VVIP chopper deal: In Transparency International report, shadows of the chopper scam and more

As the AgustaWestland helicopter scam continues to rage on, the concerns raised by a 2015 corruption survey remain relevant

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:27 pm IST

Published - April 29, 2016 10:57 am IST

A file photo of AgustaWestland (AW101) VVIP Airforce Helicopter.

A file photo of AgustaWestland (AW101) VVIP Airforce Helicopter.

The >VVIP chopper scam that continues to rock parliament calls for a revisit of the 2015 Transparency International report, which ranked India high on the risk of corruption in the defence sector based on their Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index (GI). Many of the concerns expressed in that report remains unaddressed and provides a case for pushing reforms in the sector that has been fraught with corruption charges since India became independent.

The very first corruption scandal in post-independent India pertained to defence procurement. The jeeps scandal of 1948, in which V.K. Krishna Menon, the then High Commissioner for India in London, had struck a deal with a foreign firm to procure jeeps for the Indian army in Kashmir without observing due procedure, had similarly rocked parliament back then. But the matter was neither probed nor adequately addressed, and Mr. Menon was duly inducted into the Jawaharlal Nehru Cabinet.

We have many more scandals between then and now, when the chopper deal is under CBI investigation. Transparency International’s GI offers useful insights as to where India’s defence establishment is found wanting when it comes to curbing corruption.

Summary of GI report

The report pointed out that while India has a good institutional framework to ensure the accountability of its defence institutions, which include the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) and the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC), the oversight is limited in practice due to the lack of prompt enforcement of their recommendations. The report also points out that the executive is not obliged to follow the recommendations of the parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, which has no veto powers.

The report also points out that India’s intelligence agencies are not subject to oversight regulations, which has translated into a lack of accountability and is likely to contribute to intelligence failures. It recommended that the PAC and the CAG scrutinise Ministry of Defence expenditure more closely, and that the powers of the CAG be enhanced, so that the government was more efficient in implementing its recommendations. The report also recommended an Inspector General be appointed within the MoD tasked specifically with building integrity and countering corruption. It also pointed to the lack of central legislation to regulate defence procurement as a lacuna. The report also raises concerns about the lack of adequate public debate on India’s military build-up plans.

Transparency itself is hard to come by in the defence sector, as the report points out, due to the nature of the transaction itself, which commands secrecy. Often requests for information under the Right to Information (RTI) law are denied on specific defence deals citing the protection clauses available under the law. In the case of the AgustaWestland chopper deal, RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agarwal in Delhi had been refused disclosure of details of the cancelled deal by the UPA government in 2014, invoking sections 8 (1) and 8 (1) d of the RTI Act, with the MoD claiming that revealing the details of the deal would have compromised the security and strategic interests of the country and also the commercial nature of the transaction. While activists are up-in-arms calling for greater transparency in these deals, defence experts maintain that this will be difficult to achieve. The GI report also highlights that the Indian military and the Ministry of Defence do not adhere to declassification rules of the sort that exist in Western democracies.

Increase competition

How then can India’s defence establishment maintain the integrity of its deals? India’s Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) has figured in the military guidelines since 2002, and has evolved over the years to incorporate stricter procurement policies; however, these procedures cannot eliminate corruption entirely until more competition is brought into the system, Laxman Kumar Behera, an expert in defence procurement at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, pointed out. He, however, dismissed the need for central regulation for defence procurement as pointed out in the GI report, saying that it wasn’t necessarily the magic bullet to eliminate corruption in the sector.

With regards to blacklisting of firms, which has been touted as another measure to curb corrupt dealers, Mr. Behera said that this was a doubled-edged sword, as in the end there are only limited agencies to provide specific military equipment to fight wars. “So if you blacklist one firm, then chances are you are jeopardising your ability to procure that specific equipment which they are dealing in, so one has to tread cautiously on the blacklisting front as well,” he said.

With the latest DPP rules emphasising indigenous military procurement, Mr. Behera said that the ‘Make in India’ thrust to defence equipment manufacturing may also not really help, as instead of foreign firms, there could now be corruption within Indian firms.

“Ensuring that a single vendor does not dominate during the contract bid is the only way forward,” he said, noting that even in the case of the chopper deal a single vendor was dominating the supply scene, which led to the deal being manipulated to favour them.

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