Making arms in India
In yet another front-page news item, the country was informed about the government’s supposedly unrelenting drive to make defence equipment in India. We may revel over the dedication of the Kalams and the Natarajans to their craft, but the hard reality is that India remains bracketed with Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading importer of military hardware. Exhaustive reports by successive parliamentary committees have laid bare the cupboard of Indian R&D in military. Hence, the drive to somehow inveigle foreign defence manufacturers into setting up shop in India. The latest government initiative to promote domestic manufacturing of military hardware is to make the licences valid for lifetime and scrapping the system of renewal.
This latest tweaking of rules is not a good advertisement for the government’s avowed intention of making the country a hub for defence manufacturing. A government with very little distractions that come from having a comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha should not be engaged in breaking down inter-ministerial silos in its third year in office. The same is the fate with making big ticket items like fighter planes, tanks and warships in the private sector. The musical chairs with the Defence Minister’s office contributed to delays in choosing companies that will partner global defence giants to make their equipment in India. But for a couple of exceptions, the “chosen” Indian partner is a novice in the complex field of defence manufacturing and may not encourage the foreign partner to test the waters for fear of being scalded.
Inexplicably, the Modi government has dragged its feet on an overhaul of the existing public sector-heavy defence manufacturing industry. A company like Hindustan Aeronautics Limited should have been hived off into specialised units — helicopters, fighters, transports, drones etc — and privatised. A foreign partner would have felt more comfortable joining hands with companies that have domain knowledge about defence manufacturing. The only success on the horizon is for making Russian helicopters in India. For the real high-end items, the government’s game plan of roping in friendly corporates with no past record of high-tech manufacturing will not yield quick results.