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INS Sindhuranta and beyond

The casual attitude towards India’s defense preparedness at all levels is worrying.

An incident on board Indian Navy submarine INS Sindhuratna resulted in the unfortunate deaths of two officers and injuries to several other sailors.  Navy chief Adm DK Joshi has resigned, “taking moral responsibility” for the incident.  There have been as many as four major incidents pertaining to Indian Navy submarines in as many years. In August last year, a fire onboard INS Sindhurakshak resulted in explosions causing its sinking and the deaths of 18 sailors onboard.

There are similarities between the two ill-fated submarines.  INS Sindhurakshak and Sindhuratna are diesel-powered, Sindhughosh-class submarines first introduced in 1986.  INS Sindhuratna was commissioned in 1988, while Sindhurakshak was commissioned in 1997.  Both submarines were retrofitted at the same ship yard in Russia.  In 2010, a faulty battery value on board INS Sindhurakshak is alleged to have leaked hydrogen, resulting in fire and explosion that killed one sailor and injured two others.  Reports, although preliminary, now indicate that a battery leak could have also caused yesterday’s explosion on board INS Sindhuratna.

The reasons for Wednesday’s incident could be many, including failure of the crew to follow standard operating procedures, poor maintenance, technical malfunctioning or failure due to obsolescence.  Indeed, a 2008 CAG report highlighted delays in induction and refitting of submarines and projected, at the time, that 63 percent of India’s submarines would have completed their prescribed life by 2012.  However as of 2014, continued delays in India’s Scorpene-class submarine project are further straining the Navy’s submarine force levels and the serviceability of its aging fleet.

To be clear, incidents are bound to occur in even the most sophisticated, well-maintained and well-equipped of navies.  However, what should be concern for India is the casual approach to investigation and remedial action when incidents do occur.  The Navy announced the constitution of a Board of Inquiry to investigate the August 14, 2013 incident involving INS Sindhurakshak.  It was later determined that a full inquiry could not be conducted until the submarine was salvaged.

Going by news reports, it has taken 6 months for the Navy just to identify a company to salvage the vessel.  It is expected that it will take another 4 months after a contract is signed and work commences, to retrieve the sunken submarine.  An official inquiry will commence only then.  It is unlikely, then, that we will understand what happened to INS Sindhurakshak any time before 2015.  Where, other than in India, can these delays appear to be reasonable?  And what is the Navy and the political leadership supposed to do with its other Sindhughosh-class submarines in the interim?  Ground them pending inquiry, thereby reducing the number of operational Indian submarines to a grand total of 4, or continue to operate them and risk further accidents?

It is unfortunate that, with the exception of a few media houses, these questions are not being put to the people entrusted with India’s national security.  Mainstream media coverage of Adm DK Joshi’s resignation and his apparently acrimonious relationship with Minister of Defense AK Antony has overwhelmed questions on the root causes of these incidents and the general apathy at both political and military levels with which they have been dealt.

Some former servicemen have, perhaps rightly, rallied around Adm DK Joshi on TV news channels.  No doubt, there is a chasm, deep and wide in civil-military relations in India.  These are issues that the mainstream media must follow-up on.  However, to allow subplots pertaining to personality conflicts – the honorable and upright Navy officer vs. a much-pilloried Defense Minister — to dominate issues relating to the state of defense preparedness just because the former makes good viewing is to do disservice to the country.

General elections in 2014 could, by design, address the issue of the lack of political stewardship in defense.  A mere change in political leadership, however, cannot guarantee that we will be any closer to identifying or resolving the issues plaguing our submarine fleet.  What happens when these issues resurface, then? Lather, rinse, repeat?

 

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Phasing out India’s MiGs

Who’s in charge of holding the Defense Minister accountable?

Addressing members of the Rajya Sabha, AK Antony claimed that the process to phase out India’s MiGs would begin in 2014 and would be complete by 2017:

“We have got a clear-cut plan to replace them. By 2017, the entire MiG series will be replaced in a phased manner, that is from 2014 onwards,” said defence minister A K Antony in Rajya Sabha on Wednesday.

In the years ahead, India’s frontline combat fighters will have 270 Russian Sukhoi-30MKIs already being inducted for around $12 billion, the 126 new medium multi-role combat aircraft to be acquired in the $10.4 billion MMRCA project and the 250 to 300 fifth-generation fighter aircraft to be built with Russia in the gigantic $35 billion project.

Antony, on his part, assured Parliament that large-scale induction of Sukhoi-30MKIs, LCA and MMRCA would take place within the next few years, while acknowledging such an exercise could not take place in the past due to “historical reasons”. [The Times of India]

The perceptive among us no doubt realize that 2014 is three years — or 36 months — away.  Mr. Antony is claiming that within the next 36 months, he will begin phasing-out IAF’s aging MiG’s with 126 combat aircraft from an as-yet-undetermined vendor.  Even if we are to believe that the MMRCA deal will be concluded this year, there is no reason to suggest that the process from agreement-to-induction can be accomplished within the span of 3 years.

Mr. Antony also expects the IAF to begin replacing MiG-21s with Tejas LCAs (conceptualized 30 years ago) by the end of 2013. The fact that the indigenously developed Kaveri engine expected to power Tejas has been a disaster, and is, by his own admission, still “under development” (after 20 years) hasn’t damned his spirits apparently.

Even if we are to go by Mr. Antony’s word, the most optimistic assessments put an FGFA induction to the latter-half of 2017.  It is far from clear what HAL’s role will be in the development of the Indian version of the FGFA (and indeed, whether or not this will actually be the joint-development project with Sukhoi that India seems to portraying it to be), suffice to say that discussions are at a very early stage and inordinate delays are only to be expected, given our history of defense acquisitions from Russia. (Indeed, delivery and cost overruns of our previous big-ticket deal with Sukhoi were the subject of comment in a CAG audit report issued in 2000).

Given these facts, the answers provided by the Defense Minister did not strike anyone — not our MPs, and certainly not Mr. Antony himself — as odd and unrealistic.  Not one question on the answers provided by Mr. Antony was raised.  After all, in accordance with tradition in India, we do not interrogate our leaders.

So much for accountability.

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Rein in the BCCI

What is an undemocratic institution doing representing the Republic of India?

The Shashi Tharoor vs. Lalit Modi fracas raises several questions on the turpitude, excesses and indiscretions rampant in the governance of an organization claiming to represent India to the outside world. Mr. Tharoor ultimately paid the price, and rightly so, for errors in judgment; however, the disproportionate pressure exerted by some sections of India’s news media on the government was both distasteful and inappropriate.

Insofar as Mr. Modi and the BCCI are concerned, the Tehelka exposé presents a grim picture of the muddled madness that is the business of cricket in India.  Commercial successes and unquestioned adoration of the game and its stars have essentially given the BCCI a carte blanche in how the organization conducts its affairs, even as it “represents” India on the world stage of cricket, which it largely dominates.  Greater transparency and accountability are, of course, important and must be demanded, but cannot be realistically expected in the absence of structural reform.

It is here that the fundamental questions of the role and composition of the BCCI need to be answered.  Structurally, the BCCI is incorporated as a private charitable society under the Tamil Nadu Registered Societies Act, 1975, but for almost all other intents and purposes, makes representation on behalf of the Government of India.  It uses government-owned stadiums (for which it pays a very nominal amount) and receives tax concessions as a charitable society promoting cricket in the country.  Powerful politicians such as Madhavrao Scindia and Sharad Pawar have held the position of President, BCCI, during their tenure as union cabinet ministers.  Operating as a charitable society, the BCCI is not required to disclose its balance sheet to the public.

The ambiguity, convenient as it may be for some,  must end — either the BCCI is government-owned and operated, or it is a private organization sanctioned to oversee cricket affairs in the country.  If it is a government-owned entity, it must fall under the ambit of the Right to Information Act (RTI) and the Comptroller Auditor General (CAG).

If it is a private organization like Cricket Australia (CA), or the English Cricket Board (ECB), and charged with overseeing cricket affairs in the country, then structural reform is necessary to remove any ambiguity — politicians holding public office have no business heading the organization.  Both CA and ECB are incorporated as companies limited by guarantee. If this ambiguity is to be removed, the BCCI must be restructured along similar lines, as provided for by the Companies Act, 1956 (Table C, Schedule 1).  Regardless of whether it is a government-owned entity or a private corporation, its books must be open for public scrutiny.

Additionally, what is a “charitable organization” doing running a $2.4 billion (2009) private cricket league? There is a conflict of interest between being a organization charged with governing India’s cricket affairs and running a multi-billion dollar competition of private clubs. Simply put, this cannot go on.  The IPL, if it is to continue, must be spun-off and incorporated like other sports leagues around the world.  Its private clubs can then enjoy the benefits of private enterprise as well as assume all its risks, including the prospect of bankruptcy. The IPL then would function as an association — much like the NFL or NHL in the U.S. — where each franchisee operates as an independent business unit, but functions under shared revenue generated from broadcasting, merchandising, ad sales, etc.

In 2006, the BCCI announced that it would constitute a Constitutional Reforms Committee to examine the structure and functioning of the BCCI. Was this ever operationalized? Where is the committee’s manifest? Were any reports published? What were its recommendations?  These questions can only be answered if Indian cricket fans and news media put them across to the BCCI and more importantly, to the government.  In the absence of this, the BCCI will continue to operate a plutocratic shadow-organization in the good name of the Republic of India and the IPL will continue to remain the Commonwealth’s largest annual sleaze-fest, again as a representative of India’s citizenry.

Now, will those media persons who feigned mock outrage at Shashi Tharoor, demand accountability from the BCCI and the Government of India?

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