The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Nothing will appear to be wrong with India’s ordnance factories if one takes into account the praises showered on them by the defence minister, George Fernandes, at the conference of the general managers of the ordnance factories on May 12 in New Delhi. The need, however, is to free these units of the grip of the government and the invariable inefficiency associated with the public sector units. The Ordnance Factories Organization is perhaps India’s largest officially run defence industrial undertaking. With its latest factories in Nalanda, Bihar, India will have a total of 40 ordnance units.

The Calcutta-based Ordnance Factories Board controls all ordnance factories on behalf of the defence ministry’s department of defence production and supplies. The OFB, with its bureaucratic trappings, is responsible for the entire management and implementation programme. Often, out-moded methodologies are used to manufacture weapons and support equipment for the Indian armed forces.

The OFB also caters to the Central and state police organizations, the Border Security Force and the railways. Efforts have been made to export some of these equipment. Standing committees in the past had suggested that licence restrictions be relaxed to facilitate the export of articles. This year ordnance factories aim to export armaments worth £ 20 million. This amount is rather insignificant for India, considering that Pakistan exports items worth £ 100 million.

Short on efficiency

Several problems affect the oldest industrial set-up which had been established by the East India Company to support its troops in the Indian subcontinent. The old and outdated methods of production have not been replaced and there have been many complaints about the proper functioning of these ordnance factories.The army sources have often complained about the inefficiency of the factories to supply essential items on time. Many a time, winter clothing reaches the jawans in the remote Himalayan borders when winter is almost over.

The parliamentary committee was perhaps right in insisting on the need for improvement in the performance of the ordnance factories. This improvement would entail modern technology to replace the old processes of manufacturing. The labour-intensive technologies used by most of these factories in fact add to their expense, because the management ends up spending a lot of its energy and resources in attending to labour-related problems. The factories should concentrate on adopting cost-effective methods of production.

Fight back

There is no denying that the OFB officials have been deliberating on how to improve performance during their periodical general managers’ conferences. But something more substantial needs to be done in this regard. An investment of Rs 1,786 crore, earmarked for the modernization process during the tenth plan, must be utilized judiciously to achieve the objectives. Now that disinvestment of the PSUs has become the byword in the country, this is an opportune moment to bring the ordnance sector under the ambit of privatization for the sake of economic viability and efficiency. Units producing non-combat items should be privatized before the rest.

The OFB’s assertion that it is making sincere efforts for the modernization of its plants, better research and development, synergy with the private sector and tie-up with foreign manufacturers augurs well. These, if carried out, will streamline the ordnance units and make them more efficient. There are also reports about the possibility of the OFB teaming up with Israeli military industries to produce high-technology ammunition, rockets and mortars.

If these plans bear fruit, it would definitely give a much-needed boost to the military’s firepower, since any modernization of the nation’s armament industry directly leads to modernization of its fighting services.

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