King George Of Kargil Fame!

Updated: Jan 12 2003, 05:30am hrs
The ministry of defence is a hallowed place. Defence expenditure is a sacred cow. Mr George Fernandes regards himself as the high priest. Perhaps these are the reasons why Parliament regularly fails in its duty to call to account those who were responsible for some of the worst scandals in recent times.

The last war that India fought was in Kargil. It was in May/June 1999. Hostilities ceased completely in July 1999. The Kargil war failed to achieve any of the major objectivities of a war. Three and a half years after Kargil, India has not gained any political, diplomatic or military advantage over Pakistan. The Kargil war, of course, helped the BJP to claw its way back to power in the elections held in October 1999.

The financial crimes committed in the name of the Kargil war to be precise, Operation Vijay have been exposed by the Report No 7A of 2001 submitted by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). Let me quote in full the Overview: Ministry of defence relaxed extant procedures to quickly secure supplies for Operation Vijay launched in May/June 1999. Of the purchases aggregating Rs 2,175.40 crore, connected papers for 123 contracts worth Rs 2,163.09 crore have been reviewed in this report with the following results.

Nearly all the supplies were either received or contracted and received well after cessation of hostilities and therefore in no way supported the operations. Supplies valued at Rs 2,150 crore were received after the cessation of hostilities in July 1999, of which supplies valued at Rs 1,762.21 crore were received after January 2000, 6 months after cessation of hostilities. Supplies valued at Rs 1,606.26 crore (75 per cent) were contracted after the cessation of hostilities in July 1999.

In 35 cases, detailed in the report, relaxation of rules and procedures led to the government knowingly paying Rs 44.21 crore more for certain items, ordering supplies worth Rs 260.55 crore that did not meet qualitative requirements, being saddled with shelf life-expired ammunition aggregating Rs 91.86 crore and purchases in excess of authorisation/requirement aggregating Rs 107.97 crore. Besides, ammunition worth Rs 342.37 crore was contracted for import on grounds of operational emergency even though it was being produced in ordinance factories/PSUs. Further more, delays at various stages of processing the cases hindered timely deployment of stores aggregating Rs 199.42 crore. Thus, while critical supplies of clothing, ammunition and arms could not reach the troops during the operation, an amount of Rs 1,046 crore, almost half of the total, entirely in foreign exchange, was spent fruitlessly, breaching established principles of propriety.

That should be enough to send any defence minister packing. The great irony is that this defence minister prides himself as the David who slayed Goliath in 1987-89. He arrived at the gates of the ministry of defence, in 1998, in an auto-rickshaw, and in a crumpled kurta, pyjamas and slippers, promising to clean the Augean stables. If you want to know about the filth and stench that was added to the ministry of defence, in the name of Operation Vijay, please read on, but what is given below is only a sample.

Terminally Guided Munitions: The usefulness of the equipment for mountainous terrain was not established in field trials conducted in February-March 1999. Nevertheless, citing Op Vijay as the reason, a contract was concluded in August 1999 with a Russian firm for Rs 151 crore. Field trials conducted in October-November 1999 did not establish the General Staff Qualitative Requirements (GSQRs). Yet in February-March 2000 the contract was cleared for execution. The CAGs comment is: It appears that Op Vijay was but an excuse for pushing through a procurement that otherwise may not have qualified.

Bullet Proof Jackets: The Army said it wanted 40,000 bullet proof jackets including 20,000 for Op Vijay by August 1999. Tata Advance Material Limited quoted the lowest price, but frankly stated that it could not supply the entire lot by August 1999. This was the excuse to divide the quantity among three bidders. The other two bidders (both foreign companies) were given orders at prices higher by 81 per cent and 80 per cent. The jackets were actually delivered by the three firms between October 1999 and June 2000. The higher prices meant an additional expenditure of Rs 15.77 crore, which CAG found was unjustified and in any case the basic purpose of splitting the order was never realised.

Ammunition for T-72 tanks: Procurement action for the ammunition for T-72 tanks was initiated in August 1997, but was held back because the ammunition was already under production in an Ordnance factory. The chief controller R&D had confirmed that the Mark 1 version met the required performance level and the Mark 2 version was in an advanced stage of development. Alternatively, a Russian company had in October 1997 concluded an agreement containing an optional clause to supply an additional quantity of 26,500 rounds. The T-72 tank was of Russian origin and the Russian-origin ammunition had already been tried and was in service. Nevertheless, in June 1999, the defence minister, referring to the prevailing situation, relaxed the procedures and approved the import of 26,000 rounds from an Israeli firm at a cost of Rs 116.83 crore. Finally, on July 2, 1999, a contract was concluded for purchasing 2,800 rounds within two months and another 7,000 rounds within six months for Rs 119.55 crore. The actual delivery of the first 2,800 rounds, however, took place only on December 14, 1999. The most chilling comment of CAG is: Deployment of T-72 tanks was not possible in high altitude.

Aluminium Caskets: This is the best known case. A single vendor was identified to supply aluminium caskets at Rs 1.09 lakh each! The price paid converted to a rate of Rs 45,31,000 per tonne of aluminium when High Grade Aluminium was available at Rs 63,360 per tonne. The entire lot of caskets was rejected.

What is the Congress party doing Its government was brought down in 1989 on the allegation of a Rs 64-crore scandal. In a period of two months, Mr Fernandes authorised purchases aggregating Rs 2,175 crore, virtually all of which has been condemned by CAG as: Did not meet qualitative requirements or shelf-life expired or critical supplies could not reach the troops during the operation or spent fruitlessly breaching established principles of propriety.

Tax payers cheerfully bore the Kargil cess. Hundreds of jawans died in the war. Many were permanently disabled. Only the arms dealers and their collaborators laughed all the way to the bank. If the situation had been the reverse the Congress as the ruling party and the BJP and Mr Fernandes sitting on the Opposition benches the government would have come tumbling down long ago.

(The author is a former Union finance minister)