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Rafale deal secrecy important for national security, petty politics must be avoided

Price of defence equipment is keep secret because it would be easy for our adversaries to figure out strategic specifications based on price.

Updated: Aug 03, 2018, 16:07 PM IST

Lot has been said and written about the Rafale deal. In the recently concluded discussion on the no-confidence motion in the Lok Sabha on July 20, 2018, there were accusations by the Leader of Opposition and other opposition MPs. There have been clarifications from the Defence Minister. A lot of time was devoted and each political group was scoring political points at the cost of public exchequer. Hence, I thought I will dedicate this blog to this subject.

Process of public procurements
The process and procedure for public procurement have been codified in the General Financial Rules, last amended in 2017. The previous version, which was in force when this deal was finalised, was the version of General Financial Rules, amended in 2005. In so far as public procurements are concerned not many amendments have been made in substantive term, except in as much for mundane items of daily consumption in offices, and other equipment and office requirements the new G-electronically market known as been introduced, some rules relating to the engagement of services and consultancies have been enlarged. 

The government has in 2017 brought out three elaborate manuals - one for procurement of goods, one for works and one for engagement of services, under the able guidance of Shri Ashok Lavasa, the then Finance Secretary, further reinforcing the system.

Procedure of defence and police procurements
It is salient to note that defence procurements involve several elaborate procedures. Right from the framing of indent stage, where the requirements are identified, the user is continuously engaged in the process. Procurements of high value are evaluated with respect to their efficacy and utility as well as their performance vis-a vis the requirements is assessed by a team of experts as well as users through several methods like historical performance, simulation process, non-destructive testing, terrain-specific performance, real time projections, etc. 

Even at the stage of international vendor identification process these are closely and accurately mapped in respect of each potential vendor both at the Integrated Defence Service Headquarter level, at the level of Indian missions abroad, Department of Defence Production and Supplies level and also at the Defence Ministry Secretariat before a proposal is taken to concerned Committee of Cabinet before the basic vendor is zeroed in. Also, we have to see the financial adviser's structure in the defence establishment. Unlike other programme ministries and departments of the Government of India, the Financial Adviser of the Ministry of Defence is always a full-fledged Secretary-level officer. 

Incidentally, it may sound a matter of detail, but there is an underlying reason to this. The officers in the secretariat of all ministries and departments who are assisting the Secretary and Financial Adviser are designated as Under Secretaries, Deputy Secretaries and Directors respectively, whereas in the Ministries of Defence and Home Affairs there are designated as Assistant Financial Advisers, Deputy Financial Advisers, Joint Financial Advisers, etc. 

The officers in the programme ministries are to tender and advise the Secretary of the department, who is the CEO of the ministry, to align schemes and proposals in consonance with Government Rules, like the General Financials Rules, Delegation of Financial Power Rules, whereas in these Ministries since many proposals have a bearing on the security of the country, their role is enlarged qualitatively to advise on proposals as to whether it meets the highest benchmark stipulated for security of the country besides, inter se priority with respect to best utilisation of the funds.

In this context, therefore appreciating the sensitiveness of the issues being dealt, even the CAG Audit of Defence Estimate Expenditure is recalibrated accordingly.

After the above elaborate process has been completed, a source is zeroed in on. In case of inter-governmental arrangements, after it is decided upon by the concerned committee of the Cabinet, a draft agreement is proposed to the reciprocal country or vice versa. Before the agreement is actual signed, all the terms and conditions are iterated in the government at several levels like the Defence Ministry, Law Ministry, the External Affairs Ministry, both at the Territorial Division and the Legal and Treaties Divisions, as well as any other division like Disarmament or Policy and Planning Divisions, etc, as the Foreign Secretary deems it fit. The Agreement thereafter is signed with the concerned government.

Price determination
The bone of contention in the Parliamentary debate was the price. That is the most sensitive part of the deal. After signing of agreements, brass tacks issues are take upon at the officers level or user level. These issues cover an entire range of issues like spares, accessories, special purpose accessories which may be specifically required by the user to meet specific terrain needs, or to meet the specific needs to deter the enemy's attack as derived from pattern studies etc, ergonomic, ethnographic (like height etc) and working culture of the user forces, based on which location of each screw, nut and bolt, relative strength required in the casting of each screw, bolt and nut is decided. During these again there are lots of arguments, discussions, negotiations etc. I am sure our defence officers involved in these will be well aware of the entire rigmarole. Hence, the price is last check post in such deals. It may so happen that every unit in this may be vested with special features and hence, even price between two units of the same supplies may not be comparable.

My own exposure to sensitive procurements
Having said this, I had the opportunity to study the process of procurement of paper for currency note press along with the Shiladitya Committee report. Shiladitya Committee had given an excellent report in 2010 to combat the menace of Fake Currency Notes. The same process is more or less followed and a clause of secrecy and denial clause were part of the agreement. Denial clause is the clause under which the paper supplied with a particular gsm will not be supplied by the same supplier to any other buyer. This was one of the reasons that Pakistan could never print the notes in the same GSM as the Indian notes although they had penetrated the supplier. I am withholding the country's name and supplier's name.

In case for the purpose of hypothesis, Parlement Francais (the French Parliament) alleges that the government has under-priced the deal through its intervention. As result the government in power were to make the information available in Parlement Francais, in whatever prescribed procedure. Then the same opposition will cry wolf over failure of diplomacy of the government leading compromising the security of the country.

UPA's record on bilateral cooperation in matters of security
I know that in that country mostly these are enterprise-level decisions in which their government has very little role of intervention except in as much a facilitating role under the ambit of trade relations or promoting French technology. While so much fracas is made out in this case wherein the signatory to the agreement is the UPA defence minister, they do not recall that a short while back the boot was on the other leg.

People may kindly recall the David Coleman Headley case. There was a clear offer from the US government. Daniel Clegg, the legal attaché in US Embassy, further reiterated his government's offer of further cooperation and information sharing. But who did the government send to Chicago Jail for interrogation? Not the investigating agency. The ATS was investigating the 26/11 Mumbai incident. The government sent an NIA team to interrogate. None of the investigators of the 26/11 were even part of the team sent to interrogate David Coleman Headley. With this track record even subverting or not taking the repeated, a reiterated offer of cooperation from the US, except for a cosmetic motion like NIA team being sent to Chicago jail, which blatantly appeared for public consumption rather than for anything more effective, the present government is calling into question. The tour report of the NIA and portions excised from that report are already in the public domain.

What will happen if price is disclosed?
As I have explained, every nut and bolt, every screw, every accessory, every spare, and every add-on, has a bearing on the price. Hence, in the event the price is put on the public domain, enemy forces have the strength to simply re-engineer the entire pattern and find out the strength of each of the major assets acquired by the defence forces. Let me flag you on this that even the amount of food supplies going to defence cantonments if revealed are a big giveaway to enemy forces, as they can easily deduce the strength of deployment.

Previous betrayals
Remember Ms Madhuri Gupta, who was posted to the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, being arrested on espionage charges, on the same day as an officer of Home Ministry Shri RS Sharma dealing with police procurement, in his portfolio as Director (Police Procurement) on the same day in April, 2010. It cannot be a mere coincidence. But naturally procurement details, size of procurement, consignee information etc., can surely give the enemy information to help them project the strength of Indian security forces.

Why play politics?
Why are the political parties seeking to play politics in this matter. I do not know? But one thing is sure. It is the security forces who are fighting at the border. By enabling any information to be put in the public domain, which will help the enemy nations to assess the assets of Indian security forces, will put the national security at risk. Our guardians at the border will be the most vulnerable. At least for their life and safety, do not politicalise this. 

Case of BSF jawan on social media
May I remind you that a couple of years back a BSF jawan had posted on social media about the poor quality of food. Actually and rightly, he did face action. Overtly, he might have seemed to be complaining about food, but actually he was giving away the location of a border outpost (BOP), helping the infiltrators. 

All the security forces operate out of battalion centres, where all the security personnel are given food and ration of good quality. But by a roster, these personnel are posted out on BOP duties in teams. I do not want to give away the number. While leaving for BOP duty, this team is given rations for the number of days they will be deployed and the team by rotation does the cooking etc. Incidentally, in such terrain, even for normal rituals you require hot water and hence whenever personnel of the team return from duty they take out the food being cooked on the hearth and boil some water for immediate needs and replace the food being cooked back on the hearth. Hence the hearth is on for the full day and given the high altitude, the cooking also takes a lot of time. Given the commitment of security personnel, whatever is being cooked they partake along with some food supplements developed by CFTRI but do not miss the duty. This jawan had it appears posted the snapshot of such food.

At that time also many politicians sought to gain political mileage out of the social media post. Fortunately, the leadership of the BSF did a commendable job of putting the matter to rest.

However, in the Rafale case the political groups appear to be unrelenting. 

(RVS Mani is a former Central government officer who shot to prominence as a whistleblower in 2009, when he alleged he had been forced to sign documents that fabricated a narrative of 'Saffron Terror'. His book, 'Hindu Terror: Insider account of Ministry of Home Affairs', was released recently.)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)