The DRDO needs a shake-up. That’s an indisputable fact. The terms of reference of the newly formed monitoring Committee (IE, January 18) show that the government has made an unprecedented acknowledgement of what ails DRDO and how it has made an art-form of making inspired promises and then reneging on them with impunity. When this means Leh Berry juice or high-altitude chikki or rabbit fur, it hardly matters. But when this means decisive air defence missiles, battle tanks or backbone fighter aircraft, you’re making national security an unforgivable ambiguity.
As reported by The Indian Express in an investigative series published between November 13-20 last year — for which DRDO voices predictably announced that the two reporters were agents for foreign arms firms — the organisation’s multifarious maladies boil down to execrable transparency standards, financial mismanagement and a disturbing human resources mess. The committee will be empowered to send its investigators into the hallowed alcoves of DRDO and report on the organisation’s administrative, financial and personnel procedure goof ups. This will be no easy task especially since these procedures have been virtually legitimised simply by staying unquestioned for nearly five decades.
The independent committee, headed by ISRO’s distinguished professor P. Rama Rao and encompassing members from universities, the armed forces, private and public sectors and civil services, yokes together minds that will draw up hopefully not an oblique document full of escape routes, but an immediately watertight and actionable roadmap that the government will find simple to put to work.
But another important question: Will this be just another list of recommendations the government can ignore a year from now? With Parliament, the private sector and the new defence minister involved, probably — and with some luck — not.
The promise of this new committee — the very first that won’t be headed by the DRDO chief himself — is in its powers. It can now prevail upon the government to stop making a mockery of salaries and talent retention capabilities in DRDO that see expensively trained graduates fly off at the first whiff of dollar salaries. It can slap out the red tape that binds every single procedure inside DRDO Bhavan and its 50 laboratories. It can expose programme directors who insist on steaming on with almost criminally optimistic and expensive projects because it gives their laboratories the semblance of occupation. It can say, sorry, the armed forces don’t think this stuff is very good, so please pull up your socks. It will even have the power to recommend how and where new foreign money will be used, or which programmes are best left to the private sector. They sound broad here, but these tasks will be fragmented down to the littlest methods that have collectively pushed DRDO into notoriety.
The DRDO has grudgingly now accepted external scrutiny, though it wasn’t without a fight. What the organisation needs to accept outright, however, is that the future of building weapons for a country as large as India cannot be the preserve of a Cold War era state industrial complex. At the same time, it needs to reassure itself that notwithstanding crooked generals and government officials who prefer a dependence on imports so that they can sluice away kickbacks, the country is undeniably better placed if it can make and buy its own homemade military equipment. DRDO, therefore, has to step away from its obtuse and arcane insecurities, and trust, at least in a small measure, that the system is not out to shortchange its laboratories. The committee is empowered to play judge between the government, armed forces and DRDO to keep tabs on that too.
The government’s willingness to diagnose DRDO’s disease couldn’t have come at a more decisive juncture. Hovering as the country is over a deep and expensive precipice of necessary foreign arms imports, it has become excruciatingly imperative that, say, a decade from now, the country can look within with confidence and conviction for its military needs instead of continuing to pad foreign economies. With the committee’s assistance, DRDO has the chance to at least start moving toward making that possible.
Copyright The Indian Express