Modi government’s policy of allowing private sector companies to enter the defence production sector is facing a backlash. The systematic corporatisation of defence industries has sparked off anger and insecurity among civilian employees of various armed forces establishments, including Ordnance factories and the laboratories of the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation).
With four lakhs of civilian workers and staff deciding to go on an unprecedented strike for three days from next Wednesday, there are red faces in the Defence Ministry headquarters in South Block especially at a time when the government is already on the back foot for awarding the Rafale offset contract to private sector Reliance Defence company instead of the public sector Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL).
Civilian employees working in 41 ordinance factories, 52 DRDO labs and other production units have made several representations in the past two years against the Modi government’s deliberate privatisation policy in defence production. With their appeals falling on deaf ears, they will be taking to the streets from January 23 to January 25, which is a further embarrassment to the government because it is on the very eve of this year’s Republic Day celebrations.
According to spokesmen of the All India Defence Employees Federation (AIDEF) which represents civilian defence employees, none of the Ministers who have held the Defence portfolio in the NDA government - Arun Jaitley, Manohar Parikkar and Nirmala Sitharaman – were sympathetic to their pleas and going on strike was the last resort, in the hope that raising the issue just before the Lok Sabha elections might compel political parties to pay some heed and give assurances.
Already over 200 products manufactured in Government owned defence production units have been handed over to the private sector. These items have simply been declared as “non-core” products and their production outsourced. Even vital items used by the armed forces, like parachutes and tents, are being taken away from the existing public sector units.
A wave of job insecurity has swept over civilian staff in the wake of recommendations made by the Shekatkar committee which listed 120 different products for private manufacture as well closing down of certain defence establishments like the Army Postal service offices in non-combat areas and so-called “peace locations”.
This is despite the awareness that handing over complete control to private enterprises is fraught with risks. National security considerations have till now dictated that the government retained full control over defence industries both in times of war and peace. Moreover, handing over the work that has always been done by ordnance factories to private players would, it is felt, make the public sector industries sick and render lakhs out of employment.
The three-day strike has been called jointly by the three Defence Civilian Employees Federations representing civilian employees working in ordnance factories, research units, naval dockyards, workshops and depots under Army, Navy and Air Force and also the Military Engineer Services.
The protest is against the “dangerous and ill-advised policy” of seeking to dismantle the defence industries which have developed over the decades since Independence in order to achieve self-reliance.
Some former top bureaucrats have been sharply critical of the present government’s excessive zeal for privatization. They have warned that withdrawing more than 275 items being manufactured in the ordnance factories for more than five decades amounts to a mockery of the ‘Make in India’ slogan. It is unwise and unfair to hand over to the private sector all the technology developed by defence laboratories over the years.
However, the Modi government appears to be hell-bent on corporatisation. For instance, the Army Base Workshops which play a vital role in overhauling and repairing defence equipment, including imported products, are being handed over to private sector in the name of “GOCO model” (Government Owned Contractor Operated).
So much so that in a reply given on the floor of Parliament, the Defence Minister stated that all the Army Workshops will be closed within a year. Even the military farms which had been supplying pure milk to the jawans are either already closed or in the process of being shut down.
Some political parties have expressed support for the three-day strike, calling on “all patriotic citizens to oppose the dangerous move of the present government to render defence employees redundant”. They have echoed the demand made by the Defence Employees Federation to scrap the New Pension System and to re-introduce the Guaranteed Pension Scheme.
While civilian employees are worried about their jobs, military experts are seriously concerned about the motives and compulsions behind the rapid privatization drive. In other words, it is not just an issue of defence employees alone but has far-reaching strategic implications.
At a recent seminar some strategic analysts went to the extent of warning that “the Modi government is playing with the defence and security of the country”.
Disregarding such concerns, the Modi government has finalized the policy on Strategic Partnerships in the Defence Sector with the official justification that the policy is intended to “encourage participation of the private sector”.
The reality is that Ordnance factories and the various Defence PSUs are being systematically bypassed in manufacture of even the most critical defence platforms and equipment - such as aircraft, submarines, helicopters and armoured vehicles.
The government’s stand that this would “increase efficiencies and facilitate greater absorption of technology” rings hollow. Similarly, official rhetoric about creating a broader industrial ecosystem, building a wider skill base, fostering innovation and ensuring self-reliance, camouflage the deeper implications.
The truth is that the policy being pursued amounts to a conscious stratagem that will make the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force dependent on foreign multinationals and Indian private corporates, which will seriously impact the country’s defence preparedness.