By Ankit Mahajan
These are just a few symptoms of a bigger problem faced by the Indian Armed Forces. But instead of admitting the problem – the Army Base Workshops which repair, maintain and overhaul the Army’s vehicle, weapons, radars, helicopters, night-vision devices, and other electronic equipment are being ruthlessly truncated and revamped as suggested by the Lt Gen Shekatkar Committee under the “GOCO” (Government-Owned Contractor-Operated) scheme.
The Committee of Experts was mandated to scrutinize all organizations and every person paid out of the defense budget and find ways to cut down manpower by bringing in the private sector. This was the logic behind the “GOCO” (Government-Owned Contractor-Operated) scheme.
Towards this end, the Lt Gen Shekatkar Committee recommended shutting down all the eight Army base workshops (ABWs) – the jewels in the Corps of Electronic & Medical Engineers’ (EME) and Indian Army’s crown – which will cease to exist in their present form by this year-end. Though some of these establishments may be shut down permanently, the rest will be handed over– as a free gift under the government-owned contractor operated (GOCO) model.
Though MoD officials claim to be acting on the basis of the recommendations of Shekatkar committee report, the said report is not being shared with the public, resulting in doubts about the exact number of Army Base Workshops proposed to be shut down or privatized.
Some defense analysts maintain that initially the Ministry of Defence (MoD), was planning to restructure just two army advanced base workshops, one static workshop, three ordnance depots, and four army base workshops (ABWs). These included the 506 Army Base Workshop (Jabalpur), 508 Army Base Workshop (Allahabad), 510 Army Base Workshop (Meerut) and 512 Army Base Workshop (Kirkee).
Subsequently, 505 Army Base Workshops (Delhi), 507 Army Base Workshops (Kankinara), 509 Army Base Workshops (Agra) and 515 Army Base Workshops (Bengaluru) will be corporatized in the second phase. Other establishments on the chopping board include two Advanced Base Workshops at Narangi (Guwahati) and Udhampur (J&K); ordinance depot in Shakurbasti (Delhi), static workshop (Delhi), Central Ordnance Depot in Chheoki (UP) and Vehicle depot in Panagarh (WB).
This was as per an MoD communique which read, “The government will provide land, infrastructure, plant and machinery, equipment system support, oversight and facilitate the contractor… The contractor operates and utilizes the facilities available, manages all types of work and is also responsible to get required licenses’, certifications and accreditations to deliver mutually agreed targets and maintains the plant machinery and services integral to the venture.”
The content leaked-so-far, doesn’t explain why the command and control of the 8 Army Base Workshops need to be handed-over to Defense PSUs and private sector companies in the first place? Also, what is the rationale behind not asking the private sector companies to pay a single rupee for the land, plant, tools or machinery? Significantly the Army Base Workshops have hundreds of acres of land, in prime locations all over the country. Why is it being ‘offered’ to the civilian management in the private sector on the platter as a ‘free gift’?
“The above decisions have been taken in the overall interest of the Army and the Nation,” Minister of State for Defense Dr. Subhash Bhamre wrote to Kodikunnil Suresh, (MP, Lok Sabha) in a written reply. “How would shutting down depots and workshops or handing over businesses to private sector affect the national interest in the long run,” an All India Defence Employees’ Federation (AIDEF) office bearer was quoted as saying.
According to a senior EME officer, all this is a sort of game being played by MoD to clip the wings of EME and place the 8 Army base workshops (ABWs) under the control of MoD as the civilian defense officers may be easier to manipulate than the Army Officers. This is exactly what happened in case of Military Farms – where everything from imported cows and huge lands is now being made to dance on the tips of bureaucrats in MoD.
While the Lt. Gen. Shekatkar Committee projected a saving of Rs 25,000 Crore over the next five years – the Government of India found only 65 of its 188 recommendations fit to be implemented. This clearly shows how the babus in the MoD only wish to see or hear what they like and what they don’t – is not worth knowing. Another pointer towards this is how even before the Shekatkar Committee submitted its report in Dec 2016, MoD officials had already started looking for PSUs and Civilian Companies to run the Army Base Workshops.
As per the saying, “more you sweat in peace, less you bleed in war” –the Army needs all its weapons and equipment in perfect working condition during day or night in war or peace. The ABWs help to maintain a powerful, mobile and combat-ready Army. The Army needs someone to not only repair the old or defective weapons and equipment – but also pick up a gun and fight like a soldier. This is the importance of EME and the ABWs in any ‘techno-mobile’ battlefield today or in the future.
The Army simply cannot do without the Army base workshops which repair things as soon as the defect is detected and maintain it there and then to ensure that there is no brake-down. This is the importance of the Army Base Workshops which repair, mend, modify and maintain the old, worn-out, unserviceable or unusable equipment – from a needle to tank, radar or helicopter and bring them back to life by periodic overhauling. This is also the concept behind “Zero Hour, Zero Kilometre-Restoration,” which means stripping and reassembling all the nut-bolts to give new life to the old weapon system—to make it usable for a few more years.
“This is the difference … the teeth you are born with last mostly till the end, but a denture may not last so long. Similarly, no artificial device can support our body structure like the backbone. You can’t compare an original with an artificial”, said a former EME officer. This is precisely the reason why the Army, hasn’t even depended upon the ordnance factories to take care of weapons and equipment.
The problem here is not lack of human effort or inefficient working style but untimely availability and inadequate quantity or quality of spares. Till that happens; can even the privately held companies run the ABWs efficiently and effectively– without any transfer of technology or production, as well as appropriate and adequate quantity of spares in their pocket or stores – from day one?
Do the PSUs or Private Companies have the expertise or experience of running the ABWs? Will the private companies be able to give better results– without any transfer of technology or production of appropriate or adequate spares– from day one? This is something that concerns both India and the Indian Army. Hence, we cannot dismiss the whole affair lightly.