austerity measures, the CDS and the chiefs should focus on rooting out corruption in revenue/capital procurement, which will provide enough money for modernisation.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.