This decision will augment their ability to provide medical services to the military personnel and the civil administration in the fight against the current wave of Covid-19 cases across the country.
(By Amit Cowshish
Late last month, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh authorised the Armed Forces Medical Service (AFMS) officers posted at the Service Headquarters (SHQ) and the lower formations to exercise emergency financial powers. This decision will augment their ability to provide medical services to the military personnel and the civil administration in the fight against the current wave of Covid-19 cases across the country.
According to the Press Release of April 23, these powers can be exercised for procurement of medical stores, services, and management of facilities for treatment of those affected by the deadly virus. Though the present authorisation is only up to September 30, it could be extended or revised if the situation so warrants.
The Indian Army (IA) has already initiated action to procure 13 items that include BIPAP machines, RDT Antigen and PCR Test kits, Virus Transport Media with Swab, Plasmapheresis, Masks, Full PPE sets, Waste Autoclave, Multifunctional ICU Bed, Manual Sprayer, Advanced Life Support and Type C Ambulances, and Oxygen Concentrators.
The decision to delegate the financial powers has been taken under the standing orders on Delegation of Financial Powers to Defence Services (DFPDS) notified by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in 2016, which allow exercise of unlimited financial powers by the Director General of Armed Forces Medical Service (DGAFMS) in the event of war, natural calamity, disaster, or any other operational crisis, provided the situation is declared as an emergency by the government.
Going a step further, the order issued by the MoD on April 23 authorises the Directors General Medical Services at all the SHQs to spend up to Rs 5 crore. Other medical establishments at lower echelons headed by two-star officers can spend up to Rs 3 crore, and those headed by one-star officers, up to Rs 2 crore.
It is unclear whether this is the overall ceiling on expenditure, or it is the extent up to which expenditure can be incurred on each occasion by the authorised officers without any limit on overall expenditure.
Be that as it may, delegation of powers down the chain of command will undoubtedly enhance the ability of the establishments close to the affected areas to respond to the situation very quickly, but budgetary constraint could come in the way, especially if these establishments are approached in a big way by the civil administration to help them in overcoming shortages of vaccine, protective gear, oxygen, and even quarantine and hospitalisation facility.
The IA seems to be readying itself for such an eventuality in which it may have to play a bigger role, especially in the countryside. The Army Headquarters have already set up a Covid-19 management cell under the Director General of Operational Logistics and Strategic Movement -a three-star officer reporting directly to the Vice Chief- to oversee assistance to the civil administration. Hopefully, this will not hamper coordination with DGAFMS, the senior-most military officer responsible for managing the medical establishment across all the three services.
The government has also approved engagement of 400 retired AFMS doctors for 11 months from among those who retired between 2017 and 2019. At a time when all available resources must be harnessed, the stipulation that only those who retired during the narrow window of two years can be considered for temporary engagement is needlessly restrictive.
While there must be some procedural technicality behind this restrictive stipulation, it cannot be allowed to override the gravity of the situation that demands engagement of all those -doctors, nursing staff, laboratory assistants, and technicians- who are willing to serve. Not that it would matter to those who served the armed forces selflessly before retirement, but the remuneration being offered -last pay drawn and the specialist pay minus the pension- should be a decent enough incentive.
These are minor issues that MoD can easily overcome; the real cause for worry, however, is the procedural complexities that so often derail implementation of the well-meaning measures announced by the government.
The FFPDS of 2016, for example, allows a 3-member Emergency Empowered Committee (EEC) to be set up by DGAFMS for procuring requisite stores and services. The EEC is to follow the procedure laid down in the Defence Procurement Manual (DPM), 2009. The committee can deviate from the prescribed procedure but only with the DGAFMS’s approval. This can take time.
It is not known whether the lower authorities, to whom powers have now been delegated, too would be required to follow the DPM procedure, apart from other procedural requirements such as mandatory procurement through the Government e-Marketplace. It would defeat the purpose of delegation of financial power if its exercise were ensnared by these procedural complexities.
(The author is former Financial Advisor (Acquisition), Ministry of Defence. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)