The second section of a Sarvatra bridge being launched. The bridge consists of 5 sections, each bridging a distance of 15 metres
(Concluding a 3-article series on DPSU Dadagiri: hanging onto influence)
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 15th Feb 2010
The Sarvatra, an assault bridge, which allows advancing tank spearheads to quickly bridge canals and water obstacles, remains denied to Indian strike forces even though its design was completed years ago. The reason: Defence Minister AK Antony wants to give the lucrative order for manufacturing Sarvatra bridges to MoD-owned Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML), rather than to Larsen & Toubro, the private company that spent a decade designing the Sarvatra in partnership with the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO).
Mr Antony has ignored the recommendations of the army, the DRDO, and his own officials, while nominating BEML as the nodal agency for the Rs 170 crores contract to build the first 8 Sarvatra bridges. In a baffling order, Mr Antony has noted on file that he agrees with the army’s and DRDO’s recommendations in favour of L&T; but he nominates BEML as the nodal agency for the first 8 bridges. This controversial decision, with the potential to attract CAG and CVC intervention, has not yet been implemented.
The MoD has not responded to an emailed questionnaire on this subject.
BEML, one of the MoD’s eight Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs), claims that it should be the nodal agency because it manufactures the Tatra high-mobility vehicles on which the Sarvatra bridge is carried. Each of the Sarvatra’s five sections is mounted on a Tatra. But L&T points out --- and the army and DRDO agree --- that BEML has had nothing to do with the engineering of the Sarvatra, a complex, decade-long process of engineering aluminium structures.
Whichever of the two is the nodal agency, initially L&T will manufacture the bridges while BEML will build the Tatras. But the nodal agency will obtain more prestige and profit: recognition as the builder of the Sarvatra, and profit margins over the entire bridge. The nodal agency also decides the improvements in technology. It could choose an alternative partner in the future, or even go it alone.
L&T worries that the initial contract for 8 bridges is merely the thin end of the wedge. Once BEML is nominated the nodal agency for those, a precedent will have been established for the army’s entire requirement of 50 Sarvatra bridges. Priced at about Rs 22 crores each, the entire order is worth Rs 1100 crores.
BEML has not responded to an emailed questionnaire on this issue; and L&T officials have declined to be interviewed for this article.
However, in multiple interviews, entrepreneurs from private companies engaged in defence manufacture --- speaking off-the-record to avoid offending the MoD --- unanimously allege that South Block openly favours DPSUs. Besides the MoD’s obvious financial stakes in the DPSUs, point out private sector officials, MoD officials sit on the board of each DPSU.
BEML’s 11-member board includes two MoD joint secretaries, in their ex-officio capacity.
However, Minister of State for Defence Production, MM Pallam Raju, told Business Standard that there was no question of this impairing the MoD’s impartiality. Insisting that MoD officials would remain on DPSU boards, the minister said, “…There is a necessity to support them (DPSUs) to some extent. And the role of the [MoD] joint secretaries, when they are on the boards of DPSUs, it is to exercise the control of the government and to drive them to greater efficiency and to ensure that they survive well. They (the bureaucrats) should be on the boards; there are no two ways about that.”
Denying any conflict of interest for the board members, Pallam Raju explained, “When it comes to [deciding on procurements], it is… not the same JS [who is on the board of the DPSU]; The procurement official would be looking for the best price and delivery. There is no conflict of interest… it is a different individual.”
The Sarvatra Bridge allows Indian mechanised forces, including the 60-tonne Arjun tank, a quick crossing over canals and rivers that come in their path. Capable of bridging a 75-metre canal or river in less then two hours, this would leave the enemy with little time to side-step forces to block the Indian advance. The Sarvatra will replace the East European PMS Bridges, which require 57 Tatra vehicles to bridge 100 metres. In contrast, the Sarvatra, with just five Tatras, bridges 75 metres. At Rs 60 crores per set, the PMS costs almost thrice as much as a Sarvatra.
(The three-article series stands concluded)