The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Defence fumbles, media gets stick

New Delhi, March 2: The defence ministry’s failure year after year to utilise the allocated funds has resulted in a cut in real terms in its budget for 2003-2004 but the establishment is still getting away by not answering why it cannot spend the money it is given.

If there was any year in which the ministry’s allocation and utilisation of funds ought to have been questioned, it was this.

The budget came at the end of a year that saw the largest-and-longest ever mobilisation of the army, the navy and the air force — possibly costing the exchequer up to Rs 7,000 crore — that did not lead to any substantive military gain but is explained away as a tactic in “diplomatic compellence”.

For the fourth year in succession, the defence ministry is preparing to quietly take in the funds finance minister Jaswant Singh has allocated to it without debate or discussion. Indeed, Singh himself has said the chief reason the defence ministry is unable to utilise its funds is media scrutiny of its procurements and acquisitions.

In 2002-2003, the ministry had returned a total of about Rs 9,000 crore from its allocations, reducing its expenditure in the revised estimates to Rs 56,000 crore. Since George Fernandes and his predecessor — now the finance minister — headed the defence ministry, it has put in place processes that it claimed would make purchases “nimble”.

This includes, on the recommendation of a Group of Ministers, the Defence Procurement Board. However, even that has not been able to goad the establishment into tying up contracts, one of which — for the IAF’s Advanced Jet Trainer — has been pending for close to two decades.

Now, Singh’s insistence that the media scrutiny of defence deals should be diluted means that the establishment is preparing once again to nip any possible discussion on defence allocations in the bud.

A discussion on defence allocations will necessarily lead to a questioning of the unprecedented military mobilisation last year — which at least one former air force vice-chief dismisses as “utter nonsense” — no assessment or account of which is officially available.

Neither Parliament has discussed the defence allocations in the last three years nor have other bodies in the past year been able to coax a debate. The defence consultative committee, for instance, does not meet in full since the Opposition boycott of Fernandes continues in the wake of the Tehelka expose on corruption in defence procurement.

The defence budget, too, is among the most opaque of public documents and does not detail either the way funds have been spent or the intention on where the money is going. In the allocations for 2003-2004, for example, the navy is the biggest gainer among the three armed services.

The allocation under the head “naval fleet” has gone up by nearly three times the amount it hopes to spend in the current year — from Rs 1,717.67 crore to Rs 5,020.33 crore.

Normally, this would mean that at least one major acquisition contract — either for the carrier Admiral Gorshkov or for the French Scorpene submarines or for the hush-hush project to acquire two nuclear-capable submarines from the Russians — is likely to be signed.

However, it does not explain why the navy, allocated Rs 2,473.79 crore under this head last year, was unable to spend its fund.

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