Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Defence is an Important Ecosystem Amongst Many Others

I must confess upfront that I was bemused to read Arun Prakash’s piece (Agenda for the Raksha Mantri, IE/Sept 13, 2017). As a retired IDAS officer and a former controller general of defence accounts (CGDA) and a former financial adviser defence services (FADS) in the MoD who demitted office last year, let me put things in perspective.

Democracy all over the world functions through a universal principle of separation of power and a system of checks and balances to uphold the rule of law, where no organ is omniscient and omnipotent. In India, we have four columns: executive, legislature, judiciary and the fourth estate (media) – each with an assigned role to play within its legitimate bounds to checkmate the other. Embedded in each column, there's a system of checks and balances. Finance is one such. Its role is integrated but putatively adversarial (not my words but of eminent commentators), but a necessary one to carry out due diligence of taxpayers’ money. Yet, despite all such sanguine architecture to checkmate unholy impulses, we still have plenty scams, most notably the AgustaWestland helicopter scam, where one former Air Chief Tyagi was jailed and charge-sheeted. The middlemen are galore in MoD; doubtless they function with insiders’ connivance and help. Keeping procurement clean is every stakeholder’s job; and a system of checks and balances is dire.   

Prakash is right on the issue of lack of expertise and domain knowledge on the part of most bureaucrats in the MoD and this doubtless is an area that needs addressing. Bureaucrats with no idea of the vast defence ecosystem must have a first stint at Deputy Secretary/Director level – not as Joint Secretary, where work pressure is too high to leave room to learn and acquaint. Training in Defence Services Staff College and National Defence College too will help.

But his vision is blinkered on the role of IDAS officers' functioning as “Integrated Financial Advisers” in the MoD. Their role, as per finance ministry’s order of June 1, 2006 goes much beyond assisting in “budgetary planning” and in “expediting financial decision-making”. Their role as rep of ministry of finance in the administrative ministry entails examining issues from financial angle to ensure value for money and improve quality of expenditure. It’s akin to a Chief Financial Officer’s in a corporate structure: to ensure fiscal prudence and sound financial management and to accord priority to macro management in achieving the outcomes set by ministries as goals. They’re crucial for the successful planning and implementation of various schemes/projects and to ensure budgetary integrity. This needs to be understood. I concede many IFAs fail to fully comprehend their role, failing to play their role – acting more as auditors. They need to be a part of the issue/solution, not a part of the problem. But it isn’t wise to deride their role and throw the baby with the bathwater. The need to place right IFAs on merit by invocation of a transparent arm’s length system can’t be over-emphasized.

The “advise” hasn’t been abandoned. No, not yet! Even at the cost of sounding presumptuous, I’ll add that MoD (Finance) shoulders an outsized responsibility in the ministry of all four departments, all the three Services and the many inter-services organizations. It simply can’t abandon its responsibility; it’s their credo of relevance, their bounden duty. This has nothing to do with lying in ambush as “auditors” and waiting for someone to make a mistake before pouncing. These are harsh, sweeping generalizations, stemming from a complete ignorance of extant orders. Audit is quite a distinct function, including internal audit that the IDAS officers and the defence accounts department do as an aid to defence management, and is always done ex-post; it can’t be done ex-ante, because it’ll be an anachronism. While it’s essential for bureaucrats to understand the defence ecosystem, it’s equally imperative for the services to acquaint themselves and appreciate government orders and civilian bureaucracy’s ecosystem. 

Nor is Prakash right in saying that there is an acute lack of military expertise in the MoD and an absence of collegiate consultation between civilians and Service HQ. The contrary is the truth. From my own experience, I can say ex cathedra that at every stage including budget-making and delegation of financial powers, there are discussions and dialogues galore, apart from the structured collegiate decision-making in the contract negotiating committee (CNC) for procurement of capital and revenue items. The delay, when it happens, hence has to be shared by all –not the MoD alone.

Let truth be said. There are vast areas, which aren’t just cases of differing perceptions between the civil and defence bureaucracies. There are many glaring cases of abuse of personal entitlements (leave travel concessions/official tours and disability pension) on the part of senior service officers pointed out by the MoD in the recent past where actions by the services headquarters haven’t exactly measured up to the impeccable standards they pretend to have set. These personal cases, I guess, have festered over time and have become sore points now. And given the visibility the ex-servicemen command in the media, little wonder these rants spew out often in the public domain. Modesty forbids me though from articulating and putting them out in the open.  

As a mature society, it’s rather we accept it doesn’t pay to stridently point fingers at each other – the MoD and the Services’ Hqrs. In a parliamentary form of democracy, both work together under the direction and superintendence of the political leadership, the people’s representatives. It’ll help to view India holistically as one whole rather than in segmented parts, since the responsibility of governing the nation is the PM’s and his council of ministers, and they carry with them the whole burden of nation’s concerns in other sectors (health, sanitation, agriculture, environment, HRD to name just a few) that are just as important as any other like defence, home or external relations. We need to live like one, rather than as an Indian twin-nation – India and Bharat – co-living in stark disparate pockets and differing stages of human development. Living and thinking apart is far from ennobling – and certainly not very edifying.

(A redacted version of this piece titled In Defence of the Bureaucrats was carried in The Indian Express, September 19, 2017)

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