Nearly two months after the government appointed a full-time defence minister, it has announced a roadmap for overhauling the defence sector. Although the new Defence Procurement Policy (DPP), which will focus on developing the domestic defence industry and a faster acquisition process, will not be public till next month, some reforms have been underscored — such as legalising defence agents and reviewing blacklisted armament firms, among other systemic changes.
Defence agents were permitted by the DPP in 2001, but few had registered, given the lack of clarity on rules and the scrutiny entailed. The licensing of agents announced by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar requires foreign firms to declare such agents’ fees, while commissions and middlemen are prohibited. This can make the acquisition process more transparent. The review of blacklisted firms, with an eye to the military’s operational needs, is intrinsic to swifter acquisitions. Blanket bans have been detrimental to the armed forces, especially when India has to play catch-up with rising Chinese military might in its neighbourhood and raise its defence capabilities to fit its strategic role in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific regions. For this, access to technology and equipment is indispensable, which was hindered by the sweeping bans that failed to stop scandals like AgustaWestland.
The emphasis on domestic production comes with a rider — a tightening of the performance of the DRDO and other defence PSUs. Given the public sector’s track record in meeting deadlines, Parrikar’s stress on overhauling DRDO operations is encouraging, but visible changes need to be seen first. More promising, for now, is the easing of export norms for domestic defence products, allowing the domestic private sector to export equipment too, after a change of rules. Increasing private sector involvement in manufacture will bring India closer to a defence manufacturing base befitting its security needs. The decision to bring the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) under the MoD, focusing on strategic roads alone, will speed up border connectivity and unburden the BRO of non-critical projects. This revamp is still in its early days. The government needs to meet the twin challenge of speeding up further and also keeping it clean.
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