Corruption in armed forces: How extensive is the rot?

By Abhay Vaidya

Is it possible to be patriotic and corrupt at the same time? Or is the badge of patriotism the perfect sham for a deeply entrenched culture of corruption that is gnawing at the innards of the Indian armed forces, more than million-plus personnel in strength?

What are the long term implications of such a culture of corruption and to what extent will it impact the national security of a nation as vast and complicated as India?

These are the issues that have been thrown up following a series of corruption cases involving top officials of the armed forces and the defence establishment, the latest one relating to the National Defence Academy (NDA), Khadakwasla (Pune).

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) busted a recruitment scam at the NDA. Reuters.

Not long ago, the brazenness of corruption in the Indian armed forces was revealed rather dramatically in March 2012 by the then army chief General VK Singh. He had alleged that a former officer-turned-arms lobbyist had offered him a bribe of Rs 14 crore to approve the purchase of 600 sub-standard vehicles. A month later, Gen  Singh named Lt Gen (Retd) Tejinder Singh as the person who had offered him the bribe and in retaliation, Lt Gen Singh filed a defamation case against the ex-army chief.

Gen Singh said he was stunned when told while being offered the bribe and that “people had taken money before me and they will take money after me".

While this episode was among the most shameful for the nation, the case at the NDA has been deeply saddening. Last month, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) busted a recruitment scam at the NDA which led to the arrest of two serving colonels among eight persons. Defence Minister AK Antony ordered the immediate shifting of NDA Commandant Lt Gen. Jitendra Singh to ensure a free and fair probe into the case.

According to the CBI, the scam involved recruitment of class IV employees at the NDA and, apart from incriminating evidence such as lists of candidates, and those who had paid bribes, the CBI said it had recovered Rs 1.76 crore in cash.

The NDA is among the premier defence training institutions of the country which, through a rigorous, three-year training programme, transforms a carefully-selected batch of cadets into smart military officers of the Indian armed forces. Many of these go on to serve the nation selflessly without hesitating to lay down their lives in the call of duty. What example is the defence establishment setting before them when even their own hallowed institution is tainted by corruption?

Corruption in the civilian and military wings of the defence forces is largely prevalent in arms and supplies procurement, land-related issues and the MES, or the Military Engineering Services.

Whether it is the mother-of-all-scams - the Bofors deal - which involved kickbacks of an estimated Rs 66 crore, Tehelka’s Operation West End or the latest war room leak case involving high profile arms dealer Abhishek Verma,  arms procurement scams have revealed a well-entrenched nexus between arms dealers and serving and retired officials in the defence ministry, with or without political links. The HDW submarine case of the 1980s, the Israeli Barak missiles purchase case and Gen VK Singh’s allegations about a bribe offer of Rs 14 crore, all fall in this category.

Last month, Defence Minister AK Antony promised a serious follow-up of a probe ordered by the Italian government into allegations that a commission of more than Rs 350 crore was paid by helicopter manufacturer Augusta Westland to a Swiss-consultant to sell 12 VVIP helicopters to India.

In the naval war room leak case, arms dealer Abhishek Verma was arrested by the CBI for trying to bribe government officers to get a Swiss defence firm off the blacklist of the defence ministry. According to a report in The Indian Express, he is suspected to have penetrated senior levels in the government and secured confidential files relating to the air force's acquisition plans for 2009-10 and 2011-12. Verma used a network of senior retired and serving defence officials and among those arrested and later released on bail were two ex-naval commanders and a retired IAF wing commander.

Defence analysts point out that India imports as much as 70 percent of its defence requirements and this is one of the reasons why arms dealers are flourishing in the country. In the decade after Kargil, India spent $50 billion on defence purchases and was projected to spend over $100 billion in the current decade. During 2007-11, India was the biggest importer of arms accounting for 10 percent of global arms imports. The nation's defence budget for 2012-13 stood at Rs1.93 lakh crore.

Another huge source of corruption in the defence establishment comes from the manipulation of land records and irregularities in land deals with the connivance of defence and civilian officials to benefit unscrupulous builders and politicians. The Sukna land scam, revolving around the illegal transfer of 71 acres of land adjacent to the Sukna military station near Siliguri, West Bengal, to a private educational trust led to the sensational dismissal of former Military Secretary Lt Gen Avadesh Prakash. Prior to that, Lt Gen PK Rath was punished in the same case.

In Mumbai’s Adarsh Housing Society scam, former defence officials indicted by the CBI include Brig (Retd) MM Wanchoo, retired defence estate officer RC Thakur, Maj Gen (Retd) AR Kumar and Maj Gen (Retd) TK Kaul, all accused with criminal conspiracy under the Indian Penal Code and various sections under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, and Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Act, 1988.

Former IAS officer Sanjeev Sablok writes on his website that corruption in the Military Engineering Services (MES) has been "as entrenched as in the PWD” even before the Bofors scam.

The somewhat rising frequency of corruption scams in the defence forces has undoubtedly eroded the public image of the Indian armed forces. In a 12 July article in the Indian Defence Review, former Deputy Chief of Army Staff Lt Gen Harwant Singh noted that although the military has been "quick to deal firmly with abrasions" such as cases of corruption, this is not enough.

As he observed, "Senior leadership in the military no more insists on setting good and enviable standards of conduct for juniors to follow. A few, at the very top, have faltered and fallen prey to greed. As the higher rank officers climbed into what is called ‘five star culture,’ quite distinct from what fits in the military’s way of life, lower down the ladder some junior rank officers slid down to levels unacceptable for the officer class.”

Adding to this is the sharp decline in the attractiveness of a career in the military, where, even after lowering recruitment standards, the army continues to remain short of over 12,000 officers.

To what extent has the much-admired image of the Indian armed forces - as a highly disciplined, honest and professional body - turned into a myth? Lt Gen Harwant Singh cautions that the "officer cadre is the very soul of an army and mainspring of the whole mechanism. Any fall in their standard will sure lead to failures during war."

Officers serve, not for their meagre emoluments but for the love of their country and on the off chance of being able to defend it with their lives. If the intelligent youth hold aloof from the army we ought not to complain if we are not properly led in war."