Photo: IAF Vice Chief, Air Marshall Pranab Kumar Barbora, who is setting the bar for plain-speaking by senior military officers
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 20th Nov 09
Private sector companies engaged in aerospace manufacture and R&D now have an influential new supporter: The Indian Air Force (IAF). In New Delhi today, the IAF’s vice chief, Air Marshall Pranab Kumar Barbora forcefully called for government policy changes to encourage the private sector in aerospace production, to kickstart a sector that has long been dominated by public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL).
Industry bodies like the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) have pushed these measures earlier. But the military has so far toed the Ministry of Defence (MoD) line, which automatically grants Defence Public Sector Units (DPSUs) like HAL a predominant position, effectively confining private companies to the ancillary supply of aircraft sub-systems.
But Air Marshall Barbora, a blunt-speaking MiG-21 veteran with a reputation for plain speaking on controversial matters, contrasted the private sector’s success in modernising more than 50 airbases, with HAL’s dismal export performance.
Pointing out that even Pakistan had more defence exports than India, the IAF vice chief said, “I visited HAL a few days back. They are proud that they are making parts for Airbus. But a few days back, China produced the whole Airbus. We are happy producing a door here and something else there.”
Air Marshall Barbora listed out policy changes that the government urgently needed to implement to energise the private sector. These included:
- Government must fund R&D and manufacture by private companies, like it has done for the DPSUs. “They (private sector) have to be part of the new structure. If you don’t give them finance, they won’t come up.”
- Assuring firm orders (or Minimum Order Quantity) to private companies, which will allow them to recover the money they spend in developing a product. “If they know they have to produce 1,000 of this, they will be willing to invest.”
- Removing government curbs on defence exports by the private sector, to allow them to recover investment costs. “Our own [defence] requirements are miniscule. If you don’t allow private companies to export, he will say, ‘you look after yourself, I’ll look after myself.’”
- Addressing “the CVC syndrome”, in which “anyone can file an FIR and everything comes on hold”. The IAF deputy declared that procurement processes must go on without disruptions by motivated allegations of corruption.
- Increase the Foreign Direct Investment limit, which is currently 26 per cent. “We have taken steps, but they are not bold enough. We have to be bolder, to invite more investment.”
The IAF deputy also slammed political parties for criticising and scanning defence contracts signed by the previous government, each time power changed hands. Air Marshall Barbora said, “The government becomes the opposition and the opposition becomes the government and blocks everything. That impinges very badly on defence.”
Pointing out that dependence on defence imports remained an Indian vulnerability, the IAF deputy slammed the US for placing sanctions on India after the Pokhran nuclear tests. Holding France up as a model to follow, Air Marshall Barbora said, “France said that, by so and so year, we will go fully indigenous. And they did that. [After that] France blasted all the nuclear devices that they wanted in the Pacific Ocean and nobody could do anything, because they had indigenised [defence production].”
According to a CII-Ernst and Young report, India has over 6,000 SMEs supplying DPSUs, Ordnance Factories, DRDO and the armed forces with 20–25 per cent of their total requirement of components and sub-assemblies. In addition, there are almost a hundred large private companies involved in defence manufacture.
These recommendations were made at a seminar on “Energising Indian Aerospace Industry” in New Delhi.
- Fund R&D and manufacture by private sector
- Assured orders to recover investments
- Remove curbs on defence exports
- Minimise disruption of procurement
- Increase FDI limits from 26%